Last week the HaYesod filming team returned from a two week plus trip to Israel. During our time there we filmed twenty segments throughout Israel from as far south as Eilat all the way to the northern city of Nazareth.
The segments will be for the upcoming HaYesod modules on the Sabbath and the Festivals. It was a whirlwind trip that exhausted all of us but, as is par for the course, we still managed to see a few sites. For me the most unforgettable one was my first trek to Rachel’s Tomb.
It was the last day before everyone but Boaz would board a plane back to America. While we had initially planned to have the whole day free, a botched filming attempt a few days earlier required us to head out once again to a spot in the Judean wilderness where Boaz and Daniel would be teaching on the month of Elul and the Master’s forty days of fasting in the wilderness.
On the way there in the car Daniel asked Boaz if he would like to take us to Rachel’s Tomb in the afternoon after the filming was done and surprisingly he agreed. Yet, even during this second attempt it was a trying shoot. While our problem the last time had been traffic, this time a plague of flies showed up to torture us as we filmed. It looked as if the Lord of the Flies situation would get the best of us and that this shot might take all day. We finally devised a plan and purchased some canned tuna. We set the tuna up on plastic plates on the outskirts of where we were filming and this distracted the flies long enough for us to get a few good takes in. With vultures circling overhead we finished the shoot and headed back to Jerusalem.
It was finally time to pay a visit to the tomb of the matriarch Rachel. I had been longing to visit her tomb for years. It’s kind of tricky to get to, or at least used to be, because it’s near Bethlehem, which is in a territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority. The only way to get there in the past had been by armed bus but now according to my trusty map we could drive there on an Israeli-controlled road. Joel and Jeremy opted out of going, insisting that they had some more shopping to do for friends and family. Truth be told, I think they had their share of Bethlehem from our shoot on the previous Friday but that’s another story for another time.
We got to the checkpoint between Israeli-controlled territory and Palestinian-controlled territory and surprisingly drove right through without any issues. On both sides of the road was a concrete wall about twenty-five feet high with barbed wire on top. It was a short drive from the checkpoint to the parking lot and within a few minutes we were inside the Tomb of Rachel complex. Once inside we made our way to the tomb itself. There it was. I had waited a long time to see this.
Without hesitation I got out a book of prayers I had brought along, which included a prayer that is to be recited at Rachel’s grave. I had heard that many people come here to pray for their daughters and wives. Once I was finished with the liturgical prayer I proceeded to pour out my heart for my whole family. It was not long before I was overtaken with emotion and tears began welling up in my eyes. As I beseeched the Father on behalf of my wife and children I felt a connection and closeness to HaShem that I had not experienced in a while. It was an overwhelmingly powerful experience. Daniel would later tell me that many people find themselves brought to tears praying here; after all, the Prophet Jeremiah tells us: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children” (Jeremiah 31:15).
Boaz and I finished praying first and after noticing a refreshment table with Turkish coffee (who can pass up Turkish coffee?) we prepared a cup and headed outside. Once outside Boaz got a strange look on his face and said, “Do you smell that? That’s tear gas.” All of a sudden, my eyes began watering again but now not with emotion but with burning. My throat and eyes began to burn and hurt and we quickly went back inside. What the heck was going on?
Once Daniel was finished praying we carefully headed back outside. Immediately, I could hear some kind of explosion going off, like a small cannon being fired. While Daniel had the common sense to head back to the car, Boaz and I wanted to get a closer look and take some pictures. From the parking lot I could see an IDF soldier on top of the wall launching tear gas canisters into a location on the other side of the wall. In response, the Palestinians threw rocks the size of baseballs and softballs, some landing on the inside of the wall. The wind then started blowing the tear gas in our direction again. Boaz and I ran back to the car. While I covered my mouth with my jacket to prevent myself from breathing in more gas, Boaz, in classic Israeli form, made sure his coffee did not spill. As we were pulling out, a host of IDF vehicles were moving in.
One of the most amazing things is that, despite all that went on, I was never scared and was fully at peace. If this event would have happened, say, in New York I don’t think I would have felt as safe. It’s funny as we left the checkpoint and stopped to get an ice cream bar to sooth our throats we suddenly realized that despite the chaos we were just involved in, no one just down the road had any idea what had just happened. For me this first trip to Rachel’s Tomb is one that I will not soon forget. It was a powerful experience with just the right added mix of humor and chaos. That’s Israel, and I can’t wait to get back there again soon.