To Describe the Scent of a Rose

This message on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is from Rabbi Andi Berlin, guest rabbi for the Fairmount Temple clergy team, shared on Kol Nidre, 2019. We encourage you to comment below or to share the link to this sermon on social media such as Twitter or Facebook to continue the important conversation it engenders.

There is a rose on the Western shore of the Dead Sea. I smelled it one evening: the kind entirely unique to a desert. The sun had gone down, but its warmth still clung in the air….silky air that moved and floated. My mom and I were walking back from dinner, chatting about nothing, entirely unprepared for the scent of this rose and what it was about to do to us.

My parents and younger brother were in Israel visiting me during my first year of rabbinical school. It was their first times in the country. I wanted to show them the Israel I fell in love with; the shuk in Jerusalem with every color, texture, smell, spice, and flavor of kosher food under the sun, the bus stop at which Israelis feel free to comment on nearly every aspect of one’s life.

I walked them through the mist filled village of Ein Karem to listen to the brothers of Saint Jean Baptist chant prayers and to stroll art studios.

I introduced them to the Jewish and Arab doctors at Hadassah Hospital who treat every patient who comes through the doors, regardless of religion, country of origin, citizenship. I showed them the solar panels on the roof of nearly every home. We wandered among agricultural fields irrigated with recycled rainwater.

On the night my mom and I took our evening stroll, the scent of that rose embedded itself in our hearts.

Ever since, when someone asks me why I love Israel so much, I think of that rose.

The protagonist of the Song of Songs cries, “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys. As a lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.” SS 2:1-2  

The rose that night smelled of everything that builds us. It smelled of heritage, of mystery, of ancient dust and present love. It smelled of my grandmother’s rose-scented perfume, of loving arms enfolding me and stroking my hair.

It smelled of story and of Bible and of promise.

You know what it did not smell of? It did not smell of accusation and judgment. There was no whiff of justification or criticism.

Anytime I am tempted to share the story of this rose, this magic moment under a million stars, I pull up short. I have learned that I cannot talk about anything having to do with Israel, without first acknowledging the conflict, expressing my feelings about the current political landscape or the conditions of the Palestinian people.

Why can’t I talk about how much I love Israel without having to defend her, to defend myself? Why must each and every conversation of her contour and her landscape include a dissertation on the geopolitical forces that wreak havoc on her tiny borders? There is time to debate and to discuss. There is time for me to express my outrage at some of her policies and her current government. There is time, also, for me to seethe as I listen to knee-jerk reactions to a false historical narrative painting Israel as an invading force against a state that never existed. There is time to sort through the chaos and the mess.

But, why can’t we also just love her? I love Chicago…it’s one of my favorite cities. I can express this without being challenged on what I am doing to decrease the number of shooting fatalities that occur each year. I can express my awe of the natural beauty the United States without, in the same breath, berated our citizens and government for our ongoing, systemic and institutionalized racism.

Our own government is, right at this very moment, committing atrocities against people of color, against children whose families are seeking asylum, against people who are transgender; yet I can love our mountains and lakes, I can delight in our diverse culture without being insulted.

Why can I not preach about Israel, the love I have for her, without also preaching in the same sermon, how I come to terms with her conflicts. Why can’t I preach about the Israel of innovators and poets and ritualists, full of politicians and gardeners and immigrants.

Israel’s vibrant modern city of Tel Aviv offers up three different beaches; one for the LGBTQ population, another for the ultra-religious, and a third for dog owners. It is also a country that cannot build a bridge without having to freeze the project because another archeological site is discovered and must be explored. (In fact, just two days ago news broke that in trying to construct a highway interchange in Harish, near Tel Aviv, a large 5,000-year-old city was discovered!)

Israel is a country in which the same stone has been touched more than a billion times by people searching and yearning for a sense of the divine.

On this day, on Yom Kippur, the streets of Jerusalem are empty. A sea of white, people leaving and entering synagogues, wafting across the parkways. Simple, unadulterated peace.

Israel is much more than a Jewish state. It is a safe haven in the middle of a dangerous neighborhood where women and LGBT, where Christians, Muslims, and Jews, where refugees from Syria and China, and Vietnam, and the Sudan…all come to find freedom and safety.

Israel is a country that drew me in, that claimed me, that made me belong.  And I did. I really did. And then I came back and became a rabbi and realized that as a Jew, I could practice and access my religion in the United States in ways I could not in Israel. And I came back and I met my spouse and fell more in love with him than I was with Israel. And so I stayed, and I stayed, and I stayed.

But there are times, when I lean over the rose bushes in Berkeley and as I inhale their scent and, gosh, if I don’t miss the depth of what I smelled that night on the edge of the desert. At those times I wonder if I am where I belong. I miss Israel like a limb. But in describing her absence from my life, how do I describe the scent of a rose?

And why, why can I not smell her roses without also always discussing her thorns? Nearly every other country on this earth can be discussed without, every single solitary time, having to justify its existence. People tell of their visits to The Great Wall of China and know we can discuss the political implications of China’s policies at a different time. We can enjoy Persian food and not, at the same time, have to declare our feelings about Iran’s nuclear encroachments.

Every time, though, anything comes up about Israel, the conversation is hijacked by intense political feelings and opinions. I know she has thorns. I work at those thorns, I study them and try to manage them as an American Jew.

Yom Kippur is a day stripped the banal, the profane. We delight in the basic of who we are. Israel’s basic unadulterated beauty is as impossible to describe as the scent of a rose. I worry that this impossibility hides her treasures behind her headlines. But, her treasures are vast and sacred. The only way to describe her, is to experience her. If you haven’t been, please go. Visit Israel and see for yourself.