Let It Flow

“If you have a good idea, use it so that you will not only accomplish something, but so that you can make room for new ones to flow into you.”                                                   Deng Min-Dao, Everyday Tao:  Living with Balance and Harmony

Next week, I will be offering a Places in Your Neighborhood trip to two water sources:  Nahal Prat and the Jordan, so it is time to complete last week’s discussion of water.

Nahar, Nachal, and HaYarden have one common factor – they are vectors. That
just means that they have a path which they follow to take water from one place to another.  Israel is a hilly country and water seeks the lowest level, so this type of feature is very prevalent.

A Nahar is a large, flowing body of water.  There are two main naharot mentioned in the Bible – Nahar Prat (Euphrates River) and Nahar Mitzrayim (Nile River). The main purposes of naharot in the Bible are for denoting borders (people cross over the nahar to get to another land), drinking, and irrigation.  There are no naharot in the land of Israel.  The lack of a nahar in the Land of Israel means that there are no “borders” between the people who live in the land.
In contrast to nahar is nachal.  A nachal refers not to water, but to a place which, at a minimum, has a potential for water.  These stream beds may always flow, or only for a few hours a year during flash floods.   Eight different specific nechalim in Israel are mentioned in the Bible.

This difference, between a nahar and a nachal is crucial in understanding the mission of the Jewish people in the land of Israel.  Before entering the land of Israel, the children of Israel ask G-d what it’s like there.  I think of this as kind of a consultation with the
tour guide.    In Deuteronomy 11:10 we get to the core of this description.  Israel is not Egypt;  it is supplied with water by rain (not by a nahar – the Nile).  G-d’s eyes are always on Israel (to provide sufficient water) which also means that G-d’s eyes are also
on the land’s inhabitants to determine how much rainfall will be provided.  The Children of Israel must be aware of their actions and how they affect their survival.  They can walk around the land and see  the potential for water through the dry nechalim.  This is the complete dependence on G-d and a continual striving to do good deeds, mitzvot.  G-d sees Israel’s potential.  That’s awesome!

Now maybe you noticed at the beginning that I put The Jordan (HaYarden) in its own category.  Most English translations of the Biblical text translate HaYarden as the Jordan River.  In the Bible, however, never once is HaYarden referred to as anything other than HaYarden.  This body of water, which flows continually and fluctuates in depth and course, is mentioned 181 times in the Bible.  (The next runner up within the land of Israel, Nahal Kishon, is mentioned only 11 times.)  The Jordan figures prominently in 3 stories.

#1:  Children of Israel enter the Land of Israel crossing The Jordan.  This story is a replay of the crossing of Yam Suf (mentioned only 23 times) but forms the basis of the Jewish people in the Land of Egypt.  During the crossing, they take 12 stones from The Jordan to make one monument.  The Jordan makes us one people.

#2:  Elijah the prophet leaves the people of Israel by ascending into the sky near The Jordan.  Elijah leaves his leadership role and his life when he crosses The Jordan.  The
Children of Israel, the country of Israel, need a new face, Elisha, one which will connect more strongly with the struggles of the people.  The role of The Jordan here is to cement the leader, Elisha, with the national experience. Leaders who can no longer be effective, such as Elijah, are destined to die on the other side of The Jordan, symbolizing their distance from the Jewish people.

#3:  The Jordan provides healing for the Aramite king, Naaman who is afflicted by leprosy.  He comes for a cure to Elisha and Elisha tells him to go and wash in the waters of The Jordan.  The Jordan is muddy and Naaman becomes angry.  “Are not the waters of the rivers of Damascus,  better than all the waters of Israel?”  But sometimes being a Mighty River is not the best medicine.  Leprosy, associated in the Bible with speaking improperly, can be cured by a bit of humility.   Dunking 7 times in the murky waters of The Jordan takes one down a notch, and works wonders (literally for Naaman).  This reminds us that this important body of water is not meant to build up and glorify Israel.

What can we learn from these three stories about The Jordan?  The Jordan is unifying, clarifying and humbling.  This is no ordinary River, meant to be crossed, drank and siphoned off to fields.  This is no mere creek or wash, waiting for us to pray for it to be filled.  The Jordan is a symbol of the Children of Israel as a nation, and as such, the most important body of water that exists. The Jewish people ebbs and wanes, we meander in our path, we are surrounded by thick brush amidst arid land, but we continue to flow.

So next time you are at Qesr al-Yehud, Gesher Bnot Yaacov, or Kayaking in the north, remember you are not encountering a river, rather you are experiencing The Jordan, and it is Mighty indeed.


A Sea of Reeds?

Barbara brought to my attention an apparent crack in my definitions of yam and agam in my earlier post.  How could the Yam Suf be a yam (sea?) if it has suf (reeds?)?  If it has suf, it should be an agam.

Let’s think about the most famous story involving Yam Suf (Sea of Reeds?), that of the Children of Israel crossing the Yam Suf.  After an arduous period of slavery and 10 grueling plagues, which wiped out the economy of Egypt and left 90% of the Children of Israel dead, the remaining people run for their lives out of Egypt.  After journeying for 3 days away from the comforts and resources of Egypt, they reach Yam Suf.  Up until this point, G-d is continually acting in a way to show his might, not only to the Egyptians but also to the Children of Israel.

Imagine what the Children of Israel were seeing when they stood before the Yam Suf.  What would be the best way for G-d to show His power?  Would they be standing in front of a small pond with lots of reeds (suf)?  How could such a body of water swallow up Egypt’s mighty chariots as described in Exodus 15?

eilat mountainsWe know from the Bible where the Yam Suf is and its description as a border is listed in many places.  Yam Suf is equated with the Red Sea of today.  One of the bordering towns of the Yam Suf is listed as Etzion Gever, near today’s Eilat.  An event which happens on the sea by Etzion Gever gives us another description of not just where the Yam Suf is, but what it is like.

“Yehoshofat (one of the kings of Yehuda) constructed Tarshish ships (a fleet of ships) to sail to Ofir for gold.  But he did not sail because the ships were wrecked (by natural means) at Etzion Gever.”  II Kings 22:49

From this passage, we see that Yam Suf is stormy.  But is the Red Sea stormy?  Most people who visit Eilat would disagree.  Stormy seas are in the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Rim, the Straits of Gibralter.  We need to remember, however,  that the Bible only cares about the Levant.  The main yamim here are the Mediterranean Sea, the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea and the Red Sea.  Using this as our scale, the Red Sea is the stormiest.  Only 8 years ago, a storm in the Red Sea sank an Egyptian ferry carrying 1300 people.

How then can it be called Yam Suf, Sea of Reeds?  The Atlas Daat Mikra gives an interesting interpretation.  Instead of suf=reeds, think sufa=storm.  That colloborates what we know of Yam Suf from the Children of Israel’s crossing.  It magnifies the miraculous nature of this story; a weakened people comes to a stormy sea pursued by the greatest army of the day.  They cross over on dry land, and the army is swept up in the storm surge.

The result of the fjording of Yam Suf is that the Children of Israel realize G-d’s might, and that all the nations of the world tremble before them.  The way is paved for the birth of a nation.


The holiday of Passover approaches.  You can feel it in the hot bursts of spring air – sharav as it is called in modern parlance in Israel.  You can feel it in the stores  – extending their hours to accommodate harried shoppers.  You can feel it in your home – as you search for something between spring cleaning and removing all traces of anything leavened.  You can even feel it in your nose and your stomach – as those traditional smells and tastes fill your senses.

But as we are busy feeling the holiday in all these other ways, all these sensual ways, sometimes we forget to feel Passover with our emotions.  This year in getting ready for the holiday, I am trying to focus a bit on what it is about Passover, and specifically the Seder (festive meal) on the first night, that WORKS.  The Jewish people have been more or less celebrating this ceremony for at least the last 3300 years or so, and even in today’s mostly secular Israeli society, Passover Seder is still celebrated
by the vast majority of the country’s Jews.

So what is it that WORKS?

The Passover meal has many components:  wine, matzah, symbolic   foods, family, and story through the recitation of the Hagada.  This story that we tell at the meal is not a simple “Once upon a time” but a complex of many different elements.  But I believe that the many different ways of telling the story – through talmudic discourse,  parable, songs, and all the different forms which exist in the Hagada, all have some common threads.  They are meant to inspire us, to give us hope, and even to nudge us in the right direction.

Inspiration might seem passe in today’s world.  We are all so sophisticated – we know that behind every success lies a lot of hard work and even a lot of sadness.  We have been jaded by the people we admire having really sad lives – movie stars who get involved in drugs, politicians who get caught breaking the law, religious leaders whose personal lives are devoid of religion, athletes who abuse their own bodies.

Even our own children and their peers are not exempt.  Youth was once the symbol of endless possibility, but now is more likely to be associated with trouble, gangs and unplanned pregnancy.  Young adults today report that although sexual taboos have been erased, they are severely short in the falling-in-love category.  It really hit home when I was walking with a man aged 23 who told me, “I will never be really, really happy.”  Shocking that at age 23, he had already given up.

The Hagada comes to change all that.  Once the Jewish people were at the bottom.  The very bottom.  The 49th level of despair (out of 50).  The Hagada comes to share the success story.

And to inspire us.

Not just to inspire us to climb out of whatever pit we are in, but also to  inspire us to gather positive energy from our own  stories. Every person has an inspiring story.  Our stories make up who we are, where we have been, and our outlook on where we are going.  We don’t often take the time to articulate those stories, elaborate on those stories and even tweek them a bit to make them better stories (we will probably claim that actually, that is the way it happened….).  Sometimes, sadly, we even forget that we have those stories.

This year at the Passover Seder, ask the person next to you to share their own personal “Hagada”.  If they are shy, wait until they have had a glass of wine or so.  Life is good and there are amazing stories of blessing and persistence, survival and overcoming hurdles.  And they are jumping in the waves with you, walking around the store with you, cleaning your house with you, sitting next to you at your Passover seder – just listen and share.  Life is good.

checking rice pesach 2012Chag Sameach!  Happy Passover!


I am back from my Winter Birthright trip with OU-92, my first winter trip.  The closing ceremony was rushed and I didn’t really have a chance to share with the group some of the thoughts I had about our experience together.  I want first and foremost to thank my wonderful staff.  Rachamim, Vera, DJ, Tehilla, Rabbi Zalman, and Rabbi K cared, listened, and contributed.  A staff that works together can make a good trip into a GREAT trip and you all truly did.
OU-92 Erev Shabbat Roof
Looking back on my Birthright experience this winter with OU-92, the word that kept coming into mind was


The first factor which led to the complexity of the trip was the weather.  And, although, we got quite lucky with the weather, it did eventually catch up with us.  In Birthright, I expect changes in the timing due to unforeseen events; with this trip, however, the changes were due to inclement weather.  How could you cancel Mt. Hertzl?  How do you make a coherent day in Tel Aviv when you can’t do almost anything outside? Sandstorm on Masada, surging waves at the Tel Aviv Port, heavy rains at the Bedouin tent….


That complexity came out in the stories the participants gave about their lives.  Stories about decisions they made that were not easy, about family situations that are far from comfortable, about loss.  Life is not so simple.


And then there is the natural complexity of the People of Israel in the Land of Israel trying to grapple with the Religion of Israel. These three factors trying to fit together to form a coherent whole.  Many times vying with each other, many times coming to loggerheads, many times in beautiful harmony.  The people on the street who said the entire project is too hard for them; the soldiers who said that they are willing to fight for trying to build the puzzle that is Israel; the little gains that you can see if you look hard enough.  Transforming the desert into wonderful peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes.  Providing work for handicapped adults.  Energizing a whole theater with Jewish pride.  Connecting us to our past through stones and stories.  Showing us beauty through waterfalls and endless vistas.


At the end, however, the largest complexity dwells in the individual.  How each and every one of us weaves the story of our ancestors into our present day existence and decides how it will influence our future is the most complex task of all.

I look forward to hearing about how you, the participants of OU-92, take on this complex project and carry the experiences we shared here in Israel into your futures.

‘Cause we are

We are shining stars

We are invincible

We are who we are

On our darkest day

When we’re miles away

So we’ll come

We will find our way home


If you’re lost and alone

Or you’re sinking like a stone

Carry on

May your past be the sound

Of your feet upon the ground

Carry on.

Do You Diguette?

I went to the Negev yesterday with a few colleagues and I got into a discussion with Shany about the JNF (Jewish National Fund) plantings we saw.  I contended that the technique for planting the rows of trees was called “Liman”; she called them “Terrasot” (pl. for terraces in Hebrew).  Shany said that “Liman” is a term only used for planting trees in bowls – depressions in the ground made to preserve water in the center of the bowl.  According to her, these lines of piled up soil on the sides of the hills were terraces, similar to the terraces we see throughout the central mountain range.

Up until this point, I thought I understood Negev agricultural terminology; and, I was so convinced that I was right, I decided to do a bit of research to find out if both the desert farming technique using “bowls” and the technique of building up lines of soil on hillsides were both called “Limans” or if one was a Liman and the other a simple terrace.

This research took me into another question I have been wanting to tackle which was posed by Leah from my Tour Guide class.  She asked what was the name and the purpose of the rock piles we see all over the Negev.

I like to remind people who are traveling with me that despite appearances, Israel has plenty of natural resources.  We have water, sun, access to other places, trees, land – and all this was sufficient for supporting rich societies here ONLY because people knew how to manage them.  Ecology may be a 21st century idea for the rest of the world, but here in Israel ecology has been a necessity since the dawn of civilization.

So, too, in the Negev, an area which received less that 200 mm rainfall a year (in some places much less).  In antiquity, the people living in this desert climate figured out how to harvest water during the bleak winter rains, channel it to fields and grow wheat, barley, wine, olives, figs, etc.  It may take a lot of engineering and a lot of land, but it is possible.  Around the area of Avdat, approximately 25 acres of land were needed to collect enough water for 1 acre of crops.

One technique used by ancient peoples was the Liman.  A Liman is a depressed area surrounded by low hillocks.  The water falling on these hillocks flows into the center of the “bowl”.  This technique was initially used by the JNF  for planting large trees to provide shade.  You can see many JNF Limans on the road down to Beer Sheva. Most of the Limans planted in the Negev today are populated by Eucalyptus trees as they grow quickly.
Another technique is the Diguette.  Diguettes are small mounds built along a line on a slope.  Trees can then be planted uphill from each of these lines.  The mounds help to catch the water flowing down the hill and give it a longer exposure to the plant, decreasing run-off.  In Hebrew they may be called “Terraces” but actually they have a special name/function when they are in a desert climate. Diguettes are used around the world in arid areas, including Africa, and boost the ability of an area to produce crops thereby saving lives today.  The JNF uses Diguettes today to plant indigenous species and it is the main technique used in the Yatir forest project.

Catchment farms were used in natural stream beds.  Various dams were built along the stream bed.  The rain which fell on the surrounding hills flowed naturally into the stream bed, where the crops were. The water which overflowed each step of this terraced structure flowed to the step below, controlling the amount of water in each step and holding the water in the farmed area for a longer amount of time.

The rock piles my friend Leah asked about are an interesting phenomena in the Negev.  They are called by the local population Tolilat al-Anev (Grape Mounds).  In the 1830’s when these were first described by 2 British surveyors/explorers/botanists/geologists, it was assumed that these mounds were used in ancient times for growing grapes.  On further inspection, not only were there no grapevine remnants found in any of the areas, but also there were no adjacent wine presses.  There still is no definitive explanation for these mounds, but there are a few theories.  One is that the  clearing of the rocks into mounds allowed for more erosion of the soil on the slopes.  This soil was washed to the
valleys and mixed along the way with organic material to make a richer soil in the valleys.

The mounds are not only found on the slopes of hills, but also in relatively flat areas.  This leads to another hypothesis that the rocks randomly strewn about impinged upon the rainwater’s path to a central point.  Gathering the rocks in mounds meant that there was more free and clear smooth ground to draw the water to that central collection area.

Turns out that I was only partially right about Limans.  Shany was correct that Liman is a very specific term and not a general one. Thanks to Shany and Leah for piquing my curiosity and pushing me to learn more about agriculture in the Negev!

Do you Diguette?  I DO!

Squeezing the Last Bit out of Winter

I know, I know, I keep writing about the weather, but this winter has been crazy.  It is March 17 and I haven’t used the air conditioning yet in my car.  Tonight’s low is supposed to be 4 ! degrees centigrade (39 degrees Fahrenheit for those of you living in the United States) and I had to turn on my heat to keep my fingers from freezing as I type.  (Last year, I first turned on the air conditioning in my car in February.)  Not only has it been really cold, but also the rain continues to bless us.  Thursday, Friday and Saturday experienced bouts, some prolonged, of POURING rain.

Anyway, I hope it is a blessing because the plants are beginning to flower.  Which plants?  Specifically those which make up the closed group of the Seven Species mentioned in the Bible – Barley, Wheat, Olives, Grapes, Figs, Dates, and Pomegranates.  I see now, in the course of my travels, the beauty of flowering barley and wheat.  Until a few years ago, I didn’t realize that wheat and barley flower.  Small white flowers appear from in between the kernels of grain, so delicate that touching them knocks them off the stalk. flowering wheat  Wheat benefits from a cold, northerly wind during the ripening.  The cold, the rain during the first period of ripening gives strength to the plant to fill the kernels.  This was noted in the Gemara (Baba Batra 147a).  On the other hand, dry hot winds from the south, scorch developing grains.

Olives flower a bit later than Barley and Wheat, but still during this time of year between Passover and Shavuot.  They depend on the hot, dry wind from the South to carry the pollen from one plant to another.  Cold, moist winds simply wash the pollen from the plant, removing any chance of pollination.

I love the interplay between the natural world and the spiritual world.  Since the Torah of Israel was given to the Children of Israel and meant to apply to the Land of Israel, these elements all meld together.  It is up to us to see the connections.  This Shabbat we read about  the placement of the furniture in the Mishkan which was erected in the desert.  Why does G-d care to spell out what side the various vessels used in the Mishkan would be on?  Is G-d an interior decorator?

And yet, the text from this week’s Torah reading tells us very clearly that the Shulchan (Table) on which would be placed the loaves of bread is to be in the North – wheat does best with North winds. The Menorah (candelabra) which was lit with pure olive oil is placed in the South.  G-d is not just giving the Children of Israel a lesson in crop management, He is giving a lesson that all is interconnected.  Your daily life of planting and harvesting crops is connected to your religious life.  Proper placement of the furniture, of your daily toils, will lead to spiritual blessing, just as weather in its proper time leads to abundance in your harvest.

The extended forecast calls for yet one more rain at the end of next week.  Farmers are already telling me that the harvests this year have been delayed.  We just pray that the rains, which so gloriously have filled this past winter, will come in their proper time during this transitional season to bring prosperity and spiritual harmony to all of Am Israel.

The Snowy Day

In honor of the snow which is forecast for Jerusalem this weekend….

Pinchas Rutenberg died in January 1942.  Attended by Zionist leaders such as Moshe Sharet, Yitzchak BenTzvi, Zalman Shazar, and Golda Meir, the funeral took place on the day he died, as is customary in Jerusalem.  The procession moved slowly to lower this leader into the frozen ground of the Mount of Olives.  The British soldiers attending cleared away the snow to uncover a patch of ground into which Rutenberg’s body was laid.

Ben Gurion could not be present at this solemn occasion as he was out the country.  He did however send a letter.

“As a true pioneer, Rutenberg gave to Zionism and to the Land of Israel, the most precious items he had in his possession – himself, his unstoppable will, his wide vision.  His boundless sacrifice and his power to fulfill dreams.  He was one of the giants of our time in renewing the days of the Land of Israel.  Our land lost a great builder and our people lost a dear son.”

Chances are, even though the attendees’ names may be familiar to most, Pinchas Rutenberg is not so well known.  Who was he?  What exactly were his gifts to the Land of Israel so eloquently mentioned by Ben Gurion?

Born in the Ukraine in 1879 to a religious Jewish family, he was educated as an engineer and became a workshop manager of the largest St. Petersburg industry, which was also a center of workers socialist organization.  Rutenberg became a supporter of the movement, but when its leader was found dead in Rutenberg’s rented house, he was forced to flee the country.

Besides traveling the world, meeting with Jewish leaders, and writing books, Rottenberg wrote a plan for water management in the Land of Israel.  It is for this plan, and the construction of the power plant in Naharayim, that Pinchas Rottenberg is best know.

He came to Israel in 1919 and started working on his dream.  In order to get permission to build the power plant in Naharayim, Rutenberg needed to get permission from not only the British, who controlled what is now the State of Israel, but also from King Abdullah of Jordan, as the plant proposed to dam the Yarmuk, which was in the hands of the Jordanians.  Only after 6 years of negotiations did Rutenberg receive permission to go ahead with his plans.  That’s Unstoppable Will.  The Naharayim plant included the Deganya dam, a zero-grade canal, reservoirs, diversionary canals, workers’ communities, a railroad station, in short a HUGE engineering feat.  After 5 years of construction, in 1931, the plant went on line.  It produced 1/3 of the electricity needed by the growing yishuv.

Most Zionist pioneering images we have are of diplomats, religious leaders,  soldiers, donors, or even the anonymous “worker of the land”.  Pinchas Rutenberg comes from a different mold, the mold of the scientist/engineer.  This pioneer lives in the Land of Israel and tries to understand the science and implement the engineering to capitalize on all the potential that exists.  The electrification of the Land of Israel was a necessary component to the development of the Jewish homeland – quite different from settling the Negev, acquiring lands in the Jezreel Valley, meeting with world leaders to push the idea of Zionism, setting up internal pre-state institutions.  Only with the inclusion of science and engineering was the Land of Israel built.