By Rafael Bocarsly, UMass Amherst, Bus 4 I think it was on our fifth day in Israel that we visited the Mount of Beatitudes in the north, where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Until this point on the trip I’m not sure if I had actually been to every single place we visited, but none of it had been particularly new or exciting. New and exciting wasn’t why I went on Israel Uncovered. I had two main goals in mind for the program, clearly articulated in my mind: one, to see my brother (who is serving in the IDF) and my Israeli friends and two, to help shape the minds and opinions of the 36 non-Jewish student leaders who had never been to Israel before. I wanted to help them understand why I love Israel so much, why it is my people’s home, and why it is my home.
At the Mount of Beatitudes there was a palpable mollification. We were a loud, rowdy group but no one spoke as we sat quietly under a small canopy. It was one of those times that gives personal resonance to the aphorism “a hushed whisper.” I didn’t totally understand what had happened. The Mount of Beatitudes is one of the holiest sites in the world for Christians, my friends told me. I can’t believe Jesus walked here, they said, awestruck. Two of our busmates who were particularly vocal about their deep Christian faith stood in front of the group and began to read the Sermon on the Mount.
This was when I first started to feel something different. I think I was taken aback by how much of what Jesus was saying resonated in a deep, personal way with me. Growing up as a religious Jew, I had little to no exposure to Christianity other than in the abstractions of the classroom. But here I was, hearing Jesus’s words delivered to me as he once had delivered them in this very spot to others and so much of it made so much sense to me. His abjuration of the culture he saw around him was similar in more ways than I can count to the kinds of criticisms I have leveled against the Jewish communities in which I’ve been raised. The notions of fairness and kindness are ones that I have found to be so often lacking in all circles I have been a part of, both religious and secular.
The truth is, I was deeply uncomfortable feeling connected like that. The notion of respecting another’s religion is so fundamental to who I am that it hardly needs to be articulated, but the notion of experiencing another’s religion? That was new to me and I couldn’t wrap my head around it in a way that made sense to me as a religious Jew.
It wasn’t until our friends finished reading and we started talking that it began to make sense. We were all invited to share our personal feeling of faith, whatever it was that we were experiencing at that particular moment. It was my first chance on the trip to step back. Until then, I and my fellow Jewish students on the trip had been point people for a lot of friends, quasi-teachers on the trip who were constantly grilled on everything from logistical questions about the itinerary, to political questions about Israel, to religious questions about our beliefs. But this time it was our Christian brothers and sisters who spoke: the religious and the nonreligious, the believer and the nonbeliever, the Catholic and the Protestant. They all shared what being on the Mount of Beatitudes meant to them, what being where Jesus had walked meant to them, the power of the history, the meaning of their faith.
I had gotten on the bus that morning with absolutely no expectation of meaning, no thought that I would be moved, no possibility that I could change. And when it had started to happen, I resisted it. I didn’t like that I was feeling connected to Jesus and to Christianity and I didn’t want it to happen. But it did happen, willingly or not.
I think that is my great takeaway from that day: the power of experience. I didn’t need to be open to being moved in order to be moved. I wasn’t open to it but that didn’t stop it from happening. There is something so basic, so elementary and core to being human that when we are presented with a real human experience, we cannot help but be changed by it. I saw what they were experiencing and I actually began to experience it too, even though I am not Christian and I always viewed my religious beliefs as being in conflict with Christianity. Had I not been with these people, the holiness of that place would have soared right over my head, but when I was able to have them with me, even a dilettante like me was forced to experience it.
There are many different words for this. Some would call it empathy, others would call a chemical reaction occurring in my brain causing certain neural transmitters to tell what what I perceive to be my “consciousness” that I am feeling something. I call it divinity. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” Jesus says in the Sermon. “For they shall see God.” Pure, heartfelt experience is something that actually allows us to see God. And that is what happened to me that day, I experienced God’s presence.
The implications of this are terrifyingly powerful. So often people tell me that this conception of divinity is weak and meager. If divinity is only connected to human experience, if you suddenly stop experiencing it one day then your religiosity will disintegrate in a moment, they tell me. But this sort of experience, this sort of divinity, isn’t something that any of us can control. It just happens. And what I strive every day to do instead of trying to resist my experience like I did on the Mount of Beatitudes, is to open myself up to the experiences of the world, of all human beings around me, and experience the divinity that brings with it.
This realization had such an affect on me in a way I don’t quite feel ready to describe, both because of how personal it feels, but also because I don’t really think I can. Indeed, in Judaism on the High Holidays we have a short proverb we sing, one line of which goes in Hebrew,
לְאָדָם מַעַרְכֵי לֵב *ומה' מַעֲנֵה לָשׁוֹן
What I would loosely translate as, “For man are the plans of the heart, but from God are the orders of the tongue.” We can plan in our hearts but our spoken language comes from God. It’s an almost oxymoronic idea: in order to experience God, I need to be in touch with my human experience, then to be able to articulate my experience with this divinity I need the help of God. But it’s the best encapsulation I know how to give of what happened to me that day, and what I try to have happen to me every day. And though it might be complicated and it might be messy and it might be totally out of my control and beyond my comprehension, hearing the way my friends spoke on the mountain about their religion, it is a struggle in which I know I’m not alone.
Rafi grew up in a Modern Orthodox Jewish home in Yonkers, NY. He attended private Jewish day school through twelfth grade after which he spent a year and a half studying in Israel at Yeshivat Ma'ale Gilboa, an Israeli religious seminary. Rafi then came to UMass and is in his second year studying English with a double minor in Psychology and Linguistics. His brother recently moved to Israel and he has many friends (American and Israeli) who live there permanently and/or are serving in the IDF.