The Tzfat Cemetery…
In Hebrew, Tzfat means to “look out.” What does Tzfat look out at? Tzfat looks out over the present, at the grand mountains of the Galilee which look like waves (galim in Hebrew). It looks out to the future, according to Jewish tradition, asking each visitor and the Jewish people as a whole to think about where we are going. And, Tzfat looks out over the past, to some great people of our heritage in the ancient cemetery of Tzfat.
On our last trip to Tzfat, our ten-year-old son became so fascinated by the cemetery that he walked down there several times on his own. His excitement inspired me to think about it more deeply. I asked him why he was so attracted to the place, and he said that he said couldn’t explain it. Something just drew him there. Perhaps he was fascinated by the blue paint on some of the tombstones. Blue is a very inviting color, even for a cemetery. Blue is the color of the sea and the color of the sky; it’s a spiritual color, the color of eternity. Or maybe, he was amazed to see names of famous 16th century Rabbis he had learned about in school and tours of Tzfat such as The Ari, the well-known kabbalist; Rabbi Yosef Karo, the great writer of works of Jewish law; and Rabbi Alkabetz, known for writing Lecha Dodi which just about every Jewish congregation in the world now sings on Friday nights to welcome Shabbat. Our son was definitely intrigued by the famous mikvah (ritual bath) of the Ari where many have braved the freezing waters for a Tzfat experience they will always remember.
Throughout the Land of Israel, we have many of these blue-painted monuments. One will usually see some religious-looking people stationed nearby them looking intently into their books, whispering something, and rocking back and forth. When the people aren’t there, piles of used tea-light candles inform us that they have been there, and that more of them will be arriving soon to look in their books, whisper something, and rock back and forth.
But visiting these places wasn’t always just for those inclined towards candle-lighting, praying and the like. In fact, visiting graves of our ancestors was one of the main ways in which travelers throughout the last number of centuries would connect to the history and land. Remember that many places that visitors see as essential to their trip to Israel only came into existence since the State of Israel was born. Some have only become accessible in the last 20 years. Who could ever have conceived of an underwater aquarium in Eilat, the Israel Musuem, or Independence Hall in Tel Aviv before the State of Israel was established? The Western Wall tunnels, the City of David, Masada, and many ancient synagogues in the Galilee were covered in dirt, rubble, and weeds until recent times. The Western Wall plaza was only a narrow passageway until 1967 and for many of the last 2,000 years was inaccessible to Jews. When Jews would want to see meaningful sites in the Land of Israel, they would go to ancient graves.
The poem Tikvatanu — which was written in 1878 at the time of the establishment of Petach Tikvah and which later became the basis for the national anthem HaTikvah –describes how “throngs of country men still pay homage at the graves of our fathers.”
I think that these visitors, and perhaps also our son, were just drawn to be near their ancestors much in the same way that one would visit the cemetery of one’s great-grandparents when going back to one’s family’s home town…just needing to connect to the past, and needing the past to welcome them home.
© 2012, Lisa (Leah) Bowman. All Rights Reserved.
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