It was the beginning of the second week of the first tour of Israel I have ever led (October 18 – November 1, 2015). Our tour guide and teacher, Dr. David Miller, told me that he had a surprise for us that morning. Even though we had only recently met, I had full trust in him. Co-founder of Shoresh Study Tours, I knew that not only did he know the country, he already demonstrated a knack for knowing those special, out-of-the-way places where tourists don’t normally go. The first time he told me he had a surprise was when he took us on a short side trip to the Israeli border town of S’derot from where we could see Gaza City. That time he asked my opinion first; this time he wanted me to be surprised too. And since I had never led an Israel tour before, I let the veteran have his way.
We had just finished the northern portion of our trip, having stayed three nights enjoying the delightful accommodation at the Ma’agan Holiday Village on the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee/Lake Kinneret. Seeing Lebanon from one vantage point and Syria from another, like seeing Gaza a few days earlier, emphasized the fragility of Israel’s borders; an everyday reality for Israelis that we North Americans have difficulty grasping. But it wasn’t just the fragile nature of being in such a place that struck us; it was that throughout our time in Israel life felt normal. But what did we expect? A war zone? It may seem like that if our only window on Israel is the nightly news, when in fact throughout this most beautiful land, life goes on.When I say life in Israel felt normal, I don’t consider singing O Canada on a boat on the Sea of Galilee normal. Neither is seeing an ancient Canaanite temple from Abraham’s day (circa 1700 B.C.). That kind of archaeological find isn’t normal even for Israel. According to David, until a few years ago it was still buried. There’s nothing normal about swimming in the Dead Sea either. As I struggled to float, bob, and/or sit in/on the water, I started up a conversation with an Israeli mother and her adult son. They graciously and patiently helped me to enjoy the experience. “Relax!” the mom urged me. “Counterintuitive,” I thought. But eventually I lay back, stretching out my limbs as I (tried to) rest upon the Sea. “You look like Jesus Christ!” she exclaimed. I grinned. What better place than in Israel to hear such a thing.
I should get back to our guide’s surprise. We were beginning our second week, the bulk of which was to be spent in Jerusalem. But first we would be spending the night in the town of Ariel in the heart of the West Bank. I thought the sirens we heard shortly after arriving at our hotel were due to a traffic incident. It turned out it was one of those stabbings you may have heard about in the news, the fairly new terrorist tactic being utilized by Israel’s enemies. We weren’t directly affected by it, nor were the other tourists at our hotel, including a large Christian group from the French world (France, Belgium, and New Caledonia, a group of islands near Australia!). They were there to pray for Israel, and I happened to be standing next to one of the only Jewish believers in the group. The amount of French I spoke on this trip was another surprise – as was seeing the full scale replica of the ancient Mishkan (Tabernacle) on the grounds of the hotel. The next day we visited Shiloh, where they are seeking to excavate the actual Mishkan.
But I got ahead of myself. Let’s get back to the morning of the day we left Ma’agan. We had a wonderful, very experienced bus driver who has worked regularly with Shoresh, and particularly with David for a long time – an Arab Christian who lives near Nazareth. Fluent in Hebrew, he is glad to be an Israeli like many Christian Arabs who live there. Does that surprise you? The situation between Jews and Arabs in Israel is a lot more complex than the impression produced by the media. And as for complex, so was the surprise in store at the hand of our bus driver: he invited us home to meet his extended family and extend hospitality to us. He had been wanting to do this for David for some time, and it was our group that became the special object of his warmth and generosity. They sat us down for drinks and treats around a large table in their courtyard. It was such a precious time as we met his wife, his two sons and their wives, two granddaughters, with another grandchild who was born shortly afterwards. But this is still not the surprise. Behind their house they have a small orchard of a wide variety of fruit trees, including oranges, grapefruit, figs, and olives. But then (here it is!) he offered me what might be the most extraordinary fruit I have ever eaten, a fruit that for me became the symbol of our entire trip: sweet lemon! Somewhat common in the Middle East, this hybrid tastes just like a lemon, but it is deliciously sweet.
Sweet lemons is a dramatic symbol of what we were experiencing from the moment we got on the El Al jet in Toronto. Israel, both biblical and modern, is a story of incredible color and contrast, texture and variety, bitter and sweet. Contradictions? Not really. Unless you think a sweet lemon is a contradiction. This incredible complexity as expressed in a people and their land is the result of a people and their God, whether or not he is acknowledged by them. The Jewish people are a people who continually find themselves within God’s plans and purposes even though most may be unaware of it.
We encountered this on our second morning. We were at Independence Hall in in Tel Aviv, listening to the remarkable story of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. On November 29, 1947, not only did David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, express a unified vision of an extremely diverse people, it was the cry of one of the most victimized peoples in history, struggling to emerge from the ashes of the Holocaust, preparing to face five Arab armies whose expressed goal was to wipe out the fledgling state. Against all odds, the nation of Israel survived and the people of Israel controlled their own country for the first time since the second century B.C. If the nation had simply survived, our group would have been impressed, but not as impacted as we were. We were encountering a people and a land that not only survived, but thrives. To many believers, the hand of God is obvious. But to the atheist, the secularist, and the traditionalist, not to mention Israel’s enemies, the sources of success lie elsewhere. Fully grasping what God is actually doing is a necessary challenge for the small minority of believers in the Land, some of whom we were privileged to meet with. We heard their history, their struggles, their concerns, their dreams. But in every case, they sang. They sang melodies of “sweet lemons.”
While some back home wondered why we would go to Israel at this time, everywhere we went we encountered other visitors from all over the world: Nigerians, Kenyans, Koreans, Germans, Norwegians, Americans, Canadians, to name a few. All doing similar things to what we were doing, enjoying one of the safest and secure countries in the world in one of the most troubled regions of the world. Sweet lemons.
I trusted Shoresh Tours throughout the trip, knowing that as part of the Israeli tour industry the utmost care is taken to ensure the safety of tourists. My trust unreasonably wavered, however, at the thought of visiting the Temple Mount. I had stayed away from the news the couple of weeks leading up to the tour, because while I am skeptical of the media’s perspective, I knew it would affect me. Yet, I couldn’t keep myself from hearing that so much of the current strife had to do with the Temple Mount. So why were we going there? David’s only concern was over getting to the security line early enough before the crowds. Was he thinking we were going to a concert? I was so worked up that I sent special prayer requests to family and friends the night before.
When we got there first thing the following morning my initial impression was that it seemed calm enough, but you never know. Soon there were other people in line – touristy-looking people like the gentleman behind me. I asked him, “Where are you from?” “Poland,” he said. “What brings you to Jerusalem?” I asked. “A mathematics conference,” he replied. He had some time before the day’s proceedings and wanted to check out the Temple Mount. Again I was thinking that this felt really normal. I thought, “Isn’t this the Temple Mount – a place of fear, violence, and destruction?” But no. It is the Temple Mount, of course, but it’s safe. We walk around the Temple Mount plaza as David teaches on the Second Temple at the time of Yeshua and the Polish mathematician takes pictures.
Before I mention the other time I was concerned, I need to tell you about our tour group. Besides myself and David, there were fifteen people – not a large group, but eclectic for sure. Ages ranged from 11–82 and covered four Canadian provinces and two American states, representing a wide assortment of Christian backgrounds. I had only known or met about half of them before the trip. It was fascinating to see how each person related to the different aspects of the trip in different ways. On our last morning, each person shared two highlights, which for the most part were unique to each person. The last person to share was the eleven year old. And to my surprise she said that one of her highlights was the Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem, my other site of great concern. In fact, we had originally planned that she would skip it due to its subject matter. But after careful consideration and encouragement from David, her mother agreed, not knowing, of course that this would be a highlight for her.
But how could a Holocaust museum be a highlight? Having not been myself, I thought the experience would devastate me, let alone a child, but it surprisingly didn’t. It was very sad and distressing, but so well done; in good taste in fact (sweet lemons again). How could a museum about the methodical extermination of six million Jews be in good taste? Let me briefly share three possible reasons: first, it is a place of honor, not shame. While there is much to be shameful of regarding the Holocaust and the indictment of its perpetrators and their collaborators is very clear, great care is taken to restore the dignity of the victims. Second, this museum is an extraordinary work of art in its own right. Designed by renowned Canadian, American, Israeli architect Moshe Safdie, one is struck by the masterful creativity while being exposed to one of the darkest periods of human history. Third, this tragic story is being told in Israel, where we were continually reminded that the Nazi evil didn’t win.
Still on the subject of the Holocaust, yet another surprise was to await me later that same afternoon – a vivid reminder of how within such great darkness are to be found glimpses of brilliant light. Before dinner, I went on my own to do some exploring in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter. On my way back, I happened upon a tour group from a church in San Diego who was walking in my direction. While exchanging a few words with their pastor, I learned that he is the husband of Rosemary Schindler Garlow, the second cousin of Oskar Schindler, of “Schindler’s List” fame. Rosemary was on her 54th trip to Israel! Upon talking with her, I learned that she is the one in the family who carries the legacy of her cousin’s story, a story that reminds us that the stars shine most brightly in the darkest of nights. More sweet lemons.
Sweet lemons everywhere. Israel thrives in the midst of the world’s most difficult political conflicts. From agricultural and technological advances to its extreme scenic beauty, there is no place like it anywhere. And where else does the Bible come alive more than in its original geographic setting?
For centuries that geographical setting had been for the most part neglected. Then in the early 19th century, Christians, particularly from Germany and England, began to realize that God still had a plan for the Jewish people in their homeland. Shoresh Study Tours is part of the legacy of these early “Restorationists,” as they were called. Our last five days were spent at the Christ Church Guesthouse in the Old City of Jerusalem near Jaffa Gate. It is part of a beautiful oasis-like compound that includes Christ Church, the first Protestant church in the Middle East, founded in 1849. Few realize that it was these Bible-believing Christians who laid the foundation for the modern State of Israel even before Jewish people did. I guess they believed in sweet lemons.
When the Bible is alive to us, we discover that it is a story of sweet lemons – conflicting contrasts of hope in the midst of despair, strength through weakness, life emerging from death. David’s teaching brightly illumined Scriptural truth as he so vividly outlined the political climate into which Yeshua came, especially in his relationship to the power of Rome through Herod the Great, and the role of the Pharisees and Sadducees in the Gospels. He carefully and accurately explained the historical background in key archeological locations as we avoided the overly religious sites that tend to obscure biblical truth. Examples included an ancient home near Bethlehem that is similar to the kind of accommodation Yeshua had at his birth and the remains of a rich man’s tomb in Jerusalem.
And speaking of tombs, there is, of course, no sweeter lemon than what God has done through Yeshua’s resurrection. While controversy abounds regarding the actual site, it doesn’t really matter, since wherever it is, he is no longer there. Yet he is there throughout the Land of Israel, transforming the sour into sweet in all sorts of ways, sometimes obvious, other times you need to dig for it. He is there in the beauty of the land, in the thriving of the country, and in the believers. He is there because of God’s eternal faithfulness to the people of Israel. This really came home to me the second evening, when we stayed in the southern coastal town of Ashkelon, not far from Gaza. My friend Avner Boskey from Beersheba spoke to and sang to us. He closed with his rendition of Psalm 117:
O praise the Lord, all you nations
Praise him, all you peoples
For his lovingkindness is great toward us
His truth is everlasting. Hallelujah!
I have sung this so many times, but never actually caught what it is actually saying. Avner clearly explained that the psalmist is calling the nations to praise God because of his faithfulness to Israel. Our tour gave us reason to do just that over and over again.