I am so happy to be living in Israel, but to be perfectly honest, it isn’t something I think about 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I don’t wake up on a high every morning and jump out of bed enthusiastically running to do all that I do with high level of awareness and consciousness that I am dwelling in this Holy Land. Of course, there are special moments when I soak up the truly special atmosphere that surrounds me when I take the time to focus. Nefesh B’Nefesh welcome ceremonies give a highly concentrated dose of “Israel is our home as well as the best place on earth to live,” which lasts for a good long while. “Only in Israel” stories and experiences also give that warm and pleasant feeling. On a recent tiyul with my family, we met up with someone who showered us with his overflowing love for the land, and I’m still feeling the lingering effects.

With bein hazmanim in full swing, we decided to do a couple of family day trips last week. Despite the fact that everyone is on a different schedule, most of our kids managed to join at some point or another. Finding an activity that satisfies everyone’s palate is not always easy, but our unnegotiable requirement was that the venue not be crowded. Mission Accomplished! We went hiking at the Nahal Sorek estuary, where the Sorek River meets the Mediterranean Sea. Nahal Sorek is one of the largest streams in the center of the country. Hikers are treated to a walk by the river, a stroll through a Eucalyptus grove, and sightings of waterfowl and turtles. The beautiful trail culminates with soft sea sand dunes, which provide spectacular views overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The combination of the sand and the stream was magnificent and there was practically not another soul in sight. Perfect!

As we walked, we stopped by “Turtle Island” in the river channel. As we looked to see if we could spot any turtles, we heard a man calling out to us from the far distance. With each hand he held the hand of a young child wearing a sunhat and sandals. He politely asked that we please move ahead. He explained that he is in an absolute state of hysteria due to the coronavirus and insists on keeping a very large distance between himself and others at all times. He was actually quite far away and he said that this is the distance he keeps from others in shul as well. As he seemed to be a bit of a jokester, it was hard to tell if he was serious or kidding about the distance point, but we were happy to move ahead as per his request. But, of course, this was only after we exchanged pleasantries and he asked us where we were from. When we asked him in turn, he answered with a question. “Where is the best place?” he asked. Seeing our hesitation, he fed us the answer. “Yerushalayim,” he answered with conviction. We had to admit, Yerushalayim is the best place. He then charmed us with a tidbit of information. He said that all countries use odd numbers to name their north/south routes and even numbers to name their east/west routes. However, in Israel we did not go along with the rest of the world, because those who numbered the highways wanted the road leading to Yerushalayim to be number one. Intriguing. 

We continued on our way until we climbed up to the top of the sand dune and took in the picturesque scene in front of us. Then we took shelter from the sun in a shallow cave carved out of the mountain. As we sat and relaxed, the man caught up to us, obviously continuing to keep a far distance. It was at this point that we realized that this man must have been born with a map and walking stick in his hand. We didn’t know for certain if he was a tour guide, but if he wasn’t, he undoubtedly missed his calling. He gave us a fascinating lecture about the area, filled with all sorts of interesting facts, peppered with expressions of love for Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael. He yelled to us from afar so that we would be able to hear his words of wisdom. He explained that he loves to hike, but he strongly prefers to do so alone. His friends call him metzorah (leper) because he enjoys solitude - even when corona is not an issue. Now during vacation, he takes turns bringing his grandchildren with him. He told us about how Eretz Yisrael is a land filled with streams, “eretz nachalei mayim,” as it is actually described in last week’s parshah. Many streams run throughout the length and breadth of the country. People often drive on bridges over these streams, as in the case of the Yarkon River in northern Tel Aviv or the Alexander River near Netanya. In most cases, the streams flow into the Mediterranean Sea or the Dead Sea. There is even one street in Yerushalayim which supposedly marks the point where rain on one side of the street flows to the Mediterranean Sea on the west coast, while rain on the other side of the same street flows to the Dead Sea at the eastern border of Israel. I suppose it’s the Israeli version of the Continental Divide. Due to the severe droughts that have unfortunately plagued our country over the years, the water from these streams had to be diverted to the Kinneret and other reservoirs. As a result, the rivers had minimal flow and poor quality of water. He added that if we would all keep Torah and mitzvos, then we wouldn’t have to worry about water shortages. But Baruch Hashem, due to our progress in desalinization of water as well as the brachah of more abundant rainfall, the condition of these streams has greatly improved. Conservation has picked up. The streams are cleaner, the flow is stronger, and fish and other living things have returned. He noted that there are people who are not religious who wake up in the middle of the night to paint signs, pave paths, and tend to these animals. He believes that despite the fact that they are irreligious, they still have a love for Eretz Yisrael, and as they lack religious expression, this is their way of expressing their love of the land. 

I am so happy we chose this tiyul for our outing. Instead of just enjoying the superficial beauty of our surroundings, our “tour guide” gave us a fresh and passionate perspective which deepened our connection to our land and our people.

Suzie (nee Schapiro) Steinberg grew up in Kew Gardens Hills. She works as a social worker and lives with her husband and children in Ramat Beit Shemesh.