Last Friday morning, I visited an exhibit called “Jewish Magic through the Ages” at Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum. It was a totally fascinating exhibit, featuring dozens of rare Kabbalistic amulets and parchments from all across the Jewish world.
I absolutely hated, of course, that the museum refers to these objects as “magic” because the word “magic” makes me think of ridiculous trickery like white rabbits popping out of top hats and children being cut and half and magically made whole a minute later. This exhibit, in contrast, featured many objects created over the past 2500 years by Divinely-inspired mystics and rabbis and rebbes well-versed in the secrets of the Kabbalah.
The truth is that even though it was totally intriguing, this exhibit was an incredibly deflating and sad one to visit. These objects contain unfathomably holy names of angels and names of Hashem and were treasured so intensely by believing Jewish men and women for so many generations. And now they are stuck behind glass at the secular Bible Lands Museum, like pinned, formaldehyde-d butterflies at a high-school science fair.
But what was even more depressing than seeing these holy objects behind glass was the fact that Tsofia (my baby) and I showed up at the exhibit exactly at the same time that a special guided tour of the exhibit was beginning. The tone of the tour was very academic, and the participants were actually laughing out loud as they looked at these sacred objects, as though these wonders of Jewish mysticism were the most hilarious thing they had seen since Seinfeld went off the air.
On my way out of the museum, I realized that this depressing exhibit reminded me of something equally upsetting that I saw 20 years ago at a performance of the Moscow circus. The circus featured a scrawny, forelorn, declawed, detoothed bear, and as one of the acts in the circus, a clown threw plastic rings around its neck while the bear just stood there hunched over and long-suffering. 2 decades later it is still difficult for me to think of that poor, humiliated bear, transformed from a proud, roaring, invincible king of the forest into the punchline of a bad joke.
On my way home from the museum, I decided to stop by the grave of the Zviller Rebbe zt”l which is located right underneath the Israeli Supreme Court. Up until a few years ago, pretty much the only people who visited this grave were Zviller Chassidim, but over the past 3 years or so, this grave has been transformed into one of the more popular holy sites in Jerusalem. Busloads of visitors read specific psalms at the gravesite on a Monday, Thursday, and then Monday, and the wall of the gravesite is plastered with miracle stories from people who did these Monday-Thursday-Monday prayers and their prayers were answered. (See photos below)
Even though I’ve been hearing for years about this now-famous grave and the miracles surrounding it from friends who prayed there, I’d never actually been there until this past Friday. Once I found the grave, I lit a candle and read a few psalms and prayed for my very ill friend Hagit bat Leah whom I had visited that morning, and for a few other people in need. Next to me, an older Sephardic woman wept as she leaned over the grave. When she left, I touched the grave stone, and I felt a charge, like electricity.
I cannot tell you how happy, how relieved I felt to be in that holy place. A place where the spiritual world feels as close and as real and as clear as looking down and seeing your five figures.
And I remembered, as I stood there, that I spent half my life laughing at that bear. Not because I was bad or mean, just because I didn’t know any better. Thank God, I thought, that I lived to see that bear roaring with all of its might and glory–with my own eyes.