Thursday, May 24, 2018

A coral reef seen from the underwater observatory. (Credit: Oren Oppenheim)

The underwater observatory in Eilat, Israel (seen from above sea level). (Credit: Oren Oppenheim)

I definitely expected, during my gap year in Israel, to study Jewish texts and to deepen my connection to Judaism while learning in yeshiva. I didn’t expect to hear a short Tanach class while underwater, of all places.

During Sukkot break, I traveled south to the resort city of Eilat with my sister and a few friends. On the second day of our vacation, we visited “Park HaMitzpeh HaTat Yami,” the underwater observatory and aquarium that’s one of Eilat’s most well-known attractions. The centerpiece of the park is a tower that looks like a whitewashed lighthouse; when we entered, we descended a long spiral staircase that took us underneath the sea and into the middle of a colorful, if not very lush, coral reef, visible through windows plastered all around the round room.

By one of the windows, a guide was getting ready to talk about the coral reef and the marine life that lives within it. When she saw—and heard—our group, she asked whether she should talk in English or Hebrew (the exhibits in the aquarium were almost all bilingual). Our group was a mix between students in American yeshiva gap year programs and Israeli midrashot (seminaries), so she ended up talking in English to us and some of the other tourists.

I don’t remember for sure whether she was talking about a fish in the reef or in one of the observatory’s other displays, but she soon started talking about a type of puffer fish. “I call this fish… Well, do you know the story of Shimshon (Samson)?” she asked, referring to the hero from the book of Shoftim/Judges who fights the Philistines using God-given super strength. In the story’s denouement, Shimshon’s strength has been taken from him, and after being captured by the Philistines he is bound to a pillar in one of their Temples. Praying to God to remember him, he manages to topple the pillar, collapsing the Temple and killing himself and all of the Philistines inside (Shoftim/Judges 16:20-31).

We all nodded, remembering the story. “Well,” she continued, “I call this fish the ‘tamut nafshi im haPlishtim’ (‘I will die with the Philistines’) fish because this fish sacrifices itself by killing the fish that try to eat it.” I think the guide mentioned that it’s through a toxin the puffer fish can release, which poisons its predators, just as Shimshon used his strength to topple the pillars but also ended his own life in the process. The guide was using this powerful line and anecdote from Tanach to explain this unusual fish to us.

It might be dumb to say that this was an “only in Israel” moment (who says an aquarium guide in the United States couldn’t make this connection?), but certainly a unique element of my time in Israel was when people and places connected me to the Jewish canon and heritage in ways I never expected. For the first time, I saw Torah as not just connected to the books that we study or the actions, the mitzvot, that we do. I saw that Torah could envelop our lives and that when we live our lives through its framework, we can find parallels and meanings that connect what our texts say to what we see and do in the modern world.

This anecdote wasn’t the only time in Israel when a Biblical reference came up during a time I didn’t expect it. I spent a decent amount of time during my gap year traveling throughout Jerusalem on Egged city buses. Sometimes these trips were speedy and comfortable; other times (including my journey from the Old City to the Central Station with my stuffed duffle suitcases, after yeshiva had ended) were slow and painfully crowded. Nevertheless, usually there was a pre-recorded announcer who would call out the stations loudly and clearly: “Tachana haba’a (next stop): David Remez/Hachan!” or something like that.

Sporadically, in between stops the announcer would call out “Mipnei seiva takum”—You shall rise before the elderly.” In other words, the bus was reminding its passengers to give up their seats if elderly passengers boarded and there were no seats left. Obviously, in an era of ubiquitous mass transit, this sort of reminder is important in any city, whether Jerusalem, New York, Hong Kong or beyond. But the phrasing stuck with me—because it’s a direct quote of a verse in Vayikra/Leviticus (19:32): “Mipnei seiva takum, ve’hadarta pnei zaken, veyareita mei’elokeicha; ani Hashem,” which translates to “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord” (JPS 1985 translation).

So, at the same time I was reminded to be a good passenger, I also was plunged back into the text of the Torah, and was reminded of how relevant its ancient traditions are for us today. The Torah’s words, and the lifestyle it teaches, isn’t just about rituals and laws, but it’s meant to envelop us completely, even during times like afternoon city commutes. The idea of standing up to honor and help those who deserve it was relevant back when the Torah was given, and is relevant now. I remembered and connected to all of this in a three-second, pre-recorded announcement. I guess I did gain something from those slow afternoon bus rides.

By Oren Oppenheim

 Oren Oppenheim is an aspiring journalist and author. His writing has appeared in The Jewish Link of New Jersey (including his popular “A Teen’s Perspective” column, which ran for over two years) and Tablet Magazine. He is an alumnus of the Ramaz Upper School and Yeshivat Orayta, and will be attending the University of Chicago this fall. This summer he is currently working as a vocational coach for the Camp Moshava Ba’ir Yachad vocational program.