Friday, July 12, 2013

Safed (Tzfat)

Safed (Tzfat)
(c) Rabbi Ari Kahn 2007

High up in the mountains of the Galilee lies a majestic city: A city of
dreams. A city of visions. A city halfway to heaven. A city which has
been devastated by earthquakes and elevated by scholars. Its holy
citizens of the 16th century are among the most significant legalists
and kabbalists who ever lived.

The city is called Tzfat, and the following story both encapsulates and
characterizes the unique personality and of that place and time.

The song all modern Jews most associate with the coming of Shabbat,
Lecha Dodi, was written in Tzfat and it is from here that the words
ring out and reverberate all over the world every Friday night. All who
greet the lovely Shabbat bride are enchanted by this spiritual love

Today in many synagogues around the world as the words "bo'i kalla"
(welcome bride - Shabbat) are said, the congregation turns around to
face the back or the door of the synagogue, as if to physically welcome
the holy Sabbath Queen.

In Tzfat the ritual was somewhat more elaborate: The author of Lecha
Dodi, Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz, together with a band of mystics led
by the incomparable Rav Yitzchak Luria known as the Ari (Lion) didn't
merely turn around. They danced their way out of the synagogue and
climbed one of the imposing mountains on the outskirts of Tzfat, and
from that lofty vantage - point watched the sun go into hiding, the
incontrovertible sign that the holy Shabbat had arrived.

On one particularly glorious Friday eve the energy was palpable, the air
crackled with excitement: Shabbat was coming and soon redemption from
the week and all its travails would arrive. Shabbat, the age-old island
of spiritual tranquility, would soon begin. All the mystics looked
forward to welcoming and partaking in this spiritual delight. Just as
when you put a seashell to your ear you can still hear the sea, when we
keep the Shabbat we can still hear the echoes of the six days of
creation and the glorious Kiddush that God made on that first Friday

They danced out to the hills but their feet barely touched the ground.
They looked at their master, the Holy Ari, and he truly looked like a
lion, a spiritual glow surrounding him like a mane of gold, radiating
more than the setting sun.

As they sang and danced, as each psalm of the Kabbalat Shabbat was
recited, they continued their ascent. They could feel the holiness of
the celestial world. Then the Holy Ari, eyes blazing turned to his
followers and said: "Come, let us go to Jerusalem and celebrate Shabbat
in Jerusalem". The students, who only moments before had tuned into
their Master's holiness, hesitated. They allowed pragmatism to intrude,
and stain the world of spirit. They responded: "Let us first go and
tell our wives we will be late for dinner, and perhaps be away for all
of Shabbat". Logic told them that Jerusalem was far away and Shabbat was
about to begin. Confused, the students retreated to calculations of
distance and thoughts of cold chicken soup.

The Ari was crushed, for he knew the moment was lost. The special
holiness had vanished. The Jerusalem which is fully built in heaven, and
had momentarily been within reach, had now retreated so far away.
Frightened and disappointed, he cried out "Woe to us! Had you all seized
the opportunity and responded together 'let us proceed to Jerusalem',
had you really believed, had you really felt the joy and happiness of
the moment, the Redemption would have come. The entire world would have
been redeemed, the Messiah would have arrived and the Temple, fully
built in all its glory, would have descended from the sky." But the
window of opportunity had been shut; the watershed moment led to a
desolate vista, dissipating into the clouds that hover over the city of
Tzfat. The Messiah must wait. More painful chapters will unfold in a
world still seeking redemption.

Then, as now, Tzfat is a place of vision, of epiphany. Those with keen
eyes can still see those mystics on the mountaintops, those with keen
ears can still hear the tunes - and those with pure souls can still
sense the impending Redemption. May we all live to see it and join that
epic dance from Tzfat to Jerusalem and greet the Messiah!

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