MY VISIT TO ISRAEL

Last summer, a pilgrim offered us an unexpected chance to visit the Jewish Holy Land, that tiny nation that was created using a territorial agreement filled with contradictory extremes and historical accidents. It was a miraculous trip.

Contradictions and compromises have always been the way of the world, between ancient and new lands, Christ and man, religion and life, refugees and natives, old and modern histories; between invaders and the invaded, enemies forced to live together in occasional peace and smoldering wars, between the deserts of Africa and the cool of the Mediterranean; and between the world’s three main religions Christianity – Islam – and Jewish Orthodoxy, which have rubbed up against each other since their earliest days. There have been any number of these unavoidable contradictions and compromises on this small piece of land in the Middle East, long regarded as the site of numerous historical volcanoes.

Contradictions, above all, about the reality of life on a narrow strip of land resonant with the power of a complex and diverse people who only obtained their national identity over the last forty years. The courage, the will to survive, and the extraordinary determination of the Jewish people, who were set on realizing the vows of the destiny of their community made around 70 A.D. – on returning to their former territory, repudiating history, and transforming the destiny of their homeland.

Israel – the homeland of Christ, and a high place of international archeology, from Nazareth and Lake Tiberias to Bethlehem, the Dead Sea and Jerusalem.

We traveled by bus from the North to South Israel, an area of juxtapositions and unexpected meetings, of green gardens, huge fields and deserts, dusty and arid land, rocky mountains and the blue sea, the ancient and modern structures of mankind. Here, more than anywhere else, the soil has been turned in a hunt for evidence of early civilization; but the land is also studded with the future industries of the 21st century. It’s the coexistence of worldly ephemerals and celestial permanence.

In the Northern city of Nazareth, we visited Mary’s Fountain, sanctuaries and shrines, and the Great Church built on antique vestiges.

In the colossal Cathedral, the everyday details – the cave, the rock, even the earth – reminded us of Jesus’ humble, poor, and pure life.

We stopped at Cana for a visit to an ordinary person’s house where Jesus and his Mother had attended a party and turned water into red wine for everyone to drink. We looked at the narrow Jordan tributary where flat, fantastic rocks emerged from the blue water, and thought of Jesus’ baptism, and hence of those who traveled with him on the blue waters of Lake Tiberias. The water crashing against the sides of the boat and blossoming into white spume must have been very enjoyable to everyone. Despite the efforts of nature and man, Tiberias has remained much as it was twenty centuries ago when Jesus visited, as the Old and New Testaments say.

It was on this lake that Jesus selected his disciples, and preached from a small boat to the crowd around him, and here that he walked on the water one night and used his power to silence a terrible storm, restoring calm to the lake and surrounding areas.

A little pool there now holds an antique (1st Century A.D.) wooden boat, submerged in the blue water, some 8 meters long and 2.5 meters wide. It was found during an archeological dig on the banks of Lake Galilee in January 1986, and restored by the Israeli Ministry of Education.

Nearby was Mount Tabor, home to a huge cathedral where Jesus transformed himself. We took a taxi up the dangerous road that winds around like the route to the citadel in Monaco in the South of France. Looking down at the gigantic expanse, green cultivated areas stuck out in the midst of a limitless strip of dark yellow deserts that stretched away to the horizon. Moving down to the city of Bethlehem, we went straight to the cathedral area. Under a dim light inside a narrow cave was a magnificent statue, beautifully illuminated! Two thousand years after his passing, we forgot about ourselves as though we were at one with the deities of a distant past, in a wilderness perfumed with scented flowers, where mankind sang songs of peace.

It was here that Jesus was born, surrounded by the manger, the sheep, and angels! There He lay in a rough-hewn cot, before his Mother’s loving gaze. It was like a magnificent fairy world, half-way between the real and the unreal. From somewhere up there, the breath of angels drifted down to our ears.

We left Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, and headed for the Dead Sea. Some 76 kilometers in length and 16 kilometers in width, its surface 400 meters below sea level and its deepest point almost 400 meters, this is a sea where the salt is six times saltier than normal, and plants and animals are unable to survive. The buoyancy is such that a person swimming in the sea would float forever and never drown, although blindness may result if the seawater comes into contact with the eyes. Hence the name ‘Dead Sea’, although the area is anything but dead: the geography and environment have turned it into a crowded center for the effective cure of arthritis, allergies, and skin diseases. The oxygen density is considerable, and minerals are 10 to 15 times more condensed. The temperature hovers around 40 degrees all year round, and as it hardly ever rains, the salt condenses into long coasts. ..

The French writer Chateaubriand described it as follows in his ‘Voyage from Paris to Jerusalem’:

The valley between two mountain chains (belonging to both Israel and Jordan) is actually the site of an ancient sea that has now dried up; now the long waves of salt move under the weight of one’s steps. Here and there on the shore, a few plants struggle to survive in the deadly soil, their leaves covered with the salt that nourishes their trunks, their bark bitter and tasting of smoke… A Dead Sea indeed. No living creatures haunt its abysses, no boats, no birds, no plants, no green leaves. The water is dreadfully salty and so heavy its surface can never be turned into little waves by storms…” The sea seemed to be quiet and immobile.

Lamartine, the French Romantic, described the same sea in a radically different way:

How beautiful the sea is! Thousands of rays glitter on its surface, transforming it into an immense blue desert, entrancing the visitor’s gaze and impressing his thoughts. But dead it is, alas, without motion, without sound, its heavy surface never wrinkling even in the strongest winds, and with no white bubbles on the sandy shore. It’s truly a fossilized sea.”

Strange to see how the same environment and the same scene generated such opposing inspirations for two outstanding authors from almost the same time…

Jerusalem fascinated us the following morning, with its tall walls made Hebrews from huge gray rocks over generations, from the 12th century B.C. to the year 1,000 B.C. when King David chose it to be his capital. The gigantic citadel that resulted, unique in the history of mankind, was totally destroyed in the 1st century A.D. by the Romans. It also was here that Jesus Christ was sentenced and nailed to the cross.

We walked along the way of the Cross, a place drenched in blood and tears, in the company of other visitors from France, Japan, and Taiwan on pilgrimages to Jerusalem. This ancient route, so well signposted, zigzags through old streets lined with busy, narrow, and dark shops and stores run by Arabs, like those of the Cau Ong Lanh and Ban Co markets in old Saigon. The difference here was the tall rock walls, which meant that the sun barely filtered through, making pale pools of light on the ground.

Jesus’ invisible heart is still spread long and wide along the painful Via Dolorosa, where He walked uncomplaining, burdened by the heavy Cross yet without a sigh or a word of reproach against God the Father. His calm and perseverance were the noblest symbol of God the Savior’s immense love for mankind. And that was the glorious victory he offered to everlasting Heaven.

We tried to find our way down the steps deep underground to view the dark hell where Jesus had been confined. The evidence is still there: the figure of the Man imprisoned for mankind’s sake seems to linger on, eternally.

The Golgotha cross marked the scene of where he was nailed to the cross, the blood dripping from his wounds.

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”(Luke 23:34). Such was Jesus’ compassionate entreaty for his own foes, his ruthless murderers.

Filled with these metaphysical emotions, we continued our visit to the sacred atmosphere of the tomb, which is a miraculous combination of Heaven and Earth, where He rose again after he had bled to death. His soul joyfully ascended to Heaven, to be revered as the God of Mankind. And all evil was destroyed.

A thick, heavy slab of marble covers the huge coffin in which Jesus lay, from which he ventured into the eternal darkness of Death and Hell, before rising to sit in judgment forever on the sins of mankind. We passed through the “Golden Gate” to visit Jerusalem for a day, and paused for a while before the Weeping Wall that no visitor or pilgrim can afford to miss. This was one of the Jews’ finest achievements, built by Herod in the 1st century B.C. to widen the temple of worship. The sky-high wall is built out of huge rocks piled on foundations sunk some ten meters underground. Every Friday before the Sabbath, Jews mass at the base of the wall for prayers, dressed in traditional black overcoats and hats made of animal hair, their long beards and locks of hair hanging from their temples. They hurriedly kiss and touch the wall, and perform a bizarre gesture while lost in prayer. This strange, restless motion, an Israeli explained, is a special technique to concentrate the mind, and involves bows to the four points of the compass, North, South, East, and West.

Visitors to Jerusalem can witness the Israeli’s sacred Sabbath at the start of the weekend. On Saturday, the main holiday, all activities are suspended, and there are no buses, trains, planes, or ships at the Haifa port. A basic tenet of Judaism is the rest Jesus took on Saturday after creating the universe; so all good Jews follow that example. Orthodox Jews abstain from smoking, starting a fire, cooking, driving, and touching money. To go swimming or eat in a restaurant on the Sabbath, Israelis must therefore buy tickets the day before. The Sabbath ends in the evening, when the first three stars appear in the sky and normal activities resume. People no longer fear being stoned in the street if they take their car, the way they do on Friday evening and all day Saturday.

From Nazareth, we crossed Lake Tiberias from the North to Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and then to the Dead Sea in the South. In the scattered sky-high mountains, we glimpsed caves from which, once in a while, hermits would emerge, sustained by their ancient natural religion, similar to Taoist fakirs in their search of nature’s marvelous food or medical herbs mentioned in Chinese books. Groups of nomads huddled in groups in the barren, treeless landscape beside flocks of donkeys, sheep, and moldy-skinned camels, or took refuge in faded tents to shelter from the harsh weather in this immense desert. Deep in a rocky cave, a one-kilometer-long stream babbled along its narrow, dark bed, and we ventured in search of moisture and cooler air for our heads and feet. Half-way down the tunnel, we began to regret our decision.

In Israel, every scene or event has its own history and its own silent voice, be it a rock, baked bricks, an antique vase unearthed by the International Archeological Institute, or the story of a cathedral, a house of prayer, a stream, or a subterranean settlement; one of these had just been discovered deep underground, built into the rock and including living areas, steam bathing pools, and even an ancient court where kings would try their people. Conspicuous evidence of Jesus’ childhood, growth, religious teachings, trial, burial, resurrection, and ascension abounds.

Few nations have a more painful modern history than Israel; over six million Jews died under the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler during World War II. A dreadful memory indeed, and in an attempt to restore justice to the victims, Israeli secret agents made great efforts to search for German war criminals all over the world, even when they were in disguise. Mass-murderer Adolf Eichmann, for example, was kidnapped by the Israelis and brought to trial, even though he had been in hiding in South America for many years. A number of French traitors were brought to trial in June 1993 for the same reason.  Some of them, however, had already been assassinated by victims of the former pro-German government in Vichy, France.

The Memorial for Israeli victims in Jerusalem is a splendid monument, built to impressive modern standards. The dimness inside draws visitors’ attention to thousands of tiny twinkling lights, which are actually reflecting the sun thanks to countless ingeniously arranged mirrors. On the floor, long tombs are placed beside a wall filled with the biographies of victims. The Memorial and the Holocaust Temple were so solemn and moving, especially to Vietnamese visitors in exile like us. We wished that some day in the future, the Vietnamese might build a similar monument to commemorate the victims of the barbarous Vietnamese communists. A monument like that, erected on the soil of a free Vietnam, would serve not only to remind the world of the bloody years of dictatorship, but would also serve as the most perfect and necessary symbol of anti-communist Vietnamese culture.