Ode to Safed

Where it is not unusual to make a quick cemetery visit instead of going out for coffee.

safed 88 (photo credit:)
safed 88
(photo credit: )
Safed is a small, intimate place that was the center of Kabbala hundreds of years ago. My first impression was of sweet gentle candlelight shining in a great darkness. If you look at Safed on the superficial level, you may find it quite unkempt. There is litter everywhere. It often takes much prayer to pierce the layers of Safed and behold its inner essence. When I walk through the town, it's as if I had entered a time machine, transplanted from modern Florida to the medieval city of mystics. While surrounded by panoramic views of voluptuous mountains, sensuous valleys and gorgeous sunsets that leave one breathless, Safed itself, in its unpretentious way, beckons one to explore the beauty within. And I suppose that is why I chose to come here - to receive the holiness that Safed holds, and be transformed by it. In the first few days, I began to experience Safed's magic healing powers on a subconscious level. Here, my dreams are so vivid, I sometimes wake up to write them down. On the physical level, life in Safed is strenuous. Even if I had a car, I would still have to walk, for most of the streets are just too narrow. And because the city is built on a mountain, it's like a giant Stairmaster. LITTLE HAPPENS externally in Safed. There are few distractions: no movies, no theaters, no cafes, no music that I know of. There are, however, numerous synagogues: very old ones that have been refurbished and new ones that have been made to look old. The main attraction is the graves of the enlightened masters of Judaism. Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, known as the Arizal, and his famous visionary students, are among those buried in a large cemetery close to where I live. Within a few days of arriving, I joined an ulpan filled primarily with middle-aged Russians and American ba'alei teshuva (newly observant Jews). Most of the Americans had been doctors, lawyers, journalists and engineers, but left it all to immigrate to Israel. Some of the men have an unusual spiritual glow. It was through some people in the ulpan that I was introduced to the practice of visiting graves. The other day, I went to the grave of Rabbi Nahum Ish Gam Zu, right in the middle of a residential area. Several people from my ulpan pray there each day. My friend and former student Sarah Miriam, who moved to Safed a year ago, stops there daily for a spiritual injection. The practice of visiting graves initially freaked me out, but over time I have acquired a taste for the experience. There is an aura of holiness around every one of these graves, yet I have found that the energy around each is different in subtle ways. The external scene, however, is the same: women of all ages and backgrounds praying and reciting Psalms, each focused inward, gazing upward, pouring out their hearts to the Holy One, often weeping, their hands over their eyes. ONE NIGHT when I was feeling a little lonely, I went to visit the Arizal. There were many other people in the cemetery at sunset, visiting the "Everlasting Ones," as the holy righteous people of Israel are affectionately called. It is a well-known saying that if you want to see a party in Safed, don't go to the main street but to the cemetery, where families gather to picnic on the yahrzeits (anniversaries of the deaths) of their loved ones. In Safed it is not unusual to make a quick cemetery visit, alone or with friends, instead of going out for coffee. This evening, for example, a friend and I wanted to spend time together and were not sure what to do. After considering the various options for trips out of Safed, we decided to visit the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at Meron, followed by dinner in a restaurant. I had wanted to go to Meron for some time, so it seemed like the perfect outing. By this time, I had already been to a number of graves. Like a connoisseur of good wine, I wanted to experience the grave of Shimon Bar Yochai directly. I HAD been in Meron earlier, on Lag Ba'omer, but was unable to get close to the grave. Nonetheless, being with the thousands of women that evening from different hassidic dynasties was one of the most spiritually satisfying experiences I have ever had. I had never been in such close proximity to so many kinds of religious women, each group sporting different head coverings and dress. Though we were packed together like sardines, I felt strangely comfortable. I actually felt loved, and at one with everyone. All the women seemed to be praying with such deep focus that I was inspired to pray deeply as well. There was a total absence of talk, none of the frivolity that one might expect in a large group of women. I felt that my prayers were heard in a way they had not been before. And most importantly, I had a direct insight into who Shimon Bar Yochai was. Having the opportunity now to get close to the grave was a real treat. To me, the Rashbi, as he is nicknamed, feels like a pillar of the Jewish people and the world. With the lack of real leadership in the State of Israel, I can appreciate how the graves of these holy people offer spiritual inspiration and the guidance needed to survive. I felt spiritually nourished just being there. I sensed that the Rashbi and other righteous people not only offer comfort to this world, but serve as a bridge to the world to come. Being at his grave, I got a taste of the vastness of life beyond the physical. Not only did I have a wonderful time talking with my new friend, I left with received insights that will strengthen me forever. Not bad for an evening's activity. I CAN'T imagine another place in the world where this practice of visiting graves takes place with such frequency. My friend from Jerusalem, who visits me in Safed, tells me she must say hello to the Arizal, as if he were an old friend, before she leaves. Many tourists feel their visit would be incomplete without a visit to the cemetery. Another friend tells me he lives in Safed primarily because he feels the energy and the blessing of simply being where these righteous individuals lived. Sometimes, on my low days, I feel I am living in a ghost town where the dead have a more vibrant presence than the living. Even the most prominent religious groups, the Breslovers and the Lubavichers, have rebbes who are no longer in their physical bodies. On my good days, however, I feel elevated to live in such a holy place. I can walk through its streets and feel blessed with a taste of life beyond this physical world. Though I am quite busy with daily activities and have become friends with several wonderful people, I also feel immensely grateful that the "Everlasting Ones" are here to shine their love upon me. The writer is director of Kabbala of the Heart (www.kabbalahoftheheart.com) and www.Beitmiriam.org. She is the author of Everyday Kabbalah, New Age Judaism and Kabbalah Month by Month. A teacher of Jewish meditation for over 25 years, she is also a spiritual psychotherapist. Beitmiriam@msn.com