A Modern Pilgrimage

In theory, the medieval pilgrimage routes of Europe shouldn’t have held any special allure for me. “It’s such a Christian thing,” several people commented when I told them about our travel plans. I am a 53-year-old Jew, but I am also a lover of the outdoors, of physical challenge, and of meditation. John and I wanted a taste, so we chose a relatively short section, 210km, 10 days, on the Camino de Santiago, a thousand mile and thousand year old migratory path that culminates in Santiago de Compostela, Spain with an emotional mass held in its ornate cathedral.

After attending the high mass (yes, the mass…) with Catholic rites and flair galore, my husband and I found ourselves roaming city streets in search of Jerusalem street, the center of the Jewish quarter that existed before the Inquisition. Where did our people fit in? We were migratory, we were spiritual, where were the monuments to Jews along this meditative way? All we found on the crooked alleyway was a bookstore with Judaica in its window (closed for midafternoon siesta). Still it was something, albeit small, but in a prominent location only a stone’s throw from the Cathedral.

The next morning, we flew to Marrakech, arriving at our riad in the Medina as the call to prayer was sounding. Traveling from the height of Christendom to a Muslim land was jarring. Still yearning for something of the Jewish diaspora, we visited the Synagogue of Marrakech, dating from 1492 – a year ingrained in any American schoolgirl’s head as the year when Columbus sailed the ocean blue… but it was also fourteen years after Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand began extinguishing Jews during the Spanish Inquisition.

Spanish and Portuguese Jews fled to North Africa, the synagogue opening in Marrakech marked that Sephardic migration. I flashed back to my 7th grade French teacher, a Jew from Morocco – meeting her as a privileged, white, suburban kid in the 1970’s made an impact that has lasted to this day. Back then there was nothing more exotic to me than a French-speaking female Jew from Africa of all places. Who knew?

Over forty years later I was traveling to her homeland to hike into the High Atlas mountains. Our local guide pointed out the remains of various synagogues tucked away in small villages. Many of North Africa’s Jews were Berbers, living in these remote places. Morocco has always prided itself on being a pluralistic country, but when it achieved its independence from France in 1956, many of its Jews fled to Israel and elsewhere fearing inhospitable rule.

It wasn’t until I was sitting on the plane, writing down thoughts on the way back to North America, that I mused on our walk along the Camino followed by a journey to Morocco mirroring the migratory pattern of Jews over hundreds of years…. Walking, not toward a religious ceremony, but because they were chased out, first from Spain and Portugal and later from various North African countries.

Similar to Christianity, Islam places pilgrimage as one of its central pillars. Every year, 2-3 million Muslims make a Hajj (a word interestingly sharing the same root as the Hebrew word “chagag” meaning to make a pilgrimage) to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. This happens during a five-day period, starting on 8 and ending on 12 Dhu al-Hijjah, the twelfth and last month of the Islamic calendar. It is required that Muslims make this journey once in a lifetime. Their pilgrimage is a demonstration of Muslim solidarity as well as an opportunity to shed material trappings, to focus on self over outward appearance. Shedding material trappings, and self-introspection was also what John and I had endeavored on the Camino.

While we walked, John and I wondered what the Jewish version of a pilgrimage would be. Before the destruction of the Temple, the Hebrew Bible commanded Jews to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times per year: in the spring during Passover, in the summer during Shavuot, and in the fall during Sukkot. There is not a specific trail prescribed, just a returning. Next year in Jerusalem!

We googled and researched in the evening after walking. We discovered the ancient road of Abraham, called the Abraham Path, thinking it might represent the Jewish equivalent of the Camino – but such a journey seemed unrealistic in today’s political climate. It stretches from Urfa in Turkey to Hebron in the West Bank, spreading over thousands of kilometers through Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine.

Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the Jews sanctifying time over place. We worship in our homes, not in ornate churches. Shabbat is our cathedral – it exists anywhere – and is marked by time and the lighting of candles, not architecture. It is the Jew’s responsibility to treat time as sacred as opposed to places. Maybe he would have told us that our most important pilgrimage isn’t through tangible geography with a large building our stadium as the end-point, but through time. Below I have copied one of my favorite poems from the Jewish liturgy which is of the same spirit:

Birth is a beginning
And death a destination.
And life is a journey:
From childhood to maturity
And youth to age;
From innocence to awareness
And ignorance to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion
And then, perhaps to wisdom;
From weakness to strength
Or strength to weakness –
And often back again;
From health to sickness
And back, we pray, to health again;
From offense to forgiveness,
From loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude
From pain to compassion,
And grief to understanding –
From fear to faith;
From defeat to defeat to defeat –
Until, looking backward or ahead,
We see that victory lies
Not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey.
Birth is a beginning
And death a destination;
And life is a journey, a sacred pilgrimage to life everlasting.

I found a poem called “Pilgrim’s Prayer” on a postcard in one of the churches along the Camino. It asks the question: what good is a pilgrimage if you don’t bring its teachings home? It reminded me of the Jewish text in Isaiah that we read each year during Yom Kippur, “Is this the fast I desire?” asking (and I paraphrase): What is the point of a fast if you are only going to take your discomfort out on other people? A proper fast should unlock the fetters of wickedness, untie the cords of the yoke, and let the oppressed go free. During a proper fast, one should share one’s bread with the hungry, and take the wretched poor into one’s home; upon seeing the naked, clothe them, and not ignore one’s own kin.

Pilgrim’s Prayer
By Fraydino
Although I may have travelled all the roads
Crossed mountains and valleys from East to West,
If I have not discovered the freedom to be myself,
I have arrived nowhere.
Although I may have shared all my possessions
With people of other languages and cultures;
Made friends with pilgrims of a thousand paths,
Or shared albergue with saints and princes,
If I am not capable of forgiving my neighbor tomorrow,
I have arrived nowhere.
Although I may have carried my pack from beginning to end
And waited for every Pilgrim in need of encouragement,
Or given my bed to one who arrived later than I,
Given my bottle of water in exchange for nothing;
If upon returning to my home and work,
I am not able to create brotherhood
Or to make happiness, peace and unity,
I have arrived nowhere.
Although I may have had food and water each day,
And enjoyed a roof and shower every night;
Or may have had my injuries well attended,
If I have not discovered in all that, the love of God,
I have arrived nowhere.
Although I may have seen all the monuments
And contemplated the best sunsets;
Although I may have learned a greeting in every language
Or tasted the clean water from every fountain;
If I have not discovered who is the author
Of so much free beauty and so much peace,
I have arrived nowhere.
If from today I do not continue walking on your path,
Searching and living according to what I have learned;
If from today I do not see in every person, friend or foe
A companion on the Camino;
If from today I cannot recognize God,
As the one God of my life,
I have arrived nowhere.

I have learned that whether through foreign lands or through my time on earth, I am always on a pilgrimage. I might not be lacing up the hiking boots every morning, but all I can do is put one foot in front of the other, be my strongest, and help fellow souls along the way.

 

 

 

2019-01-03T13:23:17+00:00January 2nd, 2019|

One Comment

  1. palmer January 2, 2019 at 9:35 pm - Reply

    I keep thinking i should do some of the trail… nice story… i love spain

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