Reflections on the Holy Land

Finding solace in the face of adversity — a journey through Israel's heart and history.

“Ah! Israel, at last…” That was the sentiment I felt when my flight landed in Tel Aviv in 2019, my first visit to that country. I had flown into Israel with a great sense of intrigue and regard for the nation; I flew out of it a week later with a deep sense of love and affection.

Here was a culture so steeped in antiquity that it intentionally took a dead language, Hebrew, revived it, and made it its national language. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda is credited as the father of Modern Hebrew. Having moved to Jerusalem in 1881, he harbored a conviction that Jews needed their own language to flourish. So why not be the change you want to see in the world? He and his wife decided to only speak Hebrew. At that point, the language didn’t even have words for many modern items and ideas. The couple raised their son Itamar Ben-Avi to be the first native Hebrew speaker in the world in nearly 2,000 years. Today, almost all Israeli adults speak Hebrew, and 55 percent of the population has it as their native language. Mirit Bessire, Hebrew language program director at Johns Hopkins University, has observed, “King David and I could probably understand each other.”

Here was also an oasis of technology and innovation. Israel has the highest per-capita density of tech startups after Silicon Valley and received 28 times more capital inflow per capita in 2021 than the US, earning it the name Startup Nation.

Israel was where three major faiths converged, a land where God was being sought and sensed everywhere. There is a common reference point to the Torah, Bible, and Quran, with all three having recorded stories of God speaking with Abraham. Recently, in April, the religious observances of Lent, Ramadan, and Passover overlapped, something that happens once every 33 years. “Jerusalem right now is a symphony of people reaching out to God,” said Barnea Selavan, a rabbi and teacher. The country’s postal service even has a Letters to God Dept. It receives 1,000+ letters from Jews, Christians, and followers of other faiths each year. One letter from Poland was addressed, “God, Jerusalem, Israel.” A postcard from the United States said “Dear Jesiu. I love you. I think of you. I thank you.” One man mailed a letter to Israel after his wife passed away, asking God to send his wife back to him in his dreams so he could see her once again; he missed her very much. These letters are opened, folded and, in a ceremony overseen by a senior rabbi, squeezed into the cracks of the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City.

The people I had least interaction with during this blessed visit to Israel were the orthodox Jews — and yet, it is with one of these that I had my most memorable moment of the trip, which I relate in my book, Inner Mastery, Outer Impact:

A day later, my family and I were having dinner at a restaurant in Tel Aviv. Our conversation turned to the conflicts and crises being witnessed around the globe. I tried to shift the talk in a positive direction, telling myself that we had come to Israel for a spiritual purpose and shouldn’t wallow in misery. But the urge to keep scanning humanity for all its defects was just too strong, and we kept going with our lamentations. After the meal, we took a stroll on Rothschild Boulevard, joining the locals and tourists who were soaking in the relaxed energy of that beautiful street at the evening hour. Out of nowhere, an Orthodox Jew — in his flowing beard, big hat, and black attire — walked up to me, looked me in the eye, and exclaimed, “Be like the bee, not like the fly!” I was taken aback. Was he proselytizing, trying to convert me to his faith?
“What do you mean, sir?” I inquired.
“What does the fly do?” he quizzed me, then answered himself. “Even in the presence of beautiful flowers, it buzzes around looking for some dirt to feed on. But the bee, even when it is surrounded by dirt, it looks for the flower to make honey with. There will always be bad things and bad people in the world, but you be like the bee — keep your focus on the goodness all around.” His voice had an admonishing but loving tenor to it, like my father’s, as though he knew I needed to be shaken up a bit from my spiritual stupor.
I was stunned. I waited a few minutes to see if he would thrust some religious literature in my hand, but he did not. We smiled warmly at each other, I thanked him, and then he was gone. His only intent had been to make me switch perspectives. Later I discovered that my spiritual teacher, Yogananda, had used the same fly and bee metaphor to deliver the same advice. In that moment, this Orthodox Jew had become, for me, a messenger from my own teacher.

In times past, it was a Jewish rabbi who had helped me process my grief when India experienced a painful terrorist attack. Ten terrorists infiltrated Mumbai, India, on November 26, 2008, by sea, and went on a shooting spree across the city. Two of them targeted the Chabad Jewish community in Nariman House. The Taj Mahal and Oberoi Trident hotels were also targeted. So was a café, a railway station, a cinema, a hospital, and two taxis. It took an agonizing four days to fully dispel the terrorists, leaving nine of the ten dead and one arrested. Fifteen policemen, two members of the National Security Guard and 149 civilians lost their lives.

A few days later, a candlelight vigil was held at Columbia University in honor of those who had lost their lives. My heart was heavy that day, as it is today. Among the people who gathered there was a Rabbi from the Chabad Jewish community in New York. His brief public address that day was one of the most remarkable speeches I have heard. This is the part that really moved me. “Friends, let us reflect on what happened here, said the Rabbi. “We are told that a few people came together in a distant land and embarked on their evil mission in a boat, braving the ocean, leaving behind their families, to land on the shores of Mumbai. They walked onshore and split up, all coordinated as a team, without regard for their own comfort or safety, to pursue their evil mission. They committed acts of horrible violence, as was their intention, and gave up their own lives in the process. Now, how many of them were there? Ten, I am told. And how many of us are here, gathered today? Forty or so? Imagine if you and I and all of us, if we had the same courage and determination and commitment and openness to sacrificing the small joys of life and ability to team up and pursue our mission — which is to do good and to fight evil — in the same measure as they did in the pursuit of their mission. What a remarkable world we could then create together!”

I was moved beyond measure. He was plucking out heroic qualities from these very terrorists for us to emulate! His words are tattooed on my heart, so I can remind myself of the commitment and the openness to sacrifice I should be striving to practice in the pursuit of my mission.

I will end with a story about the hotel we stayed at in Jerusalem, American Colony.

Horatio Spafford, a Chicago businessman and lawyer, and his wife Anna lost their son to scarlet fever when he was four. A year later, most of Horatio’s business assets were burnt down in the Great Fire of Chicago. Two years after that, Anne embarked with their remaining children — four girls — on a voyage to England. Along the way, tragedy struck again — their steamship sank after striking another ship. 226 people lost their lives, including all four of Anna’s girls. She herself was rescued. Over the next few years, Anna gave birth to three more children. One of these died as well, in 1880, of scarlet fever. This final tragedy turned Horatio and Anna’s life in a new direction, from the material to the spiritual. The Spaffords, along with 16 other members of their church, moved to Jerusalem and established the American Colony. They called themselves “The Overcomers”. Colony members engaged in philanthropic work among the people of Jerusalem. During and after World War I and the Armenian and Assyrian genocides, the American Colony supported the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities of Jerusalem by hosting soup kitchens, hospitals, and orphanages. The American Colony space is now the hotel I stayed at in Jerusalem, still owned and run by the descendants of the original founding community.

So here is the story I wanted to share. As a broken-hearted Horatio was sailing on a ship to reunite with his wife after receiving Anna’s telegram telling him that their four girls had died, the captain of the ship came to him at one point to share that they were now passing near the place where his daughters’ ship had sunk. This experience moved him to write a hymn. Here is its first verse, which I truly love.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

One interpretation of the word “Israel” is someone who struggles with God. For those who are struggling with God in this moment of grieving, perhaps Horatio’s words and life journey can be our solace, knowing that come what may, “all is well, all is well with our soul.”