"Yad" means memorial, or literally a hand that acknowledges or waves in recognition. "Shem" means a monument or name. Thus, Yad Vashem, the name of Israel's Holocaust memorial museum, can be understood as being a recognition of the names of those who died. It is a beautiful and harrowing museum that tells numerous stories of both survivor and those who died. Cast in concrete, the museum does not permit you to wander; you must see all of it once you enter because the path is clearly defined. Yad Vashem attempts to record the name of every Jew that died in the Holocaust, to catalog any stories from that person's life, to make sure they are not forgotten.
While we were here, perhaps 100 Israeli soldiers were there at the same time, and our guide explained that the soldiers have numerous field trips and historical treasure hunts that they go on in order to clearly learn their country's history. Schoolchildren are required to take one trip to the holocaust museum once they are over 10 years of age also. I am impressed that the soldiers don't merely learn to fight or defend, but they learn about what they are defending and why. I'm not saying that I agree or disagree with Israeli requirements to serve in the military, but I believe it is a great blessing to learn your own country's history.
The most beautiful, haunting and moving part of the museum was a separate small building that honors the children who died during Holocaust. Once again,,there is only one pathway through, and as soon as you enter, you walk down a ramp into near darkness, holding onto the rail for guidance. I don't understand how the experience is accomplished, but I was suddenly in a world where candles flickered al all heights behind glass walls, but they appeared to have multiplied, like there were hundreds of dancing stars in a sea of darkness, and the most mournful music played, as if human tears could have a song, or heartbreak had acquired a melody. I thought of the verse in Genesis where God told Abraham that his descendants would number more than the stars, but Abraham did not know that those tiny lights would be so fragile during Hitler's reign. Over the music, a woman's voice is heard reading the names of the children who died, their ages and their country of origin. 1.5 million children lost their lives in the Holocaust.
Our next stop was Bethlehem, located in the West Bank, and therefore under Palestinian control. We were there to see the place where Jesus was born, but like many places of reverence in this country, it is contained in an ornate and over-dressed space, and the actual place is not accessible to the pilgrims who travel there. The Church of the Nativity is the oldest Christian church in the world, and it is currently undergoing massive repair and restoration work, so much of the church was inaccessible, but because of the HORRIBLE weather, more snow, rain and icy temperatures, there were no other pilgrims in the church. We were told that the wait to descend into the small shrine area could be hours, but we had no wait at all. Walking down ancient, worn stone steps, the shrine area looks like a small fireplace with a silver star in the middle of it. Pilgrims bend down and stick their heads in the space to kiss or reverence the star which marks the birthplace. There is room for perhaps 20 people altogether, and a Catholic priest is always present to 'guard' the spot.
Once we had all taken pictures and paid our devotions, our little group began to sing the chorus of "O Come All Ye Faithful"-- O come let us adore him! And then one more chorus with the words "He alone is worthy!" It was a moving tribute to mark the time we were there.
But it is impossible to truly grasp. We are entering and leaving these places more quickly than I can absorb them. I needed more preparation and reflection time before descending to the place that commemorates Jesus' birth. The blessing of the tour is that we have the opportunity to see so much that we could never see on our own, but the schedule is a constant limiting factor. An example: we were only able to spend ONE hour in the Israel Museum which catalogs the history of the country from the beginning of recorded history. We practically ran through, but at least we saw part of it.
And here's another problem--NO free time other than the evening to shop for gifts. I'm not much of a shopper, but I feel compelled to buy some things, and there simply is not the time or opportunity. Quick example: my sister expects me to buy her daughter (my niece, a Jew) a wedding present here---ahhhhhh!!! Not only am I unable to shop, but even the few stores I have been in are primarily Christian, not Jewish. So I am feeling the weight of other's expectations on me.
I am also getting sick and I can feel the slow advancement of a cold as it creeps over me. I really cannot describe what an endurance test it is to sightsee for so many hours, to walk for miles in the wind and rain, and some snow. And yet I would not change the agenda because I am getting opportunities I would never otherwise have. Both the Old and New Testaments are acquiring greater depth for me, and I am just beginning to grasp the importance of the Temples that were constructed here. Did you know, for example, that the Temples (both the First and Second Temples) were built on the hill where it is believed that Abraham brought Isaac to sacrifice him? Every place is layered with this kind of history and meaning, and thanks to our guide, I am slowly putting together the pieces of Israeli history, especially as it becomes my history--OUR history.
So while I began this day with the sadness and weight of the Holocaust, we ended with the beauty of new birth and new life in the place where Jesus was born. Tomorrow we head to the Dead Sea and Masada. Some brave souls think they are going to try and swim in the Dead Sea--the temperature may reach 55 degrees!--and the high salt content makes it impossible to sink. As our guide said, everyone floats like a cork. Interesting feeling, I bet. But I will definitely not be swimming tomorrow. Even as we speak I am sitting huddled by a fake electric fire, wrapped in my micro-down coat, trying to keep warm.
And here's a wonderful parting detail to end the day's activities--we just finished having a Messianic Seder at dinner time and the very last line, as we held up our final cup of wine was "Li-shanah Haba'ah Bi-rushalayim!", or "Next year in Jerusalem!" We never knew that we would be saying those words in Jerusalem this year...and who knows about next year??
Blessings to all of you and your families,