It is impossible to visit Israel and not be inspired. The compact nature of the land, its diversity and unique challenges allow even the casual visitor to feel the pulse of the nation.
The Israel I visited had changed dramatically from my last visit four years ago (could it be so long?). Cellular telephones are everywhere. The shopping mall is the fastest-growing phenomenon. Fast food (or, as they call it in Hebrew, fest fud) has expanded beyond falafel to KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut and Ben and Jerry's. Japanese cars, long unavailable because of the Arab boycott, now predominate. Bypass roads, overpasses and cloverleafs have been constructed.
The sense of vibrancy is incredible. An entrepreneurial spirit drives some remarkable opportunities – including environmentally-friendly companies which provide river rafting, jeep touring, all-terrain vehicle caravans and donkey rides to explore the natural bounty of Israel's geography. Israel struggles with many Western problems in its own way – the annual Eurovision musical competition was won by an Israeli named Dana International, meaning the contest will be held in Israel next year. Dana is a talented performer who happened to have a sex-change operation. You can only imagine what her victory has generated.
But strip away the franchise fever and the incessant chirping of phones, the political ruckus and the traffic patterns, and the essence of Israel is revealed. The stones speak. The desert whispers. The pottery shards tell stories of long-ago. Every piece of greenery, whether in the lush fields of the Galilee or straining against the arid expanses of the Negev, sings a song of life.
We sat in the shade at Solomon's Pillars, twenty miles from the southernmost border. Our guide asked us to be silent and listen to the desert. Forty-one people sat in full attention, as if gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai. The youngest was five. The eldest was eighty-seven.
A midrash says that people heard God's voice speak the first letter of the first word of the Ten Commandments. That letter is an aleph, which has no sound. Each one heard a different voice, and each was the voice of God.
Next time, you can join us.