Exile in Tarshish

Was I was in Israel last week without knowing it?

The Torah says to observe Passover/Pesach for seven days, and that’s what Jews still do in Israel. Since Passover began on Friday evening, April 15, Jews in Israel read the Torah portion Acharei Mot on Saturday morning, April 22.

So did I.  And I stayed up late several nights last week writing a blog post about Acharei Mot,1 just as if I were in Israel.

But in the diaspora—the Jewish population outside what was our religion’s homeland thousands of years ago—Jews observe Passover for eight days. When I joined a Shabbat service by Zoom last Saturday, the eighth morning after Passover began, there was a Passover Torah reading and two special holiday prayer sections2. And I realized my mistake.

The diaspora includes places thick with Jews, like Brooklyn. But it also includes places where Jews are hard to find, like the small town on the Oregon coast where I live now.

At sunset on the first night of Passover, I was just getting home from a four-hour drive after a week of clearing out my mother’s house. (I succeeded in moving her to assisted living last month, but there is so much more to do!) That evening my husband and I went through the first page of the Passover ritual (with oregano3), then stumbled off to bed. We skipped the second seder because after two pandemic years, we couldn’t bear to watch it by Zoom for a third year. And for the first time in over 20 years, we forgot to start counting the omer.

Clearly my mind was not in Israel, but in Tarshish.

Tarshish is the most distant location mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. The book of Jonah begins when God tells Jonah to go prophesy in Nineveh, something he absolutely does not want to do. Nineveh is northeast of Jonah’s home, Gat-Hefer in the northern Kingdom of Israel.4 Jonah heads southeast, to the coast.

Phoenician Merchant Ship, 4th cent. BCE relief

And Jonah got up to run away toward Tarshish, away from the presence of God. He went down to Jaffa and he found a ship going to Tarshish, and he paid its fare and he went down into it to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of God. (Jonah 1:3)

Although we no longer know where Tarshish was, we know that Phoenicians from ports like Jaffa crossed the Mediterranean to trade with Tarshish. The bible includes Tarshish in lists of distant islands and far shores.5 Large ships suitable for long-distance travel are called ani tarshish (עָנִי תַרְשִׁשׁ) = Tarshish ships.6 Tarshish is the epitome of a faraway land.

Second Isaiah speaks of a future time when people from all nations will come to Jerusalem to worship God, even the most distant.

… Tarshish, Pul, and Lud … Tuval and Yavan: the far shores, the remote places that have not heard my name … (Isaiah 66:19)

So I was not in Israel last week; I was in Tarshish.

The Passover seder ends: “Next year in Jerusalem!” Next year (if the progression of Covid permits) I just want to be in Portland with some of my Jewish friends.

I am realizing what it means to be in exile from both of my Jewish communities in Portland. This small coastal town seemed like the perfect place to live when the pandemic began, but now it feels like Tarshish.

Tarshish may be one of the ends of the earth, but living here is not the end of the world. I am my own island of Torah study here. Every day I sing my morning prayers, and every day when I first see the ocean I say the blessing thanking God for making the “great sea”. I will pay more attention to the Jewish calendar. And someday I will sail home from Tarshish.

  1. Acharei Mot: Private Parts.
  2. Haleil and Yizkor.
  3. See my post Pesach, Metzora, & Chukat: Blood and Oregano.
  4. 2 Kings 14:25.
  5. Genesis 10:1-5; Isaiah 23:6, 66:19.
  6. 1 Kings 10:22, 22:48; Isaiah 2:16; Psalm 48:7; 2 Chronicles 20:37.

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