It is evening rush hour in the holy city of Jerusalem. Dusk descends, and the roads are congested with traffic. Miraculously, buses navigating through the windy, narrow streets of this ancient metropolis (narrowly) avoid hitting one another while transporting their weary passengers. The paths, testimony to a long history, now sit amidst a modern metropolitan city. The bus driver brakes aggressively at each stop while he collects and deposits his passengers.

The air is heavy with the heat that lingers from the penetrating afternoon sun. The smells are unpleasant from sweaty bodies squashed together in such close proximity. There seems to be no limit to the number of passengers the bus will hold, and most people complacently accept that packed buses are a part of life!

We are intrinsically one family I am one of the more fortunate commuters. I sit while my standing brethren cling to the rails. I observe their faces. A young mother hands me her fretful baby while she directs attention to her pleading toddler. Only in this land of ours called “home” does a mother trustingly pass her most precious bundle to a total stranger. Despite all our visible cultural and physical differences, we are intrinsically one family compassionately seeking each other’s welfare. A young girl stands, enabling the mother to sit and nestle both baby and youngster in her arms. They settle calmly in the warmth of their mother’s lap. We are grateful that this young mother has a chance now to recapture serenity.

Some of my fellow travelers seem to be ancient as though they have traveled this path many lifetimes ago. Their faces are creased by the harsh sun and project wisdom and pain simultaneously. This older generation has witnessed the harsh realities of war and dictators and yet they have a glow, a spark that speaks of survival, a love of life and a deep passion for this Land.

A woman of North African descent sits across from me. We eye each other with caution and then, magically, the wall is broken, and we talk as though we have been friends and neighbours for centuries.

She is carrying her wares from the Machane Yehuda market. I am in awe that a woman of her age can carry so much. Her eyes speak truth and I realize that this old lady carries more weight in her heart than in her hands. She tells me her story that is so colorful but sad, a story of immigration from a land that was once home but, due to hostilities, she and many others fled—wrenched from their homes for fear of their lives.

One must take the bitter with the sweet She left loved ones: Those too old to face the challenge of a journey to the unknown. Sweet memories would carry her across the harsh terrain to her new country. She was greeted in a Land where poverty and struggle were the daily norm. She pauses and stares intently. I am unsure whether she is talking to me directly or whether her eyes are focused on some distant place of yesteryear. She smiles and shares with me the ingredient for living and surviving in this Land.

She says, “To live here, one must take the bitter with the sweet! The sweet is so very sweet and the bitter ... ” She pauses, with tears flowing down her worn yet regal face. I am enchanted by her presence, as though time has stopped only so I might hear her words of truth.

“The bitter,” she continues slowly, “speaks for itself! The bitter hurts and is full of pain and great loss, and at times there is deep sadness and despair. It penetrates and floods our being with an ache that feels primeval, at times too big to carry! We learn to walk along this narrow, unsteady bridge with eyes lifted upwards to our Creator. It requires tremendous strength. Each footstep on this shaky bridge takes courage, as each step requires painful navigation. When all seems lost and forsaken, light and hope then enters a place where despair and obscurity once reigned. They say this Land is acquired through tests, so many tests ... ” Her voice trails off and becomes barely audible.

My newly acquired teacher looks deeply into my eyes. I intuitively sense that her pain is for loss of loved ones who have fought and died so that we can live here as proud Jews. My heart aches for her and her bundle. I feel immensely indebted to her. Her sacrifice and loss of beloved relatives has been for the continuity of our land. She is one of the many silent heroes, and I want to reach out, hold her hand and thank her. Yet I feel this simple action is so trite compared to her sacrifice for our nation.

I continue to listen with fixed intensity. She moves her bags to get closer to me; the dialogue is becoming more intimate. She continues in a close whisper. We feel comfortable with each other and she places her hand on mine as she speaks.

She is one of the many silent heroes “Then the sweet comes around, and we learn to move on and appreciate that the sweet is far more poignant than the bitter. These sweet times touch the heart in a way that they are engrained for eternity, never to be erased—fleeting moments of ecstasy that connect the neshama, the soul, to what matters in a sea of confusion.”

Her voice now has more fervor and excitement. “The sweetness is found from within. These moments anchor our sense of self to something so much bigger. The Land of ours is a vessel in which to connect to G‑d. It is as though the Land offers a direct line to our Maker. It is almost tangible! We are aware that He is listening intently and in turn answering. It feels so powerful and comforting. The warm feeling of being nurtured as a young child is recalled in these moments of intimate connection. The connection is real and intense even though immediately afterwards, doubt and cynicism creep in. You must remember that you received your answers, prayers and heartfelt desires straight from the King’s Inner Chamber. This, my friend, is the sweetness of the land and its hidden secret.” She pauses, only to now squeeze my hand, “Hold on tight to the sweet connections!”

My hand tingles from her touch and my forehead feels tense. I sense her truth but my understanding is still in its infancy. I have not merited to live here long enough to be able to grasp the depth of her words.

The bus jerks as it comes to a stop. We must part ways. She picks up her bags. So many of them! They are abundantly full with fresh fruits and vegetables of this blessed land. So many fragrant smells and rich colors. It is as though she carries the legacy of the past and the optimism of the future. I feel so blessed. I have much to learn from this land and its inhabitants.

She glances back at me and says; “Please pray for David ben Sara. He is unwell and needs our prayers to help him fight off an addiction that threatens the foundation of his family.”

She has left part of herself with meI nod and write down his name on a scrap of paper. My unnamed acquaintance is asking me to take responsibility and help carry the load of the Jewish people. I adjust my bags now that there is more space, but my belongings seem so much heavier than when I first boarded the bus.

She smiles at me through the window and waves. I return her smile and feel humbled by her strength and honoured by her wisdom. She has left part of herself with me.

I am now sitting by myself. The bus is almost empty. When did all the people, young and old, alight? Those seated nearby seem to have acquired a glow of holiness. My friend has changed my lenses in those short moments of intimate dialogue. I have a deeper respect for those who help carry the weight of our people.

I glance at the sticker above the drivers head. It announces in bold black letters “There is nothing but you, G‑d.” Our home within the King’s chambers demands of its servants refinement. Even a bus ride is a place of spiritual growth as the sticker so blatantly communicates. So much to learn, and to refine.

I reach my stop and gather my belongings. As I exit, yet another sticker catches my attention. It reads: “The bus driver wishes all passengers a sweet and healthy year.” I reflect. An unknown bus driver who appears aggressive and unfriendly to passengers is, in truth, full of sweetness. Perhaps his hard exterior is a requisite for survival.

I make a silent prayer that the forthcoming year be abundant with sweetness, health and peace for the Jewish people and may we be blessed to only see the goodness and purity of each other’s actions. I have been touched by a woman who I thought was a complete stranger but now realize was really my sister. And I am forever grateful that my worldly lenses seem brighter and clearer.