“I don’t want to go to Boston,” huffed my son the other day — the same son who spent the last few months chattering at everyone (and I mean EVERYONE, neither random strangers in the street nor cab drivers were spared) about all the wonderful things we’ll do during our two years in Boston, all the new friends we’ll make, and the ducklings we’ll feed.
“I finally grew up and started understanding things about Israel,” he went on, and kicked the sidewalk, dejection personified. “And now I’ll have to start understanding things all over again, somewhere else.”
You never really stop understanding new things, no matter where you are, I wanted to say. You can stay in Jerusalem your whole life, like I did, and you would still be surprised by it. You would still be thrown off.
“I feel the same way,” I said instead, because clever insights are not what people need when they are sad.
And besides, insights aside, I really do.
The streets around us were as familiar as my own body, as easy to handle as an old comfy dress. I know what they look like when spring blooms through them (first yellow, then purple, and then, when summer draws its pale sky over everything, bright and white). I know where to find shelter from a sudden rainstorm (the little supermarket has an awning, and you can always huddle in the building of the shul). And I know exactly where to stop to fill our water bottles, and where to find a shaded bench for snack breaks with my kids.
This time next week, I thought as I led my gloomy son to one such bench, we won’t be here. We’ll be walking through the streets of a strange and new city, and its secrets will be hidden, its ins and outs unknown.
I understand some things here in Jerusalem. In Boston, I will have to learn everything from scratch.
For a moment, the familiarity of the streets around us burned me. It hit me with the pain of a separation yet to come.
I can’t really call our temporary relocation “exile.” Our adventure is far too planned, and far too orderly, to merit this word with all its resonance of violence. We’re not snatched away from our lives here, we’re not torn apart from everything we know. We had the time to sort through our possessions and our memories at leisure, set them in boxes, and choose which ones to keep. We will have the luxury of bringing bits of our life with us to Boston, and the other ones will stay here, awaiting our return.
But like real exiles, we won’t be the same people when we reclaim them.
Israel will always be our past — both the distant past of our national history, and the immediate past of our walks through its streets. And it will always be our future: the future of our attempt at Jewish sovereignty, and the personal future we’ll reclaim when we come back here in two years.
But for two years, Israel won’t be our immediate present. For two years, we will grow in experience and understanding elsewhere, and Israel will evolve without us as we do.
I thought of the men and women who came to Israel in the 1880s, exiles coming home to a place they didn’t know. Our meager two years are nothing in comparison to their millennia. How out of place they must have felt here, yet how very determined to belong.
I thought also of the midrash about the sage Honi, who saw an old man planting a carob tree in the eve of his life. “Sure, I won’t get to eat this tree’s fruit,” explained the man to Honi. “But I was born into a world with fruit trees in it, and I will leave a world with fruit trees for my children as well. I enjoyed the fruits of the trees that my ancestors planted. My descendants will enjoy the fruits of the tree I plant today.”
The olim who came here in the 1880s heard the echos of our forefathers and foremothers in Israel’s hills. They pursued those echos into a place that was alien to them, and left us a world rich with achievements and lore and a sense of familiarity. Our own lives here grow out of the world they bequeathed to us, but it’s up to us to plant the seeds that will shape Israel for our kids.
“You know what,” I told my son, “let’s buy a sapling. We’ll plant it before leaving, and it will grow here while we won’t.”
We will plant a tree, I thought, and it will go on living. And when we return, we will reweave our life into its tale.
And when we do, may that tree remind us that our actions shape the future. They are the roots of what will go on growing in this land.
May we leave a blooming garden to our children.