“We are no longer scattered among the nations, powerless to defend ourselves. We restored our sovereignty in our ancient home.”
So said Prime Minister Netanyahu in his address to Congress earlier this month. I watched this speech not at home in the Twin Cities, but while sitting in the living room of our Israeli family.
Those words hit me with force and filled my eyes with tears. After two thousand years of exile, it is a miracle to be alive at this time, to see and experience this astonishing place, this restored and rebuilt ancient home.
That miracle never grows old, even after many trips to Israel. The joy of living on “Jewish time” does not diminish. The smallest things have the power to delight. Last year during Sukkot I took a picture of a Coke bottle, which had the words “Hag Sameach” (Happy Holiday) printed on the side in Hebrew. I use this picture every time I speak about Israel, to help the audience understand what it feels like to be part of the majority culture. “You see?” I tell them. “In Israel even the Coke bottle is celebrating my holidays!”
The family I visited are a young couple in their thirties with two little children. How precious it was to dress the children up for Purim and go out to celebrate, surrounded by countless other families and costumed kids.
It is easy to forget that not far from here–in nearly every direction– the world is on fire. Barbarism reigns.
The Prime Minister’s address to Congress also included this: “And the soldiers who defend our home have boundless courage. For the first time in 100 generations, we, the Jewish people, can defend ourselves.”
Words my shtetl great-grandparents could never have imagined. Or even my grandparents, until late in their lives.
As Netanyahu was concluding his address, the husband and father of this young family, an officer in the IDF, arrived home, still wearing his army uniform and heavy boots. He joyously hugged his children and kissed his wife. A soldier with boundless courage? Yes. But he wears it modestly, with the same low-key ease in which he inhabits his uniform. He says little about the enormous responsibility that rests on his shoulders. He does not complain about the many nights that he must remain on base due to a change in status that requires him to stay.
Last summer, his brother-in-law was called up as a reservist to serve in Gaza during the war. They sent me pictures of him standing beside his tank, covered in dust from head to toe. He was away from his wife and child for a month. He is understated and matter-of-fact about what his reserve duty demanded.
This is their life and their reality. They understand what it takes to defend a country.
In the U.S. we also have soldiers with boundless courage that defend us. But because military service in the US is not mandatory, it is possible, even likely, not to personally know a single American soldier. The whole experience can feel remote.
Not so in Israel. They are our children, our neighbors children, our nieces and nephews. We see them on the buses and trains, heading to and from their bases. No one knows what the day will bring. Everyone assumes they will return home at the end of the day or in time for Shabbat. Nearly all will. But some never do.
After spending a joyous week with this family, it was time for me to fly home. The soldiers– the husband and the brother-in-law insisted on driving me to the airport, an hour away.
We set out at five a.m. on Shabbat morning. It was dark and the roads were empty.
We listened to the radio, one song and then another. Then this:
“A song of ascent. I lift my eyes up to the mountains. From where will my help come? My help comes from God, maker of heaven and earth.”
The words were from Psalm 121 and they have been set to music by a number of popular Israeli artists. To our American ears it seems odd to hear biblical text transformed into mainstream popular music. The Byrds 1960’s hit “Turn, Turn, Turn” (based on a passage from Ecclesiastes) is the only American example that comes to mind. But in Israel, words from the Bible find endless expression in everyday life.
Down the quiet highway we went, as the song continued:
“He will not allow your foot to falter, your Guardian will not slumber. Behold, the Guardian of Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”
I glanced over at the handsome, young faces of these two men, also guardians of Israel.
Then I glanced east, in the direction of Jordan. Beyond Jordan lies Iraq. Beyond Iraq lies Iran. And in Iran lies the unthinkable.
“By day the sun will not smite you, nor will the moon at night. The Lord will guard you from evil, He will guard your soul. The Lord will guard your going out and your coming in from now and to eternity.”
A song that is also a prayer. The Guardian of Israel that exists outside of time, the guardians of Israel sitting alongside me. A promise of eternal protection.
On we drove as the first streaks of light illuminated a pale sky.