“וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ.”
“And Hashem said to Avram: ‘Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, from your father’s home, to the Land that I will show you.”
This was the first verse of the Torah I ever remember learning. At some point near the beginning of first grade, my rebbe gave us all our first homework assignment; to memorize the first two verses of parashat Lech Lecha.
I remember struggling so hard to try and commit that first verse to memory. After school, I went up to my room to start practicing. A few minutes later, Mom came in to check on me and saw me crying. I said, “Mommy, I can’t do it.” She said, “Robbie, come with me to the mirror.” As we stood together, she kept repeating the words along with me over and over again, encouraging me and telling me “you’ll be just fine – you can do it!” Through tears, slowly but surely, indeed, I did it. We gave each other a big hug. She told me that one day I would lain Lech Lecha in shul, that it was my Bar Mitzvah parasha.
In September 1998, Mom gave me another big hug. A farewell hug. She was sending me off to the airport with my Dad, who’d be accompanying me on the flight to Israel, while she’d be staying with my brothers in Los Angeles for a little longer. Dad was going to stay with me for a week to help me get settled at Bar Ilan University. Then, he’d return to LA to resume “packing up our life there”, all while helping Mom through her chemotherapy.
Mom said “Robbie, don’t worry. I’ll be fine and you’ll be fine. We’ll be there with you in a few months and you’ll see, people will come visit us. It’s Israel – our Home. It’s not like we’re moving to Uganda.”
Boy was I going to miss her.
That first week I spent in Israel with my Dad is something I’ll forever have etched in my memory. Straight off the plane, we took a cab to the Bar Ilan campus. No Nefesh B’nefesh ceremony. No Aliyah shaliach. No friends and family to greet us.
” וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם… וְאֶת-כָּל-רְכוּשָׁם אֲשֶׁר רָכָשׁוּ”
“And Avram took… all of the possessions that he had amassed.”
We arrived at 5:30am with four huge duffel bags and four smaller bags of stuff. Eight bags containing everything I owned. Neither of us really knew Hebrew too well. Thankfully Dad is fluent in Russian, so he was able to explain to the campus security guard what on earth we were doing there. As you can imagine, Yevgeni thought we were pretty nuts. He was kind enough to give us a bottle of water though.
I bonded with Dad that week like never before. We stayed in the hotel together. We ate together. We traveled together. We met up with some long lost cousins together.
And then, just like that, Dad was gone too.
Boy did I miss him.
Comings and Goings
Indeed, a few months later, my parents and my two younger brothers did join me. We were able to start a happy little life here.
Then, Mom passed away in 2001. Dad remarried two years later and still lives here.
Just after I got married in 2002, one of my brothers moved back to America to study at Yeshiva University. He’s now married with two kids. My other brother also moved bacl to America. He just got married just a few months ago.
For years, I’ve found it incredibly poignant that both of my brothers happened to be born during the week of parashat Shlach Lecha. One Lech Lecha (go forth) and two Shlach Lechas (send off).
I’m here in Israel and they’re there, abroad. What are the odds?
Boy do I miss them.
My Extended Family
Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to return to the States for many joyful occasions. Almost everyone from Mom’s side of the family is still in Los Angeles. Everyone from Dad’s side of the family still lives in Atlanta.
Only one of my grandparents is still alive, my Grandma. She turns 90 years old tomorrow.
Dad’s on a plane right now. He’s on his way to join in this weekend’s family reunion celebrations that will accompany Grandma’s birthday party. Unfortunately, the timing just isn’t right for me to attend this time around.
Over the years, I’ve had to learn to deal with not being able to be there for every family celebration. I’ve missed many a bris, have sent off plenty of “wish we could be there with you” Bar and Bat Mitzvah cards and gifts, and have had many “mornings after” from my Ginot Shomron home when my vicarious, virtual participation has been limited to browsing through family pictures posted on Facebook.
When you move away to a distant land, this is just part of the baggage you carry along with you. It’s the ninth bag I schlepped with me from Los Angeles. It comes with the territory, if you will.
Boy am I missing everyone right now.
The First Oleh Must’ve Had Human Emotions Too
When we think of our first forefather, the associations are overwhelmingly positive. He is heralded as a true hero, having unwavering faith in Hashem through all his tests. He hastened to adhere to Hashem’s command to leave his birthplace, even though he knew not where he would end up. He had full, complete trust in G-d.
” וְלֹא-יִקָּרֵא עוֹד אֶת-שִׁמְךָ, אַבְרָם; וְהָיָה שִׁמְךָ אַבְרָהָם, כִּי אַב-הֲמוֹן גּוֹיִם נְתַתִּיךָ.”
“And your name will no longer be called Avram; you name will be Avraham, as I have caused you to be the father of many nations.”
Eventually, the newly-named Avraham settled down. After all he had been through, he had much to be thankful for and was blessed to live a good life in his new Home, in Israel. Though he continued to experience trials and tribulations, he still continued to “spread the word”.
My new life here is completely unlike my old life in America. It’s almost as though I’ve been given a new name.
After over 16 years here, as anyone who knows me could attest, I still very much champion the cause of moving to and living in Israel – this despite my own trials and tribulations here. I always do my best to focus on all the good of this country and its people. When conversing with my family and friends back in the States, I always keep in mind that I need to be a good ambassador for Israel. When encountering tourists or teenagers who are here learning in yeshivas and seminaries for a year, I feel privileged to try and be a personal example.
After Words, Actions
As a little boy, I cried trying to internalize the first verse of Lech Lecha.
If you’re a Jew living abroad, it’s a natural reaction to want to cry when you encounter a verse whose message essentially says “G-d wants you to pick up, leave everything you know, and move to Israel.” It’s practically incomprehensible to consider leaving so much behind.
But I did it. It takes courage to come, but it also takes continued courage to stay. Fortunately, I have been blessed by Hashem with a good, happy life here. It can be done!
The hidden pain of Lech Lecha still lingers, but I try my best to mimic Avraham and “spread the word.”
As I wrote in the happy birthday letter to my Grandma:
“Hashem has blessed you Grandma with a long life. I can’t begin to imagine how incredible it must be for you to look back on 90 years and now to be with all your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. While my family and I cannot be there with you now, to complete the reunion for you, we hope that you can still smile, knowing that at least we are where Hashem wants us to be.”
The Second Verse
My first grade rebbe didn’t just instruct us to memorize the first versa of the parsha. He made sure we also knew the second one by heart:
“וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ, וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ; וֶהְיֵה, בְּרָכָה.”
“And I shall make you into a great nation and I shall bless you and make your name great, and it shall be for a blessing.” –Breishit 12:2
I now know almost all the verses of Lecha Lecha by heart and I will be laining them from the Torah tomorrow morning. But Mom won’t be there to hug me anymore when I’m done.
Neither will Grandma.
As a matter of fact, not a single person who was there listening to me lain on my Bar Mitzvah day will be present. It won’t be the first time and it won’t be the last time.
But when I walk out of shul, my wife and children will be there to hug me.
“וַיֵּרָא יְהוָה, אֶל-אַבְרָם, וַיֹּאמֶר, לְזַרְעֲךָ אֶתֵּן אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת”
“And Hashem appeared to Avram and said ‘to your descendants I will give this Land'”
Despite all of the hidden pain of Lech Lecha that will never fully go away, I still know and feel that I am truly blessed.
Mom, you were right. I did it. I hope that from somewhere up above you’re sharing my tears with me again – tears of joy.