People often ask me why I live in Israel. Some are genuinely curious. Others say the words, but their creased brows hide a different question. “Why would you choose to live in such a dangerous place?” asks the concern in their eyes. “Why would you risk your own children?” Or, in the words of a particularly blunt reader, “Your husband has American citizenship! Why on earth are you still in that God-forsaken hole!? Are you nuts?”
I smile. And I try to explain why I live here. And I say phrases like “meaningful” and “home” and “worth it.” But some things are difficult to capture in words, and I never feel like I do my reasons justice.
What I want to say, but usually don’t, is that my reasons for living here can be found in one moment that happened millennia ago. And no, it wasn’t the moment when God told Abraham to “Go” to the Promised Land, or the moment when King Solomon opened the gates of the newly-built Temple. Those were grand moments, no doubt; moments that shaped our national mission and journey. But when I think about my own place in this journey, when I think about my own personal reasons for participating in it, a far more intimate moment comes to mind.
Millennia ago, in a moment that pulsed with anxiety and love, a little girl stood by a large river, and watched her baby brother floating down the stream.
The little girl may or may not have known it at the time, but she wasn’t the first to fear what that ancient river may bring.
Generations earlier, the local king dreamed of standing by the very same river, and watching seven gaunt cows emerging from its depths. The gaunt cows consumed seven fat cows, portending the famine that would have swallowed Egypt whole, if not for the advice of a young Hebrew slave.
The girl and her brother wouldn’t have been Hebrew slaves in Egypt if it hadn’t been for that dream, and that young slave named Joseph, all those generations before.
Just like Pharaoh’s dream and Joseph’s advice, that girl and that moment by the river determined the future of nations. But when the little girl watched the daughter of the current king pulling her baby brother out of the reeds and into her embrace, she couldn’t have known what that moment would mean later on. She couldn’t have known that one day her brother would come back to the same river and confront the king himself. And she couldn’t have known that when the king would refuse to let her people go, her brother would strike the river, and draw from it plagues far worse than anything Joseph’s pharaoh knew to fear.
That moment by the river, she stood between the shadows of the past and the possibilities of the future, and started a sequence of events that was about to change the world forever. But Miriam didn’t know it. All she knew was that her brother was in danger, and that this was her one chance to save his life.
And so the little girl dared to approach the Egyptian princess and suggest her own mother as wet nurse for baby Moses. In her actions, she sowed the seeds of Egypt’s downfall, of the Exodus that would define the Jewish future, and of the liberation that would inspire generations upon generations of slaves. But she did it unwittingly, unaware of her actions’ significance. She did it simply as a loving sister, doing her best to save her brother’s life.
In Israel, we are forever standing in the shadows of a great past and on the brink of many possible futures. And sometimes our heritage and our mission challenge us directly, demanding our toil and our sacrifices, our conscious opinions about the path we should take, and our willingness to fight for what is right.
But more often than not, that is not actually what life in Israel is like. Most of the time, we go through life like Miriam did: Doing our best to rise to the challenges of the moment. We try to be good siblings and cousins, parents and children, neighbors and friends. We tackle the tasks of living life and making ends meet. We build our homes and roads and civil society, and try to improve the system when we can.
And like Miriam’s actions in that long-ago moment by that twisting river, our efforts shape the future, and give meaning to the past. For here we are, fulfilling the old dreams about a Jewish society in Israel. And here we are, determining what that dreamed-of society is, actually.
Some people come here because of Abraham’s mission. Others are inspired by Herzl’s words, or the Holocaust’s warning, or the victories of the Maccabees and the IDF.
I live here because I want to be like that little girl by the river, who sowed the seeds of the future in a simple moment of love. I want to shape our national future as I care for my children, write my stories, and smile at strangers in the street. That, for me, is what life in Israel is all about.
Rachel is a lifelong resident of Jerusalem and a keen observer of its colorful spiritual and human scene. She recently completed her M.A in American History, and continues to explore questions of religion, emotions, and social relations both in history and in real life.