A Year of Aliyah

There is a story told of an individual who wanted to learn about purgatory before he passed away just in case he was sent there. An angel came and took him for a visit. He saw people pleasantly talking to one another, individuals strolling through the countryside. Not so bad, he said to himself. When he did pass away the angel took him once more to purgatory. This time he saw people fighting with one another, fire separated one person from the next, everyone seemed to be living in terror. “I don’t understand,” he said to the angel, “what I saw the first time is not what I am witnessing the second time”. The angel said to him, “The first time you were a visitor, now you’re a citizen.”

It is exactly one year since we arrived from Chicago on Aliyah. We landed on June 19, 2019 at Ben Gurion Airport and immediately received our temporary teudat zehut cards. What we saw from afar is not exactly what we have seen from up close. Before that fateful day we had been to Israel many times. We were in Israel as tourists – sometimes we came to visit family members, sometimes we were participants in planned community missions, and sometimes I was here for a period of study or for meetings of the many organizations on whose boards I have been privileged to serve, always for a short stay. We had also been here for two years of study and for sabbatical time for a few months at a time. But we always had a return ticket. This time we landed without a return ticket in hand. We were here to stay.

And what a year it has been – on the personal, national and international platforms. On the personal level – after 5 weeks of being in the country without any warning and any personal history one morning I had a heart attack. Thank God, with the help, support and expertise of my kupat holim, the paramedics of Magen David Adom and the doctors and nurses of Hadassah Ein Kerem, after the insertion of two stents and cardiac rehab, I am doing much better and feeling stronger. I had not planned on testing out the Israel medical system so soon after our arrival. Thankfully, it came through for me.

On the national level – who would have thought that in the first few months that I was a citizen of the State of Israel I would vote not once, but twice? (If I had come a few months earlier, it would have been three times). We could easily say – this is democracy? Is this the system that is the most beneficial to its citizens? In truth, whether I am pleased or not pleased (and I do have some personal concerns) with the present government, there is indeed democracy here. It took over a year, three elections, and much negotiation, but democracy prevailed in that the government was formed under peaceful circumstances and not through a coup d’etat or major riots.

On a global level – all I need to say is Covid 19, the coronavirus. I, like so many others, had never heard of it even around Hanukkah time this year, but it now dominates our lives, our discussions, our relations with others and our travel schedule (or lack of it). A year ago in Chicago at end of the Pesach Seder we stated “Next Year in Jerusalem.” What we really meant was Modiin, where our daughter, son-in-law and four grandchildren live. Well, it seems that God had other plans. We were actually in Jerusalem for Seder, just the two of us. Could have been much worse. But next year, God and virus willing, we do hope to be in Modiin for Seder. Basically from Purim to Shavuot we did not leave our apartment except for a 100 meter or later a 500 meter walk. How the world has changed and will continue to change. We still don’t know what all those changes will be. What we do know is that even after a vaccine is found (may it be soon) the world will never be the same again.

The Israel of our short visits is not really the same Israel after a year of Aliyah. As the old joke goes, now I can really complain. But in truth, I don’t have that much to complain about. I feel very fortunate to have made Aliyah at the right time in my life, in the life of the country and the world.

In this past week’s Torah reading (in the Diaspora it is read this coming Shabbat) the spies are sent by Moses to scout out the country before they set their course for the land of Canaan. All the spies witnessed the same things – they saw a land flowing with milk and honey and observed a formidable enemy who lived in fortified cities. Where they differed was in their interpretation. Ten of the spies reported: “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we… The country we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.” Caleb and Joshua disagreed with their interpretation of the facts. According to the text Caleb declared, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.”

All the spies witnessed exactly the same view of their promised land, yet their interpretation of the facts was very different. In the tractate of Shabbat we are taught that the seal of God is truth. Is it possible for us to live up to that high standard and follow in God’s ways? The Midrash in Bereshit Rabbah imagines the scenario where the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and parties when God came to create Adam. Some stated “Let him be created,” and others retorted “Let him not be created.” They argued back and forth until God took truth and cast it to the ground and created Adam.

I see this story as demonstrating that there is no absolute and objective truth in the world of human beings. Everything is seen through our individual eyes, heard by our ears and interpreted by our minds. I see it day after day as I watch the news and read the internet. The reporters of CNN and Fox see exactly the same facts, yet interpret them in sometimes totally opposite directions. The writers of Haaretz and Makor Rishon witness the exact same news event and offer their interpretation of what they saw as what indeed had occurred, usually in a very different manner. I am not sure any more what is News and what is Fake News.

What I do know is that it is my challenge to witness the world around me as objectively as possible and interpret what I see. It will come out as my understanding of the events but that is the best I can do. The question is whether I can even come close to the seal of God as I am but mere flesh and blood. In today’s world it is so easy to take the data and interpret them any way I wish. Needless to say, that usually leads to less truth, less factual news, and more division and misunderstanding.

I know exactly what happened to my personal, national and global world this my first year in Israel. The question is how I interpret what occurred and make it into something positive for me and those around me. I realize the challenges present –personally, in my new country and in the world at large. It will be up to me to see these challenges as opportunities for personal, national and global growth. I could easily be very despondent and disappointed after my first year as a citizen of the State of Israel based on the facts as they are, but instead I choose to be optimistic, to be hopeful and most of all to be grateful.  I am convinced we have the opportunity to make our society, our country, our world, a better place and it is my task to help make it that way. As Caleb told his people, “Let us by all means go up… for we shall surely overcome it.” On the anniversary of our Aliyah to Medinat Yisrael looking from up close at what we used to observe from afar, I know we made the correct decision.

About the Author
Rabbi Vernon Kurtz is Rabbi Emeritus of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park Illinois, an 1100 family congregation which he served for 31 years. He is past president of the international Rabbinical Assembly, MERCAZ USA and MERCAZ Olami, and a member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency and the Jewish People Policy Institute. He is also past president of the American Zionist Movement and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute. He is the author of Encountering Torah - Reflections on the Weekly Portion. He and his wife Bryna made Aliyah in June 2019.
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