I must admit that for the life of me I never knew what Aliyah meant. I’ve of course heard and read the word many times, but I never really knew what it meant. Common knowledge references it as Jews immigrating to Israel; that’s the short version. But the true meaning did not reveal itself to me until quite recently, and in a most unlikely manner. As I venture courageously through my third year in Hebrew, I came across the word in my shiur. I always feel somewhat intimidated by my classmates and their Hebrew language skills compared to mine. They are so much better probably because they are Jewish by birth, and even if Hebrew is not their first language, they might and probably speak it every Shabbat or at the temple in prayer. I do not have either luxury because I am not Jewish. So why learn Hebrew one may ask? A good question.
My empathy with Jews and Israel started way back. Two great friends and a trip to Israel sealed my fate in my unwavering support of both. The former taught me the complexities of being Jewish, and the latter showed me the truth of living as a Jew in Israel. Both earned my life long admiration, and my desire to learn Hebrew was planted and nurtured by both. While on a short trip and stay in Israel, I realized that as a Christian I had found my roots, but as a person I had found my soul.
I did not go to Israel with any pre-determined perception. I just remember that as a child I yearned to visit what we used to call in awe: the Holy Land. I was envious of anyone living in the Holy Land. What an opportunity to live in a land where our biblical forefathers lived and died. When the opportunity presented itself, I did not hesitate to jump on it and go. I was not disappointed. The trip opened a new world for me. Besides resembling my own birth country of Malta, it was a unique work of art; courtesy of G-d, nature, and human ingenuity.
As I travelled through the touristy “must see” places, I also had valuable opportunities to sit and discuss internal political and geopolitical situations often forced on this small sliver of land. Those of us who had spent many years on the outside looking in, could never begin to imagine or understand how Israel functions within its political and social structure. Israel is inherently guided by biblical principles older than the pyramids. I learned that Israelis albeit pragmatic, think within the logical and spiritual sphere of their Biblical existence. Even secular Israelis have a fundamental thought process that rises from their close association with the Holy Land. One can’t live in Jerusalem and ignore its biblical significance, even if agnostic. The more I questioned and discussed, the more the burning desire to learn the language nagged at me. I finally succumbed, and here I stand in my third year, able to conjugate verbs that often make little sense to me, but also realizing that learning Hebrew is not just about the language, but about a place, a time, and a people. Hebrew is taking me on paths I had not ventured before. Hence, Aliyah.
Aliyah is the Hebrew word for ascent or climb. The word suddenly popped up from a picture of a mountain peak with an arrow pointing upwards. It suddenly hit me that I had just discovered the true meaning of the word. Not just in the context of climbing a mountain, but in rising above expectations. Like any good student I asked Google to define Aliyah; and amid the convoluted array of explanations and definitions, one particular site caught my eye. Chabad.org. A rabbi explained Aliyah as raising one’s self into a better life. A Jew does Aliyah to embrace the torah and rise toward G-d in the chosen land. When the Israelites left Egypt they were brought back to their land; the Promised Land in order to be closer to G-d. A symbolic elevation of their lives from bondage to being the chosen people of G-d. The word to describe this “ascent” to the Land of Israel and closer to G-d, was Aliyah. And so it remained.
A word that spanned across time and remains viable into the 21st Century. A modern day significance and understanding that those lucky enough to be Jewish, or descendants of Jews, are entitled to Aliyah, and the ascent into the Land of Israel. If more yahoos in today’s world of geopolitics and secular progressiveness took the time to reflect on Aliyah they might not be so hasty to take their high moral ground and pound Israel into the ground.
Since 1948, this little country the size of Rhode Island has endured unwanted wars and daily attacks in the name of political justice; often by those who have never set foot in it or even bothered to learn why it exists. They are too busy either attempting to obliterate it, punish it, control it, and hate it. There are many false prophets who disguised as social activists, are eager to please the political and insidious social narrative of anti-Zionists and anti-Semites. Some hide under the convenient umbrella of intellectuals, politicians, educators, and often prominent world bodies like the UN, the EU, and the US Congress. But none of their inflammatory rhetoric can change Aliyah, because it is embedded in Israel’s historical and biblical right to G-d. Only Jews can trace their ancestry to G-d. Only they have the right to claim that they are the Chosen People of G-d. Only they can ascend to the Land of Israel. Which is why, no one has the right to distort that claim.
While translating an almost silly elementary dialogue in my shiur, I realized that Hebrew was more than a language; it embodies the past, the present, and the future. An evolving dialogue through time reflecting all that is Israel and its people. As I struggle with my piyal, shoresh, binyan, and gizra, I suddenly let out a small momentary triumphant chuckle, because as a goy studying Hebrew, I feel symbolically following in the footsteps of the many who joined in Aliyah. The ascent toward something better. I know that I can never presume or even attempt to presume that my futile attempt at learning Hebrew compares to the return of thousands to their Promised Land. But in my own small world I feel like I have triumphed and find myself somewhat intellectually elevated than I have ever been.
The compelling urge to continue on my Hebrew journey is strong. Not to add another language notch to my belt. And certainly not to impress; my level of Hebrew is on par with that of a two-year old if not worse. But the experience has taken me on a journey of understanding. I find myself on a spiritual shvil that often struggles to maintain an equilibrium between my Christianity by birth and Judaism by love. When I read Hebrew, albeit modern, I ponder if I might not be inadvertently speaking and reading the language of the prophets. A realization that is both humbling and awe striking. A leap of faith into an unknown that compels me to learn more.
I am in the process of planning my next trip to Israel in the spring. I hope that my Ivrit improves beyond Me’eifo at? I will in my limited capacity be returning to a land I fell in love with, and a dear friend who has become mishpachah. I have my plane ticket, and have already checked on the rakevet schedule from Tel-Aviv to Haifa. In a sudden fit of anticipation, I text my dearest havera in Haifa to tell her that I was “coming home”. My Aliyah?
Lew. Y. “What does Aliyah mean?” https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1584066/jewish/What-Does-Aliyah-Mean.htm