Living Out Loud
Being asked, “How are you?,” either as a filler to ensuing conversation or upon running into an acquaintance, feels terribly weighty these days in Israel. No one is okay. Everyone knows a deployed combat soldier and/or has been to a handful of numbing funerals or shiva visits, is related to a hostage or personally knows a family, has no work or can’t work, is exhausted from running in and out of bomb shelters, or has yet to begin university studies. Or all of the above.
We are shaky and frightened but unity of vision has imbued our nation with striking recognition of how Jews are perceived in the eyes of the world. Having been hurled in fighting a defensive war, everyone is aware that on the morning after – let it be soon – questions of How, Why and Who will demand answers as we embark on the self-reflective tasks addressing the complete lack of military intelligence that resulted mass butchery that is unprecedented butchery since the creative of the state. But that day is later.
A coaching client reappeared this past week and in our catch-up conversation, I couldn’t help but mention that he looked exceptionally fit and strong. He’d been such a scrawny, sickly looking guy when I last saw him.
‘Have you been working out?,’ I asked the young father of three small children.
“Yes. I started with simple exercises at home since my place of employment was closed and my wife is still on maternity leave,” he replied. “I’ve built up to approximately 40 minutes of both strength and cardio and gained fifteen pounds since the beginning of the war.”
My curiosity was piqued. ‘Can you identify one thing that triggered the positive change? Why now?’
He took a moment and considered his words carefully before speaking.
“I saw young fathers cradling their children or injured wives in their arms and running for safety. I thought to myself, ‘Could I carry someone I love any distance and save them?’ I knew that the answer was ‘No.’ I chose ‘change’.”
Choices abound in Israel these days and it is the rare citizen who doesn’t volunteer to pick produce, conduct social activities for evacuees, open their respective homes for group dinners, prepare meals for the displaced or newly unemployed, wash a few loads of laundry for soldiers, or provide other essential services for complete strangers without financial remuneration. It is just the Israeli way. We thrive in crisis and, unfortunately, have had a lot of practice. Still, we’ve always been our best versions of ourselves when it is us against the world.
Reb Yisroel Salanter, who died 140 years ago, was a famous Lithuanian Talmudist and religious thinker who founded the Mussar movement. He is quoted as saying, “Like a bird, man can reach undreamed-of heights as long as he works his wings. Should he relax them for but one minute, however, he plummets downward.”
We cannot fly if we permit those who do not walk in Israeli moccasins to determine our narrative. Allowing relentless calls for our destruction – no, extermination – to seep into our national psyche only encourages us to lose hope, or worse, lose faith. But when we remember that while Jewish continuity defies logic, our eternal existence is part and parcel of God’s unassailable promise. And again we rise, as a Heavenly phoenix.
The question, “How are you?” might be replaced during these days of sirens and screams with the query, “Who are you?” Transparent, proud and admirable, the glorious answer is, “I’m all that and more. I’m Israeli.”
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(Reprinted with permission of San Diego Jewish Journal, December, 2023)