I guess I’ve become more Israeli than I thought, at least when it comes to cats. Here, by and large they are denizens of dumpsters, living paw to mouth, lean, mean…and everywhere. They’re perceived (especially by kids) as a sort of hybrid of lion and rat, and treated with the commensurate blend of fear and disdain.
That’s why I was so surprisingly surprised upon my recent visit to America to encounter a whole ‘nother breed of cat. A housecat. A Calico, to be exact, fat, well-groomed and content, mixing with the two-legged residents like a welcomed guest.
Putting aside my own (perhaps acquired) personal feelings about having a cat freely share human domicile (hint: meoow, minus the ‘m’), my first thought was to pity our poor local felines, dodging flung trash bags for their supper, while their rich American cousins leisurely dined on Little Friskies. Perhaps, I pondered, I should take up a collection while there of used cat toys and litter boxes (well, maybe…no) and discretely distribute them upon return around the local trash bins.
My second thought, however, was different. Despite its impeccable grooming and robust limbs, there was something this pampered pussycat lacked that its mangier Middle Eastern kin had in abundance, a certain spark, a joie de vivre — a spring in their paws. Less well fed…but free.
My thoughts then turned to bigger cats — the type they have in zoos. In the best of zoos, these animals live in carefully conceived and executed facsimiles of their natural habitat. In fact these pseudo savannas are far more aesthetic and climate controlled than their copied counterparts. Zoo-cats also eat much better than their wild brethren. Where the latter have to stalk and chase down prey—while avoiding predators of their own — big cats in the zoo get their meat on a silver platter and their biggest danger is getting bonked with a bag of Bamba. Nevertheless, few would question that animals in their natural habitats live happier, healthier, fuller lives.
Now I don’t know whether Israel is a natural habitat for cats, big or small, but it certainly is the natural habitat of the Jew. “G-d measured all the lands and found Eretz Yisrael the one perfectly suited for the Jewish people…” (Yalkut Shimoni 85, quoted by R’ Yoel Schwartz).
True, the climate — physical and sociological — can be challenging. (In America I could easily read road signs and even the ‘small print’. I could actually banter and not just dumbly smile and nod back at people who told me jokes, the punch lines of which slipped by too fast for my ears to unravel.) Acquiring ones daily (weekly, monthly) ‘prey’ can also leave us more winded here, where ‘three-for-ten’ means you actually have to buy three, and refunds are not only not cheerful, but nonexistent. And yes, from my home in the Judean hills we can clearly hear the howl of our ‘natural predators’ wailing from the muezzin at the break of dawn.
But to me, these things are just part of the unique soul-polishing quality inherent in the land that is “acquired through challenges.” A constant tutorial which builds and refines a Jew’s precious midot of humility and trust in none but Him. Here, in our natural habitat, our souls can soar like nowhere else. Here God isn’t a ‘concept’, He’s an active character in my daily reverie. His ‘rod’ and His ‘staff’ constantly propping me up, or poking me when I deserve it, but always prodding me forward, closer to Him. Life here goes either l’maaleh min ha-teva or l’matteh min ha-teva, but very rarely in between, keeping me constantly aware — whether I want to be or not — of ‘ayn od milvado.’
I’m glad to be home.