From Relief Missions to Pilot Trips

Empty streets of Tzfat.
Empty streets of Tzfat (image courtesy of author)

“…our redemption can only come from a place of hardships, because we will not desire redemption if we are living comfortably.” 

“…these miracles that are indeed accompanying our return can only be experienced from within the borders of Israel itself over the course of time…”

So for those of us still in the tourist mindset, what we need to do is turn vacations and relief missions into pilot trips and visions of our personal futures in our homeland.”

Walking through Tzfat and Chevron this week, I couldn’t help but notice how quiet and empty the streets were, a sad difference from the usual lively atmosphere filled with tourists. It struck me that from Corona to the current war, the past few years have been consistently difficult for tourists to visit in general. This got me thinking about the inherent limitations of anchoring our connection to Israel to being tourists, like most diaspora Jews have. But beyond the effects of struggling businesses that rely on tourism, quiet streets, or the ideological problems of treating our homeland as our vacation home, lies a personal challenge of commitment that arises when we keep ourselves in the tourist mindset that most of us were raised with, and not the citizen mindset we all hope to achieve.

This challenge is evident in Shana Alef students, most of whom approach their year in Israel as just a “gap year” (or two if they’re lucky), before going back to college in America, with the possibility of coming back to live someday in the distant future. When I try to make the case to make Aliyah or go to the army right away instead of waiting, it’s a really hard sell. Because although the idea of joining the IDF and fighting for Am Yisrael is exciting for students, the thought of transitioning from almost zero involvement with Israel to being thrust into a seemingly endless, complicated war is a leap that feels almost unimaginable. This challenge feels especially daunting for those of us who grew up in America, where the idea of living a life intertwined with national struggle and darkness is far less familiar than it is for the average Israeli. Although the reality of defending and settling our land has become more apparent now, it was a lot less intimidating for me to decide to draft a couple years ago in a time of relative peace, compared to embracing it and jumping into uncertainty and darkness right away.

Credit: Ami Roseman

Yet, this period of darkness is one we are all meant to undergo, whether a Shana Alef student or a native Israeli. Just like our exodus from Egypt, our redemption can only come from a place of hardships, because we will not desire redemption if we are living comfortably. The Maharal in Netzach Yisrael adds that this is simply the order of nature. Just like there had to be ״תהו ובהו״, “a desolate void” before light was created, so too we must have darkness before Hashem can reward us the eternal light of redemption.

While it’s relatively easy to grasp the concept that our current struggles will eventually give way to brighter days, committing to this belief through sustained action, like in the case of a Shana Alef student, poses a much more daunting challenge. As I have learned from volunteering for Miluim (reserves), once you commit, there’s no turning back. Our response as outsiders has therefore taken the form of dipping our toes into the water, engaging in tangible actions most commonly being relief missions. However, by not embracing the hardships themselves, we are missing out on the complete and proper healing and consolation from Hashem that comes from enduring these trials firsthand.

The Maharal writes that as Bnei Yisrael, we occupy a unique, divinely elevated status as a nation. Therefore when we sin, the punishments are equally elevated, manifesting in the unnatural and unpredictable tragedies surpassing human comprehension that have defined much of our history, even today. However, just like this heightened state of punishment for our sins, we then also experience consolations from Hashem that align with our elevated, divine status, overshadowing the darkness we just experienced. These consolations take form in miracles, emanating directly from the Heavens, beyond the scope of any human articulation or anticipation. 

Credit: Zally Levenson

As nice as the idea of this Divine Consolation sounds, it inevitably prompts the question of “where are the miracles?” Tzion, the enduring heart and soul of Jerusalem throughout our exile, has a similar conversation with Hashem (Yeshayahu 49:14-21), opening up and lamenting, “Hashem has forsaken and forgotten me.” Hashem responds with pesukim filled with imagery, promising “Swiftly, your children are coming… Look up all around you and see: they are assembled and coming to you!.. Your desolate places shall soon be crowded with settlers… and the children you thought you had lost will say: this place is too crowded! Make room for me to settle!” (v. 17-20). The Malbim (v. 21) then describes Tzion’s utter astonishment at the miraculous return of Bnei Yisrael after years of being left alone, scattered, and in constant danger, and is essentially confused about how this return is possible! 

When we look at our return to Israel, we may not perceive revealed, daily miracles. At times, it may even seem the opposite, as though Hashem has Ch”v forgotten us. Yet, a shift in perspective, like that of Tzion’s astonishment, reveals that these miracles that are indeed accompanying our return can only be experienced from within the borders of Israel itself over the course of time, in a more gradual way. The culmination of Jewish history with our return to Israel after two millennia of dispersion and persecution defies any logic. It can only be through some kind of force above nature orchestrating a gradual and miraculous, drawn out process. 

A modern day example of this process is our access to clean water. Hashem promises “I will open up streams on the bare hill, and fountains amid the valleys, I will turn the desert into ponds, The arid land into springs of water.” (Yeshayahu 41:18) Commentators over the years have unanimously agreed that this act of finding water in these barren areas can only be achieved through miracles and wonders. Yet, we know that one of Israel’s greatest modern achievements lies in literally finding water desert, not to mention cleaning it as well. So much so, that we take it for granted how accessible water is here. But who can genuinely grasp its significance? Is it us, who have been accustomed to readily available, clean water everywhere we go? Or is it the pioneers who settled in the desert over 70 years ago with limited, unclean water, and lived through the development of this unexplainable anomaly which we now benefit from without a second thought? 

A palm grove in the Negev desert (Credit: Jonah Mandel)

Just like the water, miracles continue to unfold and will persist until we reach the final redemption. The Gemara teaches (San. 98a) that the level of miracles is dependent on our worthiness. Yet, we still must still open ourselves up to experiencing them, by immersing ourselves in the entire process, not just as tourists for a week, a month, or even a year at a time. When we reflect on Israel’s transformation from 50 years ago until now and look ahead at its future trajectory, we will be forced to recognize the miracles that unfolded over the long haul, and Hashem’s involvement in bringing us closer to redemption. 

As a simple soldier once said to our unit, Israel has reached its success today because “Everyone left their dream of me, and joined their dream of us.” Even as Americans, our role with Israel is not to merely check a box that we helped, nor is it even to do just what we can – rather we must do what we need to do. So for those of us still in the tourist mindset, what we need to do is turn vacations and relief missions into pilot trips and visions of our personal futures in our homeland. This can include checking out different communities, connecting and receiving advice from other Olim with similar backgrounds, and making a real effort to create a solid plan and make it work. 

Living in Israel is at times living with instability and not being able to plan for even a few months in advance with certainty. But we do our best, and trust that Hashem will see our merits and help us out. Moving to a new country, let alone in the midst of war, is not a conventional thing to do. In the natural world, one can’t comprehend why someone would make such a choice. But that is the essence and story of our return, and that is what makes us Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael.

About the Author
Brian Racer grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey and made Aliyah to Ramat Beit Shemesh in 2020. After learning in Yeshivat Lev Hatorah for a year and a half he drafted to the IDF as a Lone Soldier, serving as a sharpshooter in the Nachal Brigade. Afterwards, he returned to his Yeshiva where he is currently a Madrich for incoming students.
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