Rachel Gottlieb

Israel at War: A Matter of Time

'Our hope is still not lost.' (courtesy)

Time is a funny thing. It marches at its own pace. In theory, that pace is as steady as they come. Unwavering. Not for anything. But you and I both know the truth. Time slows down when all you want is for it to speed up. Like when you’re sitting in class. Or exercising. And the reverse holds true, too: It’s when you desperately want time to slow down, when you try and hold on to every single second, that the sands of time slip straight through your fingers in a torrent so fast that you can hardly catch your breath.

It’s not enough time. It’s never enough time.

It’s Sunday morning right now. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m flying back to New York tonight. (I don’t want to go back.) I’ve been here in Israel since September 28. (I have to go back.) Today is Day 16 of this war. (I don’t want to go back.) It’s been both an eternity and no time at all. (I can’t go back.)

To be clear, I’m not going back for myself. I made commitments, and I have to follow through with them, because to do anything less would be wrong, but it’s more than that. Right now, this is what God and the Jewish people demand of me. My soldiers who are out there fighting are fighting for our future, and my job is to make sure that the next generation of American children know where they belong in that future. That they know what it means to love this land with every fiber of their being so that it physically pains you when you have to leave. That they understand what it means to stand shoulder to shoulder with their brothers and sisters and to shoulder the burden of that pain because you can’t fathom how anyone could just live as normal when the Jewish people are suffering. That they would never dream of running away if there’s trouble, because how do I run and leave my family behind? How can I run and leave my heart behind? How could I possibly run away? (I can’t.)

I feel like I’m running away. I know I’m not running away. But I feel like I’m running away. My head and my heart are speaking two completely different languages right now. If I weren’t called on to do more, be more, to live for more, then I wouldn’t be going back. But try using logic to reason with emotions. It doesn’t work.

8:51 AM
I’m on a bus on my way into Jerusalem. I’ve been back to Jerusalem once since this war broke out, and that was for a very specific reason. We drove in, went straight to our destination, stayed for the morning, and then drove back. I had planned on going back into Jerusalem after chag; it’s my favorite city in my favorite country and I wanted to just soak up as much of it as I could. Ironically, I was in Jerusalem briefly on October 6, passing through on my way back from visiting someone who lives down thataway, and I thought about swinging by the Old City on my way back. But it was the middle of the day on erev chag and as my friend pointed out, it would likely be packed with tourists, so better to just go back when it will be quieter and I could have it more to myself. It was a good plan at the time. In hindsight, I wish I would have gone. But there was no way to know, on that beautiful, blissful Friday (man, it was such a great day. Like, every part of it) that the next day would bring war. Because time marches linearly. And we can only see backwards, not forwards.

But I didn’t get to say goodbye to my most favorite city. Or rather, not goodbye; more like, “See you later.” But I didn’t get that. So here I am, on my last morning here in my beloved, beautiful homeland (I can’t get enough oxygen), on my way into Jerusalem.

The thing about time, though, is that as time moves on, we begin to adapt. Life takes a different shape than before the war, because it has to, but life gets pulled along with the currents of time. So schools are, for the most part, back in session, at least in this part of the country. Civilians are, for the most part, back at their jobs, living their daily lives. The streets are crowded again. The busses are packed. So packed, in fact, that the bus that I’m on right now is not even going to where I need, but it was the first one that got to the bus stop and actually stopped because there was still some standing room, so I just got on because time is running out and I need to be there already. (And when I say standing room only, I mean sardines. I’m practically sitting on someone’s lap here.) (Where’s a car when you need it, hm?)

I can’t stay there all day, because I have things to do. Like that last bit of laundry. And packing. Ordering a taxi to the airport (seriously, where’s that car when you need it). But I’m on my way in, and I’ll be there for a few hours and I’ll say not goodbye but see you later because it’s only a matter of time until I’m back.

9:32 AM
I just missed the light rail. I saw it coming as I was walking up. I could have run to try and catch it. But I’m in Jerusalem now. And time is short. I’ll wait. It’s okay.

9:38 AM
I’m on the light rail. It’s quiet.

9:46 AM
I got off the light rail. It’s still quiet. I like having Jerusalem to myself but this is eerie.

10:01 AM
All the tourist shops are closed. It makes sense. There are no tourists to be found. Unless I count. Which I don’t. Because this is my home even if my mail doesn’t come here yet. (Let be real, though, the Israeli postal system ensures that nobody’s mail gets here.)

10:56 AM
I’m leaving the Kotel now. My heart is heavy. It wasn’t enough time. It’s never enough time.

It’s crazy how empty it was. I got there a little after 10:00, and it was as empty as it is in the middle of the night. That’s what Jerusalem feels like right now. What’s funny about it is that I love when I get Jerusalem to myself. I feel like I’ve stolen a treasure from right under everyone else’s noses. But that usually happens late at night. Or early, early morning. And then I get to watch the city waking up. But this was the middle of the morning. And the sun is out. And the sky is clear. And it’s a beautiful, beautiful day. And my heart is breaking because I got to steal a treasure that is Jerusalem, my City of Gold, but I didn’t want it. Not like this. Not like this.

11:35 AM
I’m on a bus now. On my way to visit my aunt who lives here in Jerusalem. I found a bakery that’s open to pick up some goodies because, frankly, who shows up empty handed, and also who turns down an opportunity for baked goods. Especially Israeli ones. And you can say it with me by now: It was empty. But they had a sign up that any soldier can get a coffee for free, or a coffee, sandwich, and pastry for 10 shekel. There’s little that makes me prouder than the way we take care of our soldiers. (Take care of them, for me, Israel, while I’m gone. Please.)

2:03 PM
Just left my aunt’s. I had to tear myself away because I love just sitting and talking with her. And because being on the other side of our visit means being that much closer to departure. It wasn’t enough time. It’s never enough time. But time marches inexorably forward and much as I want to, I can’t seem to stop it. I’m trying to take in every single second and soak it all up to be able to bring it back, but it’s not the same. It’s not the same. It’s not the same.

2:22 PM
I’m back on a bus, making my way back to the center of town. I have a couple of things I’d wanted to get to bring back with me, and there’s no reason I shouldn’t still get them. In fact, there’s every reason I should still get them. Every reason.

(It’s still eerily quiet.)

2:56 PM
I’m at the shuk right now. I had to come this way anyway, so I stopped to get ice cream. (There’s this little place that makes an incredible non-dairy hazelnut ice cream that I discovered over chag and I’ve been dreaming about it since last week Wednesday. Or maybe it was Tuesday. I don’t remember. I never know what day it is.) It felt right to take a couple of extra minutes and just sit. That’s time well spent. Getting in my last few moments.

(I can’t believe I’m leaving.)

It’s quiet, as far as the shuk goes. (I’m noticing a theme.) There are a lot of stores that are shuttered. The proprietors are probably off fighting. Or there’s just no reason to open right now because the tourists are gone. (Hey, Americans, you want to know how you can help? And I mean really help? Come back. Israel needs you. Now, more than ever. She needs your dollars spent here. She needs your presence here. She needs you to stand side by side with the people here in a real, real show of solidarity. You want to help? Come back.)

(Why am I leaving??)

3:38 PM
I’m on a bus back to Bet Shemesh. Leaving my beloved Jerusalem. It’s not enough time because it’s never enough time, and the truth is, I thought I’d be back already two hours ago, but time seems to melt away when you’re here and before you know it, it’s later than you had originally thought. (It happens to me so often that the one time I got back to Bet Shemesh around 1:00 in the afternoon, my aunt wanted to know if everything was okay. I laughed and told her I was only there briefly because I had something I had to take care of that had a hard deadline and then was going right back out, have no fear.)

It hurts to leave. It always hurts to leave but especially now, in the middle of a war, on what looks like the brink of an invasion into Gaza, with Hezbollah playing footsie with our soldiers up north, with another siren in Bet Shemesh today that I missed because I was in Jerusalem. In the best of times, leaving Israel just absolutely tears my heart out. And this isn’t the best of times. Far from it. And it hurts so much that I have trouble breathing when I think about it. (How can I leave?)

I’m not running away. I have to keep telling myself that because maybe, just maybe, I’ll start to hear it. But really, all I want right now is to be able to be selfish. All I want is to just be able to stay. But I can’t. Because I’ve been asked to do more than live for myself. I talk about this all the time, about living for something greater than just yourself, but it’s easy to live by that precept when times are easier. This is where I’m being tested, though. This is where I need to put my money where my mouth is. This is what I have been asked to do for the sake of God and the Jewish people. Until now, it’s been a training run. But just because I’ve been training for this for the last however many years doesn’t make this easy.

But I’m okay with that. I’m okay with the fact that it’s hard. Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It should hurt this much to leave. It should be this hard. I should love Israel so much that I leave a part of me behind when I go. Because that’s what will keep me grounded. That’s what will keep me focused. Growth doesn’t happen when things are easy. The challenge is not to rise to the occasion when it takes nothing from you. The challenge is to rise to the occasion when it takes everything from you. The real challenge, the real test, is do the right thing when it is the exact opposite of what you want. And so I’m going back.

(It still hurts. So much.)

4:31 PM
I’m back at the house now. I have to start packing. I don’t want to.

I don’t want to go.

6:09 PM
My aunt and uncle have a wedding tonight. They just left. It wasn’t goodbye, it was see you later, but it was still hard. This has been my home for the last three and a half weeks. We’ve been through a lot together in the last sixteen days.

It hurts to leave.

6:22 PM
My bags are packed. This is crazy. I have a Zoom meeting at 7:00 so I have to be all ready to go before then. I showered, so that at least I’ll be clean when I get on the plane. I didn’t do my laundry. It’s okay, though. New York has washing machines. Last I checked, anyway.

7:37 PM
I’m antsy. My head is not in this meeting right now. And I can’t focus. Why am I doing this?

Why am I leaving?

8:32 PM
My suitcases and I are sitting outside. Waiting. For the taxi that I don’t want to come pick me up but inevitably will because it inevitably must.

9:15 PM
Somehow the fact that my WhatsApp number is an American number translated into the driver arriving forty minutes late. (Seriously. Where’s that car when you need it.) But I’m in the taxi now. On my way to the airport. (My lungs seem to have contracted.)

I don’t want to go.

I can’t go.

I have to go.

I don’t want to go.

(I can’t see the keyboard through my tears.)

9:27 PM
I can see again.

We’ll be at the airport shortly. Hopefully there isn’t much of a line to check in and at security. I don’t want to feel like I rushed onto the plane. That’s not how I want to leave. I mean, I don’t want to leave at all, but I am, because I have a mission to fill for the sake of God and the Jewish people, and if I’m heading back to fill that mission then I want the chance to do it with my head held high. I’m not running away. God, You can testify: I. Am. Not. Running. Away.

And Israel? I may be leaving, but I can promise you, you still hold my heart. You stole it back in 2005, and no one has ever come within the same league as you. I may be leaving, but it’s just temporary. Watch over my people until I get back. Because I promise you, Israel: I will be back.

I promise.

Please continue to pray for us, and for the following soldiers, especially:
עזרא צבי יוסף בן אריאלה פנינה
יעקב זכריה בן אריאלה פנינה
אליהו סִינַי בן ביילא רבקה
נַתַּן בן דבורה אסתר
דוד אלכסנדר בן דבורה אסתר
אלכסנדר בן שרה אלישבע
ראובן אליעזר בן אביגיל אסתר
בועז כָּלֵב בן יפָה מרים
יצחק אייזיק בן פריידא
אהרן בן רחל ברכה
חובב בן דבורה אסתר

כי ה׳ אלקיכם ההולך עמכם להלחם לכם עם אויביכם להושיע אתכם. ה׳ ישמור צאתך ובואך מעתה ועד עולם

About the Author
As a combination logophile and Israel-o-phile, Rachel's fingers itch whenever something needs to be shared about Israel, particularly as it relates to the Diaspora. Her credentials include a Master's in English and many years experience as a high-school English teacher, which covers the writing part, and being a card-carrying member of the Jewish nation, which covers the Israel part. Although she currently resides in Suffern, NY, her heart has long since been stolen by Israel herself, and her mind is constantly preoccupied with the capital of the Jewish people.
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