Not just back as in back to writing, although that, too, is true, and now that my semester is over and the last of my assignments are submitted (three cheers for me), I do hope to get back to writing on a semi-regular basis.
Nope. Rather, I’m back from Israel. Again. (As I write this, I’m actually still sitting on the plane as we make our way to the gate because we literally just landed.) I wasn’t there for very long. It was one week, and it was a whirlwind, because when you’re in Israel for a week you make the most of it under the best of circumstances, never mind when you left it the way you had six weeks earlier and it nearly broke you because to be torn in two like that does something to a person.
And here I have to pause: I wasn’t supposed to be in Israel for a full week. It was supposed to be three and a half days, flying out on Saturday night to land in Israel Sunday evening, and then fly back late Wednesday night to be back at work Thursday morning. I’d get to be in Israel for part of Chanukah, and I was extremely grateful to my employer for giving me the extra day around vacation (Wednesday) so that I would have a little bit more than five minutes there. And then one day, about a week and a half before I was due to fly out, my principal stopped me in the hallway and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about your upcoming trip, and I’m so excited for you that you’re going and that you’ll be in Israel for Chanukah but I realized that with the way the calendar works out, you won’t be there for Shabbat at all…let me see how I can make this work for you.” And two hours later, as I’m on my way out of work, she tells me, “Okay, it’s taken care of; you can change your ticket to stay through the weekend.” I’ll be honest, it took me a couple of hours to process, and I kept coming back to her and asking, “Are you sure? Are you sure?” To be clear: I had never asked for it, and I was nothing short of purely grateful for the fact that they were initially giving me an extra day, because I understand that even though it was war and there are circumstances that one cannot always control, I had missed two weeks of work, and so their giving me the extra one day now for Chanukah, which was all I had asked for, was incredibly generous. To give me that additional weekend, though? I was—still am, honestly—overwhelmed at the kindness of that gesture. It meant the world to me. And it still does. And so I pause in my blog post (that does have a point buried in there somewhere) to share with the world this unbelievable kindness that was done to me, simply out of the goodness of my boss’ heart, because I have thanked her personally again and again and again but I need to raise the stakes by expressing my gratitude publicly.
So I was in Israel for a week, from Sunday to Sunday, which meant that I was there for most of Chanukah and then the Shabbat that followed. (Just so we’re all perfectly clear: That’s double what I would have gotten with my original trip that I’d planned. That’s how huge a gift that extra time was.) As I mentioned, it was a whirlwind. I did my utmost to make the most of my time, because every second is precious, but honestly, it didn’t take much from me. Because the second the plane landed, I felt a massive weight lift off my shoulders. From the moment I touched down, I felt at peace. It had been six weeks since I left, which felt like a lifetime ago, but as soon as I was back, it was no time at all.
That feeling, the forever-ago-and-no-time-at-all feeling, was only partially because of me and how my days stretched when I was back in the States. I was busy. Really, really busy. And I had Israel and my soldiers at the forefront of my mind at all times, even, yes, when I took a break. And the worry when your soldiers are in Gaza is still next level, because there’s no getting used to that even as you trudge forward through your life because you promised you would live and you know that this is your role right now. And there was still that dissonance when I took some time for myself because it felt wrong every time but for one thing, I can’t be human if I don’t, and for another, the soldiers are fighting for us to live and if we don’t then what are they fighting for? (I actually spoke to one of my guys the other night who reiterated that point to me. I believe the exact quote was, “Life must go on. If it doesn’t, why are we doing this, why are we fighting?”) (And if I got it slightly wrong, have no fear, he’ll be sure to let me know.) And so my days were packed and time shrank and expanded and suddenly I was back in Israel.
But the feeling also came from Israel herself. Because when I left in October, Israel was at war. And when I came back in December, you all know it, she is still at war. Greeting you as you get into Ben Gurion, as you make your way to passport control, is a lineup of pictures of the hostages, searing their faces into your heart as your joy of being back is—rightfully—tempered with the reminder of that gut-wrenching sorrow. Because even though those signs are, thank God, all over in the States, and we do not forget about our brothers and sisters in captivity for even a second, it just hits different when you’re living it. We had a siren on Friday night in Beit Shemesh, where I was staying, which was actually the first siren they’ve had since I was in Israel the last time. I was in shul when the siren went off, and we all just rolled with it, heading downstairs to the basement for protection, staying there for however long it was (my watch died, but I’ll assume it was about ten minutes), continuing with the services while we were down there, and then heading back upstairs to finish up. Wherever you go, you see so many guns all over the place, because the military has ballooned to encompass so many more than just the regular conscriptions, and even though obviously many of those reservists are on the front, there are also many who aren’t, whether they came home for the weekend or for 24 hours or who even knows, but in what is already a military country, you just can’t help but feel it that much more. In the Jewish quarter of the Old City, there were menorahs set up and lit for each of the hostages, organized by two American gap-year programs that are living with this war and want to do more, and so everyone who passes by sees the menorahs and continues to feel the plight of the hostages in their heart of hearts. There are signs up everywhere that proclaim that we will together emerge victorious, or the simple yet poignant am yisrael chai, or about coming together to spread light, or anything of the sort but all very clear, visual reminders of the indomitable spirit of the Jewish people that will not be broken even as we fight for our very existence.
The point is that Israel is very much still at war. It’s on the faces of the soldiers who are exhausted, but push forward anyway because there are people, alive and dead, who are counting on them to do their duties. It’s in the careful footsteps of the mother, as she carries her child across her yard that she has lived in for fourteen years but she now knows had tunnels underneath, to borrow eggs from the neighbor because they came home for the weekend and it’s not safe, still, in their village to come back and so they’re just here for now but they’re going back tomorrow morning to where they’ve been staying near the Dead Sea. It’s on the shoulders of the reservists who have been sent home from the front lines because they have been on duty for two months straight and they cannot continue to give 100% indefinitely, and so they’ve been rotated out for a fresh group but this war-worn unit has now been thrust back into their daily lives where, a week and a half ago, they were in Gaza, and now they’re here and not there and the fight is still raging and even that dissonance itself is an unexpected burden. It’s in the tears of a child who jumps, terrified, when the Red Alert siren goes off, and can find solace nowhere but in her father’s arms as he holds her until she stops shaking.
But even with all of that—and not just in spite of it, but because of it—Israel is still living. I was at the Kotel with friends for the lighting of the menorah one evening, and while it certainly wasn’t as crowded as it would have been during peacetime, there was a substantial amount of people there. The sufganiot were still flying off the shelves, because it was still Chanukah. People were still going on Chanukah tiyulim, whether with family or with friends, because you take advantage of being on break whenever you can. There was still way too much traffic in front of my aunt’s house at 7:30 in the morning because there are approximately seven hundred schools right there and everyone is coming at the same time and, yes, school is most definitely back in session. There was plenty of noise making its way up to the back porch on Shabbat afternoon from the Bnei Akiva groups that are meeting again. My friend and I went for a walk on Friday night, and the streets were full because it was a beautiful night and yes, we’d had a siren, but it was still a beautiful night and everyone wanted to enjoy it.
Israel is most definitely still at war. I went to visit one of my soldiers down near the front (about as close as it gets), and was introduced to the sound of a helicopter releasing a missile. I was fully used to the other booms from back in October, so while they didn’t bother me, I noticed how much louder they were. And said soldier, of course, was in full uniform, and hopping from phone call to phone call because that’s his responsibility right now. But Israel is living with it. Sure, we were practically at the Gaza border, but we sat there eating soup because it was cold and there was soup and so, yeah, you pause the conversation when there’s too loud a noise, but otherwise you just roll with it. Even something as simple as driving there was noteworthy, because all of those roads had been closed to civilians a month ago and some of those roads were closed as recently as last week Thursday, and as we were driving down, the friend I was with kept pointing out landmarks of, “Oh, this is where we walked that first night of the war,” and, “See that? That’s where we rested when we were off duty.”
That’s Israel, though. She is resilient. She triumphs. She is 2,000 years of barren wasteland brought back to life and breathtaking beauty because we will never give up on her. And so Israel lives with her fear. It’s a noticeable difference from the Diaspora, which lives under that fear. And that’s not a criticism; it’s an observation. I get it. When you’re not in Israel, there is a real urgency to keep the war alive and real and present in our daily lives, because we cannot simply choose to move on while our brothers and sisters cannot. And the way that the Diaspora has rallied around Israel is indescribably beautiful. But I think that Diaspora Jewry could do with taking a page out of Israel’s book, to learn not just to shoulder the burden, but to internalize it as a fact of life and live with it, rather than under it, to really be at one with our brothers and sisters in Israel. I readily admit: That is easier said that done. But it is doable. I’ve seen the way the Diaspora has stood up for Israel over the last two and a half months, and if it has that kind of strength, then it has the strength to pull itself to the next level.
This is the challenge that faces us now. Don’t live in spite of the fear. Don’t live under the fear. Live with the fear. But don’t be afraid to live. Take Israel’s resilience and internalize it, spreading it far and wide in the world, using it to push back against the tides that sometimes threaten to overwhelm us. Use that characteristic to be the light unto the nations that Israel is as she stands as a bastion of hope even through the darkest of times.
She will come back. She will rebuild. She’s already in the process.
Let’s make sure we’re a part of that.
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
אלכסנדר בן שרה אלישבע
ראובן אליעזר בן אביגיל אסתר
יצחק אייזיק בן פריידא
אהרן בן רחל ברכה
חובב בן דבורה אסתר
שמחה בן הינדא ברכה
כי ה׳ אלקיכם ההולך עמכם להלחם לכם עם אויביכם להושיע אתכם. ה׳ ישמור צאתך ובואך מעתה ועד עולם