Leaving Israel

On Sunday morning, after spending the bulk of our summer in Israel, I am going to board an airplane holding my wife’s hand with our kids in tow, and head back to our home in the suburbs of New Jersey and to the reality of our life in the Diaspora.

Each time I depart Israel I experience a surreal emotion — more than the plain-old sadness of leaving Israel — that literally pains my heart. Until recently, I could not put my finger on the emotion. Now, I think I got it.

It all happens shortly after I have my passport stamped and just before I search frantically for that last “Israeli” product that escaped me for the past six weeks. Right about then, I get overwhelmed with a sense of solitude. I sit by the fountain in the middle of the departures terminal, sink my head into my hands and I come to the painful realization: Israel will be fine when I leave Her.

This surreal emptiness just before boarding happens each time I visit, like clockwork (and I am here a lot, last year, six times!). How could a place I love with my heart and soul, only paralleled to the love I share for my wife and children, be the same when I leave? Shouldn’t it hiccup? Why doesn’t it pause for a moment? Couldn’t it stop and say goodbye and acknowledge my departure? How could it be exactly the same? The rhythm of this land doesn’t lose its beat at all after I am 35,000 feet above it.

When I say goodbye to my mother or my in-laws who live a plane ride away, they cry. I know that their house feels empty for a while and they genuinely miss me and my kids, and us, them. Why wouldn’t the same apply for Israel? How can I long for it, and it not for me? Don’t tell me a place can’t long for you. Not true and this is no ordinary place.

When I find myself at the fountain smack in the center of Ben Gurion Airport in this weird funk and strange state of mind, my eyes often look up at the planes emptying out and people walking down the ramp to enter this magical place. Shuffling down are tourists, synagogue groups led by pasty skinned rabbis wearing dusty sandals, Christian pilgrims with cross emblazoned caps and matching name tags a handful of Americans who have made aliyah, and of course, Israelis returning from vacation proudly wearing a Los Angeles LAKERS jersey.

When I see those travellers deplaning, I get jealous. Israel is going to envelop all of them. She will embrace them; smother them with cucumbers, tomatoes, cappuccino and a dash of attitude. Israel will love them, unconditionally. I want more of that love. I can’t get enough! Those getting off the plane — whether staying for a week or a month or a lifetime — will witness and live in tension. Threats from Iran, ultra-Orthodox conscription laws, the price of cottage cheese and land swaps will pull and tug. These people will likely deal with a level of bureaucracy that makes customer service at the DMV seem like dealing with the Ritz Carlton. Meanwhile, I am headed toward a land with trivial conflicts. I will be in a place where waiters smile and seem to be tasked with serving the customer. I am headed to a place where arguing happens in private. I am headed to a place where our biggest worry is about which camp for over-privileged kids I should send my child to next summer. And I am envious of the former, not the latter. I want what those coming in are getting, not those on their way out. Of the two, this is the Better Place, (pun intended).

I suppose the best way to explain it is: Israel gets “it” in your bloodstream when you arrive here. It becomes part of one’s DNA, and it works like a drug. It takes me an equal amount of time per visit to detox when I get home. I spend weeks weaning myself by drinking foamed coffee and munching on diced vegetables at the outdoor café owned by a local Israeli until “it” slowly quiets in my blood stream. But, what I sadly realize is, each day I miss this land, yearn for Her, Israel is whole without me yet I am incomplete without Her.

When in Jerusalem, I purchase my favorite Shabbat eats weekly from the same shop and love the animated counterman that takes my order. When I reach the last Shabbat of my stay, I typically say, “goodbye and I will see you in X amount f time when I return.”

He always replies with a sarcastic wink and the words, “I already miss you.” He doesn’t skip a beat yelling out to the next customer who is impatiently driving his elbowsinto my back to get the last stuffed grape leaves on the counter. He doesn’t really miss me when I am gone. He profits (quite well) from my business when I am here but my absence doesn’t change him. It only changes me.

Of course, our presence matters here. But when we leave, life goes on the same. We don’t.

I made a rule about a dozen years ago, that I would nolonger leave this country without knowing when my next visit would be. Sometimes it would be weeks away, other times months. Regardless, I never depart without knowing that my schedule brings me back and I can tick off the days until that happens. What I realize is that date is the finish line to imbibe the drug I crave.

A Hasidic tale is shared about a boy that goes to the hills to mediate and find God. His father asks him, “Why do you go to the hills?”

He replies, “To speak with God.”

The father quickly retorts, “God is the same here as there – why go that distance and through those hills and dangers when you could talk to God here?”

The boy replied, “God might be the same in both places, but I am not.”

This is my story too.

About the Author
David-Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Closter, New Jersey. He is the past President of the NY Board of Rabbis, President of the NJ Board of Rabbis and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute. Rabbi Kirshner was appointed to the New Jersey/Israel commission and is a member of the Chancellor's Rabbinic Cabinet at the Jewish Theological Seminary.