The first Shabbos after making aliyah, I sank into a (borrowed) plastic chair, reeling from the shock of our move. Rather than rapture and excitement, I felt simultaneously as though I had narrowly escaped from a burning car, and as if one of my limbs had been suddenly chopped off. The latter was not surprising: we had left behind all of our relatives (we have none in Israel), all of the relationships that we had spent years cultivating as we raised our kids in the only place they knew. The shock of suddenly leaving all that overnight and moving somewhere new and different in almost every way took (takes) a long time to process. But it was the feeling of narrow escape that surprised me; after all, we were not running away from anything when we moved here. Our kids were in good schools, I had finally started making friends (it was New York, after all), we had nice neighbors and every convenience, both Jewishly and practically, that one could wish for.
The only other time I felt such a momentous change, as if a door had closed behind us and there was no going back, was after childbirth. Like with pregnancy, the planning stages of aliyah involve a lot of hope, a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of fear. All the “what-ifs” become more pronounced as time marches forward toward the due date. Even as one question mark resolves, another arises. There’s the ever-present fear of failure. Hopeful Olim follow every story of people who have made aliyah only to return to where they came from. We want to know what happened: what series of events came together to cause their aliyah to fail? What do we have in common with them? Can we learn from their mistakes? Did they even make any mistakes or was the failure out of their control? Like planning for childbirth, we create a plan for aliyah based on what we believe will make things most successful for us and based on other people’s experiences. And then, we put everything that is out of our control (which is way more than we think) into the hands of G-d. We get on that plane. We breathe through the pain of change. And we fly and we cry through the newness, the adjustment, the sky so blue and the sun so bright that we have to squint our eyes as they water from exhilaration in order to see our new home.
My family made aliyah mere months before Covid-19 rocked the world. This summer (but hopefully earlier) will mark nearly two years since we have seen any of our relatives. As Israeli citizens, we have been isolated here when the airport shut down for months. Yet now I understand the foreshadowing feeling of narrow escape that I felt when we arrived here. We are grateful to be sealed in Israel and not locked out.
And now, our second Pesach without relatives has passed us. Shavuot, whose megillah recounts creating your own new family, as Ruth did with Naomi, is heading toward us. On a recent visit to Hebron, a group of women and I stopped in Kiryat Arba for 40 minutes of intense inspiration with Mrs. Rena Ariel, who lost her daughter in a terror attack shortly after Shavuot 5 years ago. She pointed out that the Hebrew words for “choose”, for “flee”, and for “sword/destruction” all use the same three letters (beit, chet, and reish). If one cannot make decisions about bettering their life, destruction is sure to follow. And it is better to have the freedom to choose to leave the country of one’s birth and make aliyah, than to be forced to flee under drastic circumstances.
Ruth teaches us how to leave behind what we know and take steps toward the unknown based on a gut feeling that this is where we belong. The beauty of contemporary aliyah is that we can “adopt” relatives among the many people who have gone through the same experience.
Having recently been blessed with a baby, our Sabra, childbirth is on my mind again. And I’m seeing how aliyah, starting from the first mass aliyah — Yetziat Mitzrayim, the great influx of Jews who arrived in Israel after forty years of wandering, the children of a redeemed nation of slaves — is reminiscent of childbirth. The narrow canal of Egypt squeezed us until we were left choking, certain we could endure no more before we perished. And then, just when we were on the verge of losing hope, we were sent out into the wide world, clouds of glory protecting us; straight from the straits into the Sea that swallowed our former life and we emerged on the other side, exhausted, in shock, but wave after wave of relieved exhilaration washed over us when we realized we made it — we made it out — we were out of the straits, out of the womb, the noose did not tighten though it could have at any moment, and we were free, we could breathe, we were welcomed by loving arms telling us “Hush, it’s OK now; you are safe, you are cherished, you are strong, you are loved, and you are a miracle.”
Thousands of years have passed since that first aliyah, and as much as things have changed, things have remained the same. More than giving birth, we are born anew when making aliyah. It’s scary, but it’s the only way. And when you’re ready – when you’re finally ready to go — your sea will split, you will emerge on the Mediterranean shores, and when the shock wears off you will find yourself saying “this God is my God, this nation is my nation, this struggle is my struggle, this land is my land”, and you will reap the harvest of the tears sown over millennia and the mountains moved in your quest to head toward your destiny and Divine promises fulfilled.