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Those Singing on the Other Side of the Sea

My daughter Shira made Aliyah a year and a half ago. Instead of drafting into the Israeli army, Shira enrolled in a program called Sheirut Le’umi, which is the Hebrew term for National Service. Last year, Shira spent a year volunteering in a Kindergarten for special needs children in Jerusalem. Other girls in her program volunteered in hospitals, nursing homes, community centers and the like. This past October, Shira was to begin her studies at Tel Aviv University studying electrical engineering. However, due to the fact that so many of the students were called to Milluim, reservists duty in the war, all state run college openings were delayed until the end of the calendar year. So for nearly three months, Shira would send us pictures of her volunteering on farms picking fruits and vegetables or flowers, collecting eggs in a chicken coop, packaging goods, baking challah for soldiers, or participating in programs and events to support children and families who have been displaced due to the war.

College finally started on Dec 31, but this past week, the schools were given a week off so that those who were returning from reserve duty could catch up on what they missed the first few weeks of school. Now Shira has shared with me how intense her school work is, let alone I might add, that the program is completely delivered in Hebrew, and she should have probably used this week off to completely focus on her school work. Instead, she split her week with half the week doing her homework, and half the week volunteering on her favorite farm again. When I asked her why she did that, since she still has so much school work to catch up with, she didn’t really understand my question. 

She simply just responded…”But they needed people.”

My daughter Anat is spending the year studying in seminary. A couple of weeks ago she too began the process of making Aliyah, where she plans to enlist in the Israeli army and likely draft sometime in December. The seminary she is in, consists of about 25 girls from English speaking countries, and about 200 Israeli Post-High school girls. Of those 25, she said, 10 of them have begun the Aliyah process. Anat has spoken to me a great deal about her Israeli friends who have siblings and sometimes fathers currently serving in the war, many of whom have spent time in Gaza. A lot of girls, she said, are very emotional these days, as they know or are related to soldiers who have fallen in battle. At some point I asked Anat if this is too heavy for her: If she thinks she might be better off coming home? And….She didn’t understand the question. What was clear from her response was…She already IS home. 

I don’t know if there is a greater feeling than to be inspired by, of all people, your own children. 

Of course, I know my girls are no more special than so many of these remarkable young people. Every year, tens of thousands of Israeli young men and women spend several years of their young lives serving their country and their people.  In October  350,000 reservists joined the battle, risking, and now sadly, over 200 losing their lives in this war. Millions of Israelis have joined the war effort, supporting the war effort in one way or another. 

And every year, thousands of Jews from all over the world make decisions to change the trajectory of their lives and become Israeli citizens, joining this mission of building and protecting the national homeland. 

How do they do it? In truth, if we think about it, maybe it is us who shouldn’t understand the question. 

In the opening scene of this week’s Torah portion, we are told that the Jewish nation left Egypt. 

Ve’chamushim Alu B’nei Yisrael Me’eretz Mitz-ra-im

Which is translated as  – “Now the Israelites went up “armed” out of the land of Egypt.”

The commentators note that the Hebrew word Cha-mu-shim, is actually a strange choice of words. And the Rabbi’s of the Midrash picked up on that, and told a different narrative. Homiletically they use the term Cha-mush as 1/5th, and they say as quoted in Rashi’s commentary, 

“only one out of five went forth from Egypt, and four parts of the people died during the three days of darkness because they were unworthy of being delivered”

This follows Rashi’s quote of the Midrash from last week’s portion, in the description of the plague of darkness. The darkness is referred to as Choshech A-feilah, which is described as so thick that the Egyptians were unable to even move. And there, as Rashi quotes the Midrash, it conveys that G-d in His sensitivity had these 80 percent of non-believers pass during this time, so that the Egyptians wouldn’t see their demise. 

Now rather than take this Midrash literally, we must try to understand what lesson the Rabbis were trying to convey to us from this homiletic reading. 

I propose they were explaining that leaving Egypt, even for those who were bitterly enslaved and oppressed, was much harder than you might think. Not everyone, in fact an overwhelming majority of the nation, were unable to make that broad move. To leave Egypt meant to go into the wilderness, and to have faith that G-d would somehow provide all your basic needs. To leave Egypt meant to believe that the G-d that you hardly knew, would somehow fulfill all of your national needs of helping to conquer the land promised to your ancestors. For most of the nation, the Rabbi’s surmised, that was too difficult. Regardless of their current living conditions and status as slaves, leaving their comfort zone was too much of an ask. For most of the Israelites, they were stuck in an A’fai-lah, an emotional paralysis, and were unable to leave.

And for those who did take that leap? For those who walked faithfully into the dessert or jumped into the water? Don’t think they weren’t scared or anxious. Don’t think they weren’t concerned about their own well being and even survival. The text says explicitly that even G-d felt that Israelites were not yet battle ready. But this group, the group that left and made the move, they understood that if they didn’t leave Egypt, there would be no future for their people and their nation. If they failed to leave their comfort zone, to risk their lives, then the ancestral national dream would be lost.

And so for that small group, when they were given the choice to stay or leave…, they didn’t understand the question. 

As Dr Martin Luther King said,  “If you have nothing worth dying for, then you have nothing worth living for”

Or a quote I liked even better then, by N Gemini Sasson in her book “Worth Dying For”, “And in that I never saw more truth…than to truly live, was to have something worth dying for.” 

Over the last few months, so many of you have approached me sensitively and asked me how my girls are doing in Israel. Many of you have told me that you are thinking of them and praying for them. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that. Some of you have sensitively asked me how Chevi and I are doing. You have used terms like ‘it must be so hard for you.”, or “I’m sure you wish you could bring them back”, or “maybe you can MAKE them come home”. Actually that last line is from my mother, who says that basically every time I speak to her.

But I’m not sure we understand the question. 

First, let me tell you for those who do not speak to friends and family in Israel regularly, that right now, for 90 percent of the land of Israel, civilians do not walk around feeling as if they are in danger. My daughter takes the bus every day to go to school from Herzeliya to Tel Aviv. My girls are roaming around the country, walking the streets and feeling completely safe. They are not in a “war zone”. When I visited Israel in November, I felt so much safer walking the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv than I would walking around Manhattan.

But I think as Jews, there are other reasons we should not be understanding “the question”.

In Israel, because of the draft and the general culture that has developed there, there is something that has been termed “civic responsibility”. That calling exists for so many of us as a community, which is beautiful and why we have so many amazing volunteers, but it is very limited in scope. Even more so, you would be hard pressed to find many who guide their lives with “civic duties” in the Western world. Our culture has spent generations focusing on the importance of personal rights, and to a great deal has failed to cultivate a sense of national responsibilities.. 

And so now, in this remarkable age where the world is changing and G-d has miraculously opened the door on our national dream, we, and I include myself in this category, are the 80 percent, who have been paralyzed and have stayed back. As I said, that doesn’t mean that it’s not easy, and challenging, but it does mean that we have found ourselves to be stuck here, paralyzed to respond to the story being written before our eyes by the comfort and culture that we have become so accustomed to. While that doesn’t mean that we should all be expected to make Aliyah today, I do think it means that we should at least be struggling with the question.

And we should be inspired, and yes envious, for those special people who don’t even understand the question. 

Even with the many challenges that Israelis face today, and the many uncertainties about her future, those who have taken the leap into the water continue to sing the song of the sea on the other side. 

Should we? 

I think given our national history and the story of our people, we should at least understand the question. 

About the Author
Rabbi Ira Ebbin serves as the Rabbi of Congregation Ohav Sholom, a Modern Orthodox Synagogue in Merrick, NY.
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