Thursday, August 28, 2008

CAN'T STOP... thinkin' about geula

I am obsessed with geula.

I get like this.

I've had many intellectual obsessions before, so I recognize the symptoms. I get an itch, an idea, and I spend hours, days, weeks, months, sometimes years, learning all I can about it. I've spent months reading one Holocaust memoir after another. I spent years trying to unravel why Judaism has such trouble with the whole gender thing. I know WAY more about Israel than I did just a few years ago.

You get the idea.

And now, I can't stop thinking about geula. Number 12 of Rambam's Thirteen Principles of Faith, is:

I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah. No matter how long it takes, I will await His coming every day.

I'm really, really, REALLY good with that one.

Here are some of the specific things I'm thinking about:
  • Russia is the force behind Iran. Russia and Iran and their allies will invade Israel soon and America will not be able to stop it. Europe will be equally powerless or equally unwilling to get involved. God, on the other hand, will be on Israel's side and something very dramatic will happen to put an end to the enemies of Israel.
  • There is no human way to solve the conflict with Muslim Arabs. There is absolutely no possibility of "peaceful coexistance". Their goal is to establish worldwide Islamic rule, both governmentally and religiously. Anyone who does not conform to their worldview is an infidel and must be killed. Only God can get us out of this one.
  • The Chofetz Chaim zt"l recently appeared in a dream to his oldest living Talmid and told him that Moshiach is on his way. One version of the story I read claimed that Moshiach will arrive before Rosh Hashana. Assuming that means this Rosh Hashana, we're talking a matter of weeks. Even for the skeptics, it's mind-blowing to think that it could happen so suddenly... and so soon.
  • Most people are planning for the future as if the current list of social problems - economic downturns, the high incidence of natural disasters, environmental crises, Islamic fanaticism, widespread health issues, the tragedy of the secular government in Israel, etc., are cyclical. What goes down must come up. Barack Obama will secure America at home and restore our reputation abroad. Blah, blah blah. But when Moshiach comes, these problems will be solved for us.
  • Jews throughout history have been forced to leave their homes in the Diaspora at a moment's notice, with nothing more than whatever they could carry, but American Jews think we are immune from this sudden change in fortunes. Most of us didn't even notice that it just happened to Georgian Jews (there's that Russian aggression again) a few weeks ago.
No wonder I'm keeping such strange hours. Who can sleep while anticipating geula so relentlessly?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Hurtling Toward Geula

It's hit me. I'm back in galut a full week now, and a couple of days ago, the mourning period began. Once again, I'm grieving.

For someone as plugged in as I am to the virtual world, it's probably not surprising that so many of the things that pierce through me come in emails from friends in Israel. I know it's not deliberate. They're just reporting on their lives. This one is spending Shabbat in a city I in which would love to experience Shabbat. That one just made aliyah and is writing from her mirpeset, overlooking Yerushalayim. This one is back home, in Israel, after a business trip to the US. That one's daughter just got engaged to a yeshiva student. This one just went to the NBN Bloggers' Convention in Jerusalem. That one is moving into her new home. This one is celebrating an aliyah anniversary. That one just went out to dinner with this one. It's just life, happening in Israel.

The tears I didn't cry leaving Israel this time have bubbled up to the surface. I'm missing Israel, and missing my friends who see the world as I see it. In Israel, I desire metaphysical things - to feel God, to bring geula with rachamim, to see Moshiach, to be able to live where Jewish history happens.

Back here a week, I am overwhelmed with the vacuousness of materialism, which seems to attack me from all directions. There is no end to wanting. Today, I bought a platter decorated with cherries. It was 40% off. I was in some kind of fog when I bought it. "Oh, that's cute. And I can afford it!" echoed inside my head, but my brain was disengaged. I have no idea what I'm going to do with it now that I have it, but this materialism is SO seductive.

I desire to be less judgmental, but I don't know what to do with the feelings I have about religious Jews who are just oblivious. A friend gave me a copy of Pastor John Hagee's Jerusalem Countdown. The Jesus-talk aside, he sounds a lot like the Jewish voices that warn that Islamic Fundamentalism and Iran's increasing nuclear capabilities will bring us to the war of Gog and Magog. How does a Christian minister get it at the same time that so many, many religious Jews in America don't see what is right before their eyes?

The world is hurtling toward geula, and it could be, Gd-forbid, a brutal journey. The world is fundamentally different than it was just 7 years ago, but people act like it's business as usual; like there is all the time in the world.

If I speak my mind here in galut, people tell me to lighten up, that people need to live their lives. That it's not possible to sustain such intense focus on these issues. Or that I'm overreacting. How I love hearing that one.

I am woefully misplaced.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

We Are Not Snakes: Parshat Eikev 5768

One way of understanding Jewish life is that the whole system, all the mitzvot, all the Torah, all the Jewish avenues for improving one’s character, everything, exists to help us establish and grow in our relationship with God.

Just as the ideal place to develop and strengthen our relationship with our spouse is in the privacy of our home, there is a physical location that is the ideal place to come close to God. There is one specific place where God has promised us, over and over again, that we can best nurture our relationship with Him. That place is the Land of Israel. It says in Parshat Eikev, the Land of Israel is: A Land that the Lord your God seeks out; the eyes of Hashem, your God, are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to year’s end (Deuteronomy 11:12)

God pays very close attention to the Land of Israel (the eyes of Hashem, your God, are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to year’s end) and, as a result, Israel has an indescribable spiritual quality that enables Jewish people to feel the presence of God more deeply. It’s as if Jerusalem is God’s living room. But if God wants the Jewish people to feel connected to Him in Israel, why does life there seem so much harder than it is in Baltimore?

In the story of Adam and Eve, all three players were punished. The snake was punished with the curse that, henceforth, his meals would consist of the dust of the earth. Considering how close a snake’s mouth is to the ground, this punishment seems hard to understand. After all, for the snake, everywhere he looks, there’s lunch! In what way is that a curse?

Imagine sending your daughter off to college in a distant state. Some parents might give her enough money at the start of the year to sustain her throughout the year. But wiser parents know that if they give their daughter expense money in smaller amounts, they can guarantee that they will hear from her periodically. And when she calls to ask for a cash infusion, there is an opportunity to talk about her life in college and to further build on the parent-child relationship.

If you consider the matter, you will see that the snake’s curse is the worst curse possible. God has, in effect, said to the snake, “Leave Me alone. I don’t want to hear from you. I’m going to give you whatever you need to sustain your life so that you won’t need to call upon Me.” Some people turn to God only in moments of crisis, in moments of lack. Since God wants to have a relationship with us, sometimes God sends us trials exactly so that we will turn to Him. But He wants no such relationship with the snake, so the snake feels no lack.

Similarly, everywhere else but the Land of Israel, things seem to proceed according to a natural order. You plant and you harvest. You work hard and you earn a respectable salary. It’s human nature, in such a world, to forget that all blessings come from God. Like the snake, like the middle-class American shopping at WalMart, we get what we need with relative ease, so we tend to forget about God. But we are not snakes. God wants to hear from us.

In Israel, life’s daily challenges force us to acknowledge that we are dependent on God for everything. It seems paradoxical that life is more challenging in the place God directs so much of His attention. But it is that way exactly because God wants us to ask Him for what we need. And He knows that, in Israel, this awareness is more easily achieved.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

On Leaving Israel

Hashem put so many challenges in the way of my leaving Israel this time that it makes me wonder if He was purposefully distracting me so I wouldn’t have time to feel as sad as I usually do when leaving His Holy Home.

What I cherish most about this trip are the spiritual openings. Being in Israel provides me with the ideal environment to expand my spiritual vision. If the purpose of leading an observant Jewish life is to come to see Gd as present in more and more aspects of your life, the air in Israel excels in assisting with that quest.

Here’s an example. In Israel in August, I am especially careful to take a water bottle with me all the time. Last week, I took my water bottle, put it in an insulated holder, and went to the car. I forgot to pull the top of the water bottle holder closed and, as I bent to get in the car, my water bottle fell out and rolled away. I assumed that it had rolled under the next car so I waited on the other side for it to emerge as it continued its roll, but it never came back out. I assumed it was lost to me, stuck somewhere under someone else’s car.

Seeing Gd as the Cause of everything that happens to me, I accepted that the inconvenience of losing my water bottle was a potch, a minor punishment meant to keep me from having to face a larger punishment all at once. Although others may see the loss of the water bottle as a random irritation, I accepted that the loss of my water bottle came from Gd.

After our errands, my husband pulled the car back into the very same parking space we vacated hours earlier. From this angle, with the headlights shining in the dark, I could clearly see that the water bottle had gotten stuck under the tire of the next car. I walked around the tire and easily retrieved it. Having accepted that the loss came from Hashem, there was no reason to prolong the punishment and Hashem restored the water bottle to me.

Am I sure I’m right about my conclusion? I’m not sure. But I like this approach because it reads Gd into the story. Otherwise, it’s just a boring story about a small hassle of daily life.

Seeing Gd as present in more and more facets of my life, large and small, helps calm and center me. I spent hours trying to straighten out a booking error in our return flight. When we got to the airport, the error was still in our record, despite multiple assurances that it had been fixed. Since I believed that Gd sent this inconvenience, there was no point in getting upset. So I went through the stages of rectifying the error and, as I write this, EL AL has $100 more of my money, but I am on the flight.

Expanding my relationship with Gd is something that consistently happens during the time I am blessed to be in Israel.

I also consistently notice the profoundly Jewish things that make up every day life in Israel. As we were packing the car tonight, there was a man in the street, standing in front of the shul across from our apartment, shouting “Mincha! Mincha!” in an attempt to literally pull a minyan off the street. On Radio Kol Chai, there is a show where listeners call in and report acts of chesed they have witnessed. On a train between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, a group of, ahem… unaccompanied minors with a lot of energy ran through the train wishing their fellow passengers “nesiya tova!” – a good trip.

Jewish life is just SO INTENSE in the Holy Land.

Because my spiritual antennae are vibrating at such a high frequency when I’m in Israel, I was able to see a metaphor for geula in the escalator at the train station. The escalator in question was moving so slowly, it looked like it wasn’t moving at all. As I stepped closer in order to determine whether or not it was working, the escalator increased its speed gradually until it was at full speed.

Is this not an echo of the story of Nachshon ben Amidav, for whom the Yam Suf did not part until he actually stepped into the water? This is also a metaphor for geula. The escalator does not speed up until someone steps onto it. Similarly, geula will come more quickly if we take action, rather than passively wait for it.

Gd is so exceedingly real to me in Israel. A delightful clarity of spiritual vision is relatively easy for me to achieve and maintain when I’m breathing that air.

In America, the main thing that’s easy for me to achieve and maintain is a credit card balance.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Snapshots from the Holy Land

We went to a chad-pa'ami store, which basically sells upscale disposable tableware. The reason I wanted to go to this store was to stock up on unique items such as little plastic cups that say L'Chaim, napkins that say Shabbat Shalom (in Hebrew of course) and paper cups with the flag of Israel. Well, as my husband might joke, they don't say anything. You have to actually read the words.

As we were checking out, paying many shekels for our stash of Jewish chad pa'ami-wear, I noticed that there was an egg mold in the shape of a Jewish star. I don't really have a use for such a thing since I rarely make eggs, but I was struck by this thought:

In Israel, people speak my idiom.

In America, or in any host country, a Jew has to fit him or herself into the larger culture. Some Jews, many Jews, do this by assimilating. In essence, this means that, as a response to the discomfort of feeling different, the Jewish person eliminates from his or her life whatever distinguishes him or her as a Jew. Of course, Judaism teaches us that this is not possible. Not really, for the Jew is essentially always a Jew, regardless of how much or how little s/he identifies with the Jewish people. But assimilating is one solution to the dilemma of feeling different.

Another solution, found mostly in Orthodox communities in America, is isolation. These kinds of Jews who live outside of Israel (and I learned a great term for this - chutznikim - which means those who live in chutz l'aretz, outside the Land of Israel), these kind of chutznikim build parallel lives for themselves in America. Separate schools, separate restaurants, separate neighborhoods, separate stores. This is the kind of community I live in when I'm not privileged to be here. Admittedly, some communities in the NY area, such as Flatbush and Boro Park, have raised this isolationist approach to an absurdly high level. But it, like assimilation, is another solution to the dilemma of feeling different.

In Israel, people speak the Jewish idiom, so there is no need to assimilate or isolate. The chad-pa'ami store sells napkins printed with Shabbat Shalom. I don't have to cover my hair with a sheitel to fit in a professional setting here. The graffiti in Israel often includes Torah-based messages. Yesterday, I photographed a bit of graffiti stenciled on the side of a makolet (a small, local grocery store) that said, "The essence of Redemption is based on faith." (Of course, it sounds better in Hebrew).


Everywhere I go, my need to wash my hands before eating bread is understood and accommodated. The grocery store sells prayer books and other Jewish ritual needs, right there next to the toothpaste and laundry detergent.


The examples are endless, but the point is a strong one.

One way or another, chutznikim must adapt their Jewishness to survive in a host culture. Here, that is no longer necessary.