Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Driving Me Crazy

I knew, when we came on aliyah, that eventually, I would have to face the one bureaucratic demon I was most afraid to face - converting my driver's license.

I knew that it was a complicated process, involving about 17 disjointed steps.  Pay a fee and get this piece of paper here.  Get it signed here.  Pay this fee there.  Get it stamped here, here and here.  I completed the first several steps during our first weeks here and then I started ulpan, which provided a legitimate excuse to put the whole project on the shelf.

In reality, I was avoiding the next stage, which involved taking one or more driving lessons and then taking a road test.

There's a rumor among olim that it used to be possible to simply transfer your license from outside of Israel the way you would if you moved from one state in the US to another.  Then there was an influx of immigrants with forged licenses who didn't really know how to drive and the policy was changed, requiring all drivers, no matter what country their original license was issued in, to take a minimum of one lesson and pass a road test.  I don't even know if the rumor is accurate.  But I did know that I would be required to take a driving test to get my license in Israel.

The thought was so anxiety-producing that I avoided it for a few more months.

Finally, I scheduled my lesson.  The first time I showed up, I didn't have the right paperwork.  The second time, I was able to complete my lesson, but the experience of driving with someone who was watching and judging my every move behind the wheel was totally nerve wracking.  Nevertheless, at the end of the lesson, the driving instructor offered me a test date, so I knew I must have done well enough not to require a second lesson.

A week later, on the test date, I was one of three experienced drivers trying to get our American licenses converted.  I was the second driver out on the course.  My heart was pounding, thumping in my chest as I got behind the wheel.  I have been driving for well over three decades, but I felt like a teenager.

Another quirk of the Israeli system is that they don't tell you right away whether you passed or not. Again, the rumor is that once, a driver was told on the spot that he failed the test and he either shot or knifed the tester.

So now you have to wait until the late afternoon and call your driving instructor for the results.

I forgot to mention that, in addition to everything else, I'd already laid out close to 800 shekels (more than $200).

Can it be any more torturous a process?

Yes, it apparently can.  Because after some 35 years of driving without so much as a speeding ticket or an insurance claim in decades, I failed my road test.

I failed my road test.

I failed my road test and I plunged into the depths of despair.  I began thinking - I am in Israel almost nine months and the job I might have hasn't exactly come together, I can't really speak the language, despite my best efforts in an intensive ulpan and now, I have lost the ability to drive approximately three decades earlier than most adults do.  I was hurt and angry and feeling very, very low.  I kept noticing flagrant violations made by other drivers.  I saw plenty of terrible drivers in Israel.  How could it be that I was being denied a license?

Yes, I knew that I had one more chance.  I also knew that if I didn't pass a second road test, I would need to take 20 or more lessons, at 150 shekels each, just like a brand new driver.

I was angry, I was hurt and I was highly uncharacteristically down on myself.

Initially, I wanted to avoid everything connected with cars and driving.  I thought a lot about how this was going to impact my family, not being able to drive to the grocery store or to take someone to a doctor's appointment.  I couldn't think of more than a handful of adults who didn't drive, unless they lived in Israel and had never had a car.  I alternated between feeling deeply resentful of a system that was prepared to strip me of my ability to drive with trying very hard to accept this new reality as the will of my Creator.  Hashem willed that I not be able to drive anymore and I had to get to the place where I could accept that.

I had to find some spiritual comfort.  I told myself that the principles of emunah required me to see this as a good thing.  Everything Hashem does it for the good.  So my job was to figure out how this could be good.

Maybe it's my destiny to die or worse, to kill someone (Gd forbid!), while I'm behind the wheel.  So Hashem took away the chance to fulfill that destiny by taking away the chance for me to ever drive again.

The gemara says that three things are earned through yisurim (suffering) - Torah, Israel and the World to Come.  Maybe giving up the ability to drive is part of the price I have to pay to live in Israel.

I thought about it a lot.

Then, last night, while we were sitting in parent-teacher meetings, the driving instructor called and said he had a last-minute cancellation for this morning.  I accepted the appointment and told myself the outcome was in Hashem's Hands.

As an extra precaution, I drove home from Jerusalem last night and back into the city this morning, figuring that any recent time behind the wheel might eliminate a small fraction of my anxiety.

By the time I sat behind the wheel of the test vehicle (in Israel, you use your instructor's car for the road test), I felt that I was truly in a place of acceptance.  Whatever happened, whatever the outcome of this second chance, it was all in Gd's Hands, not mine.



Baruch Hashem, I passed.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Responding To A Cry From The Heart

In my email this morning, I found this cry for spiritual clarity from a wife and mother still living in America:


...sorry to sound like the simple son, what are we supposed to do? Are we to distrust rabbis who do not publically speak out to their flocks that it is time to make aliyah? Are these articles saying that we should hurriedly leave America before a possible US attack on Israel at which time, G-d forbid it could be too late to be able to leave? It's obvious that everything is speeding up in all ways around the globe. I need it spelled out with no hints. What are you or others in the know saying to do, now? Increase mitzvos, tefilla, etc. Are you also saying leave NOW? 


Here is my response:

You have always impressed me as a sensitive,spiritual woman and your message confirms this impression.  Kol HaKavod for asking such an important question.  The irony is that, if it was as clear as you would like me to make it, you wouldn't have to ask.

I am no navi and I have no inside information that is hidden to others.  All I can say is that the calls from rabbinic voices in Israel to make aliyah NOW are stronger and more frequent than ever.  We have, as a people, consistently stayed too long in every exile, assuming the trouble will pass if we just lay low.  But, as you can see with your own eyes, Jewish history is dramatically speeding up.

It seems to me there are three choices here:

1) Sit tight and wait for Moshiach.

2) Come as soon as possible.

3) At least make serious preparations - sell off what you can, get your money out of dollars and into shekelim in an account here, get the paperwork done so you're approved for aliyah, have a concrete Plan B so you can leave right away when you sense yourself that it's time to go.

There are those who will counter that, with the recent uptick in terrorist attacks of various kinds in Israel, it's crazy to come now.  I personally believe that there is no place safer for Jews at this time in history than Eretz Yisrael.  Although people have died here al Kiddush Hashem in recent weeks, it's impossible to me that, this close to the next stage of Jewish history, Am Yisrael as a whole will be safer in someone else's country than we are at Home.

My rabbis are teaching that the Shechina has already departed from everywhere outside of Israel, and the surest sign of this is an increase in open antisemitism.  I think of Helen Thomas, an American icon, and her recent words against the Jewish people, not whispered quietly in someone's living room, but published and broadcast all over the world.  Others will have other examples of open antisemitism.  

If the Shechina no longer rests with the Jewish people outside of Israel, those remaining there are living without spiritual protection and are, therefore, incredibly vulnerable to a rapid shift in fortunes.  Why would anyone want to stay in that circumstance?

It's really a matter of choosing for which team you want to play at this time in history. Where's your loyalty?  With whom do you identify more?  Which circumstance do you trust more to keep you and your loved ones safe during dramatic times - America without the Shechina or Hashem with Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael?

At this stage, we still have a choice - to see the direction history is taking us, to feel in our guts that the Redemption is coming and to get on board, or to live as if all this chaos is not game-changing in any way, but just another series of worldwide crises that will pass, allowing us to return to our normal lives soon enough.

It seems to me that Hashem is asking each of us to choose.  

And it seems to me that the correct answer is very clear.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Another Israeli First

This was my first experience of a bombing in Jerusalem as an actual Israeli, living very close to Jerusalem.  When the bomb first went off, my older daughter, doing her National Service in Jerusalem, called to tell me there had been an explosion.  At that point, the details were scant, and some would later prove to be inaccurate.

I went right to the computer.  As soon as I saw the first report online, I started to cry. 

The bus stop where the bomb went off is exactly where we stand to get a bus home.

I should have known that my younger daughter would hear about it soon enough, though I had hoped to shield her from it. Just this morning, she called me from school to ask how far Itamar is from our home.  She is still dealing with feeling vulnerable after the massacres in Itamar, and this one hit a lot closer to home.


It's a little strange to be on the receiving end of calls and emails checking to see if we're okay - from family, from a friend who has three adult children living here, a nephew who was recently here visiting, and from pretty much the last person I might ever have expected to hear from - a former colleague with whom I last worked over 20 years ago.  It's also a little unsettling and strange not to have heard from others with whom we are much closer.

I spent hours online, hungry for every last detail, watching as the story unfolded.  I sat with seven or eight tabs open in my Internet browser, constantly refreshing them.  I stepped away twice to say Tehillim, the same five chapters that we were instructed to say during the Second Intifada.  But mostly, I was desperate for details, constantly checking news sites, updating my Facebook status.  I couldn't pull myself away.

Having spent so much time online, it was inevitable that I ended up reading more about the escalation of rockets in southern Israel - Ashdod, Ashkelon and Beer Sheva coming from Gaza.  And the analyses that suggest that war is coming once again to Israel.

Because I spend a lot of time in the world of bloggers who write about the impending geula and rabbis who teach about world events in the context of moving Jewish history forward, I have a spiritual context for attempting to understand what's going on in the world.



I feel sad about the fact that I can't talk about it with many of the people I care the most about because their worldviews are so different from mine.

A cousin and his wife are visiting Israel this week for the first time ever. We had been looking forward for weeks to meeting them in Jerusalem for dinner tonight, but that didn't work out.  All for the best.  I have no clue how to talk about all this with people who are just now experiencing Israel for their very first time.

I'm having a hard enough time dealing with my own reactions and doing what I know is the right thing - having emunah and holding on tight to Hashem.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

First Purim in Israel Photo Blog

My strongest impression of Purim in Israel was the overwhelming amount of visual and aural stimulation.  Said another way, the sites and sounds of Purim in Israel are intense.

Purim started for us here as Shabbat went out.  We changed from Shabbat clothes to Purim outfits and ran to shul to hear Megillah.

I'm the brunette.
After Megillah was a children's Purim party - pizza, prizes, magic show and, as a clean-up act, my husband (the blonde) doing Purim stand-up.

Then came the most intense, spiritual part of the evening.  A few years ago, I started reciting all of Sefer Tehillim at chatzot (halachic midnight) on Purim night.  It's a powerful segula for getting one's prayers answered, but it's not for the faint of heart.  It takes about 3 hours to say all 150 chapters, leaving one groggy and sleep deprived the next day.

One of our beautiful daughters, channeling her inner nerd.
Our seudah with extended family was notable for two things - the time it took to drive there (forever!) and the, ahem...,  lengthy "dvar Torah" given by a hilarious, somewhat inebriated family member.  Following that, we went to another Purim party and saw lots of old friends from Baltimore.  It's amazing how many families we knew in the Old Country are here now.

Shushan Purim in Jerusalem was our opportunity to walk around and see the sights.

The public buses wished all a Happy Purim.

The streets were crawling with tiny brides, though I did not see a single boy dressed as a groom.
One of many sounds systems blaring Purim music in the streets of Jerusalem.
Insanely expensive mishloach manot for sale.  The big one was priced at 299 shekels - about 85 bucks!
Who buys this stuff?
A young girl standing at a bus stop, holding a mishloach manot parcel that included a sefer (Torah book).
Hunh?! In ours, we included fruit, candy and chocolate wafers. 
Some (possibly inebriated) young men singing and dancing Purim songs on a balcony in Geula.
More (possibly inebriated) young men dancing and singing in an open trailer being pulled through Malchei Yisrael.
Many, many, many opportunities to fulfill one of the major  mitzvot of the day - giving charity.
As Shushan Purim went out, we had the chance to attend a henna ceremony (our first!) in advance of the wedding of the son of close friends.

The "chuppah", set with many symbols of the henna ceremony, none of which I understood, though I did see people dancing with the disk-like things as the party got going.
The incredibly fun, loosey goosey dancing toward the end of the henna ceremony.
My very own decorative henna.  I'll cherish it forever.  Or until it wears off. 
Finally, in the spirit of Purim silliness, here is something unusual that I discovered in my kitchen today.
  Mutant bananas - two bananas in one skin.  Even God has a sense of humor on Purim.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Chasm

I've written before about how September 11, 2001 was a pivotal date in my Jewish story.  On that date, it suddenly became clear to me that America was a host country and that we needed to move to Israel.

To this day, it isn't something I can explain.  It was a message that blossomed, fully formed, from within me and grew stronger and stronger over time.

At least, that's how I always retell the story.  But today, in talking with an old friend who was already living in Israel on that date, it occurred to me that I might be misremembering a part of the story.

I distinctly remember talking with her on that date and I remember something she said that really angered me.

At that point, I had been to Israel 5 or 6 times.  Israel was nice.  I intended to come back and visit some more.  But our home was in Baltimore.  So much so that, the month before, I imposed upon my husband to take me on a tour of all the Jewish cemeteries in Baltimore so I could pick the place I wanted to be buried.  I had every intention of living the rest of my life in Baltimore.

Into that mindset, my friend asserted that it was impossible, while living in America, to understand the significance of September 11 in Jewish history. She argued that spiritual clarity was only possible for those who live in Israel.

I was SO offended.  I thought she was both arrogant and categorically wrong in making such assertions.

Ten years later, I see she was actually on to something.

I have been painfully aware, after recent events of this past week in particular, that the chasm between American Jews and Israelis is huge. Uncomfortably huge.  Maybe insurmountably huge.

Three examples will suffice.

First - My oldest daughter brought home a printout of an online argument she had yesterday with an American who claims the following about Israel - "BOMBED AND ATTACKED UNARMED CIVILIANS  with Phosphorous and High Explosive munitions from tanks/artillery/fighter jets, PARENTS SHOT IN FRONT OF THEIR CHILDREN.  Embargoes and sanctions, confiscates land and evicts unlawfully at the point of a gun and bulldozes, murders countless Palestinians directly or indirectly " (sic). He argued that these behaviors make Israel complicit  in the Fogel murders.

Second - A neighbor pointed out a Facebook conversation she and some others had with her American cousin who feels quite certain that, "The settlements are harmful to the peace process, and harmful to Israel herself. While what happened in Itamar is horrible, tragic, and inexcusable, it will simply add to the tragedy for it to be used to further a destructive policy that harms Israel and alienates her supporters."  That particular conversation was 28 back-and-forth comments long between American olim who now live over the Green Line and a liberal American Jew.  As an outsider reading the exchange, it's painfully obvious they don't share a common paradigm.


The third example is from a Baltimore reader who commented on my recent post, Not One Whit - "Surely, Rivkah, you are not suggesting that the devastation of Japan is somehow an act of God for the benefit of amcha [literally, "Your people" and a reference to the Jewish people]? or that Japan is an enemy to be destroyed? Please tell me you don't mean to draw such a conclusion!"


In fact, that's exactly what I meant.  I know that people across the chasm can't really hear that.  I can even understand why it's distasteful to so many Jews to assert that God is punishing Japan to benefit the Jewish people.


And yet, the Internet is on fire with reasons why this might be so.  


There's the case of the three yeshiva boys from Israel who, in 2008, were charged with smuggling drugs into Japan and imprisoned.  In April 2009, one was sentenced to 5 years in a Japanese prison.  He was recently pardoned in Israel.  Last March,  a second was given a 6-year sentence in a Japanese prison.  I am unable to find conclusive information about the status of the third, only that his trial started in October 2010.  The defense has argued all along that these were innocent, sheltered yeshiva boys who were tricked into smuggling drugs into Japan, but the Japanese courts have dealt harshly with them.


There is the fact that Japan (along with Italy, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria) was a German ally in World War II.


And the fact of Japan's support for the Palestinians.


And there is the imponderable existence of antisemitism in Japan in spite of the fact that there are so few Jews there, including the widespread belief that Jews are behind a global conspiracy to destroy Japan, documented in the book Jews in the Japanese Mind.


I don't pretend to know how Hashem's mind works.  But I don't doubt for one minute the plausibility of Him exacting revenge on Japan on behalf of His people.


Yes, I know how un-politically correct that sounds.  Yes, I know that many people will find it so objectionable that they will be unable to hear it.  


The chasm between us exists.  It's real.


All I can do is keep speaking my truth.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Not One Whit

I don’t give one whit about the political analyses that hog the airwaves.  Accusations of media bias.  Demands that the PA stop inciting violence.  Tenders to build more homes for Jews in Judea and Samaria.  This Member of Knesset arguing with that Member of Knesset.  The left.  The right.  JStreet. Women in Green.  Obama.  Netanyahu.  Barak.  PA claims that Israel was behind the murders in Itamar.  A push to restart the peace talks.

It’s all a smoke screen.

The political posturing is nauseatingly off point.

Five members of a holy Jewish family were brutally murdered in their beds and the world is not the same.  Many Jews are thinking and talking of little else.  We feel punched in the gut and raw, struggling for a cogent response.

Just before I shut off my internet connection for Shabbat, I learned about the earthquake in Japan and the subsequent tsunami.  At that point, there were 300 confirmed dead.  Now the death toll is expected to exceed 10,000.  The video footage calls to mind the plagues in Egypt.  The visual evidence of Hashem’s power is shocking.  We stand in open-mouthed incredulity.

A month ago, there was an earthquake in New Zealand.  A month before that, there was catastrophic flooding in Australia.

And on Shabbat, five innocent Jews were brutally murdered for the crime of being Jews.

When the world appears to be functioning in chaos mode, how do I react?  What can I do to see the bigger picture?

First, I ignore the chaff of political analysis.  It is so much meaningless chirping.  Instead, I comb the Internet for articles and videos that represent an authentic Torah perspective on current events.  I find them with ease.  I find them comforting.  And I find them proliferating.

Rabbi Lazer Brody comforts me with these words, “The Gemara teaches us (see tractate Moed Katan 28a) that the death of tzaddikim - the righteous and the pious - atones for Israel just as the public sacrifices did at the time of the Holy Temple. The Fogels were undoubtedly a Korban Tzibbur - a public sacrifice. They died on Shabbat Vayikra - the Shabbat of the exact Torah portion that describes how to perform a public sacrifice.”

We are daily being reminded that the yetzer hara is heaving about in its death throes, creating chaos in the world.  The Messianic Age is nearly ready to be born.  All that is happening – natural disasters, unspeakably brutal murders of righteous Jews, civil unrest in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Morocco, Yemen and other Middle Eastern countries – is coming from Hashem.  It’s ALL Hashem.

And it’s all for us.

Hashem is exhibiting His limitless force to destroy the enemies of Am Yisrael.  What we are witnessing may well be just the warm-up act.

For Jewish people whose neshamot are awake, spiritual messages are being shared all over the Internet and in shiurim all across Israel.  There are three basic messages I keep hearing, three things that we must focus on during these dramatic times:
1)      Strengthening our emuna.  Knowing that Hashem is behind all the events in the world and that, ultimately, they are for good, redemptive purposes, even if we can’t see that clearly yet.  Clinging to Hashem.  Trusting Hashem.
2)      Doing teshuva.  Being kinder to one another.  Helping others more.  Behaving more modestly.  Being less materialistic.
3)      Making aliyah.  This message is being delivered more unmistakably every day.  Those Jews who are still living outside of Israel are being warned to get out while it is still possible.  Not 5 years from now.  Not one year from now.  NOW. 

I am only human, and I can’t know anything about Hashem’s Ways with certainty.  I can’t really understand why the Fogel family was called upon to pay the terrible price they are paying.  I can’t understand why Hashem picked the countries that He picked to experience disasters and turmoil.  I can only block out the political inanity and listen for spiritual messages that speak to my soul. 

Emuna.  Teshuva.  Aliyah. 

These are my responses.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Unspeakably Grateful

Over Shabbat, my husband shared a great insight into the phrase MisheNichnas Adar marbim b'simcha, which is generally translated as, "When Adar begins, we increase in joy." This means that, at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Adar, which is the month in which the festive holiday of Purim falls, we should begin to feel especially happy.


However, now that I've had a few months of Hebrew ulpan under my belt, I can see that the grammar of this Hebrew phrase does not support the common translation.  


Rather, MisheNichnas Adar can be understood to refer to one in whom the spirit of Adar enters, as in, "Whoever lets the spirit of Adar enter him or herself in a deep way will experience an increase in happiness."  It seems, in this translation, to be more active than passive.


This was all well and good until an hour before Shabbat when I learned about the dramatic earthquake off the northeastern coast of Japan, and the subsequent tsunami.  As I write, the death toll is over 800 but will probably grow as search and rescue efforts continue. 


A few weeks ago, we went to see the movie Hereafter, which opens with a dramatic tsunami scene, filmed from the point of view of one of the main characters.  The scene replayed again and again in my mind and made the news from Japan all the more vivid.


Then, after Shabbat, we learned of the horrid terrorist stabbing of five members of the Fogel family who were living in Itamar, a settlement in the Shomron, after having been thrown out of their homes in Gush Katif.


Close to a thousand dead in Japan.  
Five dead in Itamar. 
What does it all mean?


The flooding in Australia in January, the earthquake in New Zealand in February and the earthquake and tsunami in Japan all remind me of the verse from Tehillim (98:7),  "The sea and all its fullness will roar, as will the inhabited land and those who dwell therein."  This line is sung during the Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service, the one service for which I most often make it to shul.


What does it all mean?  


I can't know for sure.  But I can know this.


I absolutely believe that it all comes from the Hand of Gd.  Every incident, from the brutal slaying of five members of a holy family in Israel that makes me want to vomit in grief, to the dramatic natural disasters that are happening month by month around the world, to the political uprisings in the countries that surround my home in Israel, is bringing us closer to the Redemption.


I felt a peculiar discomfort last night as I searched my Facebook News Feed for links to the two big stories that bookended our Shabbat.  Nearly all my Israeli Facebook friends had a comment about the terrorist murders in Itamar.  But other Jewish friends, either because they had not yet heard or because it simply didn't hit so close to home, had Facebook statuses that told a different story - a vacation, a new purchase, a nice dinner out or local weather updates. 


When I let the spirit of Adar enter me, I am not supposed to be sad.  So I rejoice, not in the ceaseless tragedies which hurt because I am human, but in the knowledge that Hashem runs the world and that, with all this, He is moving Jewish history forward.


I am unspeakably grateful to be living in Israel during these dramatic times.  That's my Adar.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Quintessentially Israeli

This week, I learned how to do something I have always thought of as quintessentially Israeli.  I learned to crack garanim (sunflower seeds) with my front teeth, tip my tongue inside to extract the meaty morsel within and toss aside the shell.

I was trained by a master - my Israeli-born, US-raised husband  - who has been doing this as long as I have known him.  In the interest of full disclosure, the impressive pile of discarded hulls pictured to the left is his doing, not mine.

Oy.  I'm so proud.

Ironically, the action, once mastered, feels familiar to me in a déjà vu kinda way.  Maybe I was Israeli in a previous life?  I feel certain that I've done this garanim spitting thing before, in exactly this way, though I have no specific memory of learning how before a few days ago.

Another thing I think of as quintessentially Israeli is people transporting their produce on the bus.  My bus ride today took me on Rechov Aggripas and the Machane Yehuda shuk, so it's not surprising that so many people brought their purchases on board my bus.  I didn't want to attract attention when I snapped this photo from a few seats away, but here was the quintessentially Israeli woman, pictured with her "Bubbie Cart" - her wheeled shopping cart of the sort that is ubiquitous at the shuk.  The green leaves from her celery are sticking out and there's a Hebrew newspaper lying on top.  Quintessentially Israeli.

I often comment about how, in my previous life in America, middle class Jews NEVER rode public buses.  Here, the buses carry every cross-section of Israeli society.  I find them endlessly fascinating.


My husband snapped this photo because he knew this would thrill me.  The green and white bumper sticker in the window says, "You shall love your driver as yourself."  I am always charmed by how Biblical messages
 (Vayikra 19:18 - You shall love your neighbor as yourself) are embedded in Israeli humor.



Finally, this sign, which I waited a long time to see.  It assures bus passengers that they are allowed to sit anywhere on the bus that they would like.  It was posted on all Egged buses in response to the recent ruling against what were called Mehadrin buses - specific bus routes which required women to sit in the back of the bus.  In January 2011, the Israeli courts abolished the Mehadrin buses which were, in my opinion, an offensive distortion of Jewish life.

An approximate translation - All passengers have permission to sit anywhere that they choose except for places designated for people with disabilities.  Bothering any passenger in this regard results in a major infraction. 

Out of respect, I always choose to stand on the bus rather than to sit next to a Haredi man, even if the seat next to him is the only one open.  Nevertheless, I was nauseated by the enforced gender separation (and the association of racial segregation that Americans have with being forced to sit in "the back of the bus") of Mehadrin buses.  I  throughly detested them. This quintessentially Israeli sign makes me happy.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Life's Gifts

Usually, I scan the listings of upcoming Torah classes in Jerusalem quickly, but this time, there was a name that caught my attention.  So I boarded a bus at 9:24 AM to attend a talk by Rabbi Mendel Kessin.  His topic was speaking on "Current Events as part of the Divine Agenda: What is Happening and Why."  It's a topic that I gravitate toward anyway, but I had listened to Rabbi Kessin speak online a few times and I wanted to attend this shiur.  The shiur was being offered by L'ayala, which is run by a friend from Baltimore, making it even more worthwhile to attend.

It was a gorgeous weather day.  The weather is still changeable this time of year, but today felt like Spring. Starting with the bus ride, there were thrills.  Some windows on the bus were open, allowing soft, temperate air to blow in. I glanced up from my seat in the back of a crowded bus and what I saw made me smile.

There was a nun, cassock, wimple, habit and all, carrying six bags filled with her groceries.  Near her was an Arab woman wearing a khimar (head scarf), a chayelet (female Israeli soldier) in uniform, an Orthodox woman reciting Tehillim (Psalms), a secular woman reading a Russian text and a young guy with multiple piercings in a black goth t-shirt with a devil design.  I know it sounds like Purim, but it was just an ordinary day in Jerusalem.

That made me happy.

I got to the shiur in plenty of time.  In fact, I had a few extra minutes to deposit a couple of small checks at our bank nearby.  Sounds like no big deal, but a few weeks ago, we learned that you can't cash a check made out to you at your own bank.  You have to take it to the bank where it was drawn.  But you can deposit it to your account.

Every day is a learning experience.

The shuir was rapid-fire, clear and fascinating.  Rabbi Kessin taught that Gd wants to bestow good upon the Jewish people.  Rather than give it as a free gift, He decided to make us earn it.  In order to earn it, He made the world less than perfect.  The task of the Jewish people is to perfect the world.

There are three ways to perfect the world: doing mitzvot (those Divinely assigned tasks that make up the life of a Torah Jew) OR doing teshuva (repenting for our misdeeds) OR through suffering.  Mitzvot are superior, but for the most part, the Jewish people are achieving the goal of perfecting the world through suffering.

Not anyone can cause us to suffer.  Eight nations were assigned to persecute the Jewish people and they were/are all superpowers in their time.  As dreadful as it is to be persecuted, we at least have had the "privilege" to be persecuted by nations of significance - Egypt, Bavel (Babylonia), Persia, Greece, Rome (Christianity), Islam, Amalek and the Erev Rav.

When a Jewish person does a mitzvah, he or she brings down an element of kedusha (holiness). When a Jewish person sins, the kedusha power goes to the yetzer hara (a/k/a satan).  It's a simple system.  Either we get the benefit (kedusha) or the satan gets it. The satan needs kedusha to survive.   Since the yetzer hara is dying as a result of the accumulated merits of the Jewish people over Jewish history, he has turned to the Muslim people as allies to feed his need for kedusha.

This exceedingly simplified explanation is why, according to Rabbi Kessin, the Muslims are in ascendancy in the world today.  They are in a partnership with the yetzer hara.

As far as Israel is concerned, Muslims have been caretakers of the Land because, whatever flaws they have, they are monotheistic and not idol worshipers.  Now that the Jews have returned Home after 2,000 years, the Muslims have outlived their usefulness here.  But they do not want to leave. How to get them out so Israel can be a truly Jewish country?

Thus comes the change of power in Egypt.  There's a war coming.  The Muslim Brotherhood will take power in Egypt and use the large and powerful army of Egypt against Israel (though we will prevail).  In the context of that war, the Arabs will flee and Israel will end up, after the war, a Jewish state at long last.

Will it happen just this way?  Who knows?

But there is something magical about sitting in Jerusalem and listening to this kind of Torah.  Forgive me for oversimplifying.  I meant only to give you a taste of my day, not a learned discourse.  Ironically, Rabbi Kessin was not at all the person I was picturing.  In the end, he looked not one bit familiar.  But Hashem clearly orchestrated events so I would get there to hear what he had to say.  I'm good with that.

After the learning, I had lunch with an old, old friend.  She agreed to drive me to my bus stop, but as we approached the stop, we saw the bus pull away.  We raced to the second stop and, somehow, once again, Hashem was good to me.  I jumped out of the car before it came to a full stop and, seconds later, boarded my bus home.

All in all, a good, satisfying way to spend Rosh Chodesh Adar in Jerusalem.  Chodesh tov.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Two Small Consumer Stories

While perusing the Jerusalem Post a few days ago, I saw an ad for a local grocery store advertising three products that we use often at exceptionally good prices.  I don't yet know what a lot of things cost here, but prices for the foods we buy all the time are becoming more familiar to me.  The next day, we went to a local branch of the grocery chain and I was disappointed to learn that, of the three items, this branch only carried one, and there was no indication that it was on sale.

Now, I often still feel frustrated and ineffectual at the grocery checkout line because I lack the confidence to ask about discrepancies in prices between what I think an item should cost and what rings on the register.  Most times, I keep quiet and pay the higher price.  I think of it as a kind of olim tax.  But this time, my Hebrew-speaking husband was along, so I pressed him into service.

The kupa'it (cashier) brought the ad to the manager's desk and came back with an embarrassing update.  Apparently, we were at the wrong store.  The store with the sale was SuperDeal and we were at Shufersal Deal.

That was humbling.  And my good, kind and decent husband did not, for one moment, make me feel badly about my mistake.

Today, we found the right store, bought the deals and discovered a set of cute little neighborhood shops in Talpiot that we would never have otherwise found.  Wandering around the shops while our (half-price) frozen broccoli defrosted in the trunk of our car, we walked into a gift shop filled with handcrafted items, all made in Israel.

I was attracted to a set of magnets with Hebrew advertisements from the 1950s.  I debated and debated about which of these 12 shekel (about $3) items I would take home.  While we were waiting for the saleswoman to finish with another customer, I went and looked again at the pocketbooks that had grabbed my attention the minute we walked into the store.  I asked the price and quickly decided to do something I almost never do but which, I have heard, is standard operating procedure in many stores in Israel.

I asked for a discount.

And without batting an eye, she gave me 20% off.  And she threw in a magnet for free.

So I bought the bag and felt that, in my own little way, today's consumer success balanced out my consumer faux pas of a few days ago.  I had redeemed myself.