Happiness, Expectations and Israel
We are going into our fourth week in Israel, and we now feel like the veterans. The first Shabbat was very moving, both Friday night at the Carlebach minyan and Shabbat morning in services, the congregation welcomed us publicly and sang ‘Veshavu banim l’gevulam”, and the children will return to their land (Jeremiah 31:16). Last Shabbat two more new families who made Aliyah that week were called up to the Torah, and I sang to them, which made me feel like the veteran. It’s all a matter of perspective.
Which brings me to my next point. Things work differently here. Over the years I have heard people complain about Israel and how things work here. If you expect things to work like in the States, customer service and satisfaction, the customer is always right, planning ahead, things being streamlined, then yes you will be upset, frustrated and disappointed. And if you expect things to be simple and logical, like having one company to call to put in internet service, then you will go crazy. (You have one compafny to put in the line, another for the phone service and another for internet). But this is a different country, a different part of the world and different culture, and things work differently here. The up side is that everything is negotiable, ‘no’ does not mean no and they can make things happen even when they are not supposed to. You have to let go of expectation and go with flow. Maybe it’s like that here to remind us that we are not in charge and running things, but that it is the Almighty who is running the show.
Once again, It’s all a matter of perspective and expectations. Dennis Prager in one of his videos presents an outlook which says that happiness = expectations-reality. While there is truth to this, of course this is not the only factor that contributes to happiness. It can contribute to peace of mind, but I believe that happiness is a result of deeper meaning and purpose in our lives. Israelis are surrounded by enemies, have to give two to three years of their lives serving in the army, salaries are half to one third of what they are in the states, and yet Israel is listed as the 11th happiest country in the world. And I believe that is because Israelis feel like their (whoops –our) lives have a purpose. That is not to say that people’s lives all over the world can’t be imbued with meaning and purpose, they can. However when you live here you are at the epicenter of the unfolding saga of the Jewish people which has lasted already 4000 years. And each individual in this small country makes a big difference in ensuring that future. We feel very moved that our lives, our future, our family’s future are now rooted in that unfolding epicenter of the ongoing journey of the Jewish people.
And there is more. People here seem to stay focused on what is really important. They are focused on family, friends, Torah, tradition, community, being part of the Jewish people, spending time with family and friends, enjoying the outdoors, and Jewish life. This might be in part because the reminders of our tradition and history are all woven into our lives here. We were driving to Jerusalem by the back road which passes near Bethlehem to meet a former student and her husband. I suggested, “Let’s go to Kever Rachel”, the grave of our Matriarch Rachel like I would suggest “let’ go by Woodbury Commons”. Except that this stop-by goes back 3500 years and is the grave of Rachel our matriarch. Jacob told his son Joseph that his mother was buried on the road to Efrat (now a rejuvenated Jewish city of 30,000, founded by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and olim from the Upper West Side) because she died unexpectedly giving birth to Benjamin. The Rabbis add that she is buried by the side of the road so she can watch over the Jewish people as they were being brought into exile , and that she continues to pray for her descendants in exile. This seems to be derived from the words of the prophet Jeremiah who declares: ‘A voice is heard from above, Rachel weeps for her children”. Visiting the Tomb of Rachel is very moving, when you think about the tragedy of her life. She was Jacob’s love of his life, they had great difficulty having children and when they finally did she died at a young age giving birth to their second child. It is also very moving because for thousands of years, have come to visited and pray at this spot to invoke the merit of Rachel crying for her children in pain. But the realities of modern Israel are present in this ancient spot as well. When I first visited the tomb a few decades ago, it was a small stone structure with a stone dome on top next to the road. Today you drive through a road with 20 foot cement walls on each side for protection, and the small stone building has been encased in a cement bunker. The day after we went a firebomb was thrown at this religious holy spot by Arab terrorists, but fortunately it did not ignite and no one was hurt. And we will continue to visit this spot because we have to assert our right to religious freedom and access to our holy sites.
Another similar visit happened up north. We went to take the kids to the sea of Galilee. We stopped to pick up some sunscreen at a gas station in the hills above the city Tiberias, and I realized that the great Rabbi Akiva’s grave as nearby. Pop into Google maps and there we are (yes in Israel Rabbi Akiva’s tomb is in Google maps!). The grave is on a beautiful spot overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Rabbi Akiva started studying Torah at the age of 40 and became the greatest of the Rabbis of the Talmud. On Yom Kippur in a few weeks we will read the story of him being executed by the Romans for teaching Torah. Also a very moving and somewhat tragic life story. What a merit to live surrounded by such inspiring sites, and to have them woven into the fabric of our lives! We do not Amazon, but we do have Rachel and Rabbi Akiva.
The anectdote and final photo I wanted to share was another example of the blending of everyday life and Jewish tradition. In the evenings I am going to a class on Jewish Philosophy by a brilliant scholar and Rabbi, and we are studying Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed. In it he discusses the ‘Maaseh Merkavah’ the ‘Acts of the Chariot’ which refers to the Prophet Ezekiel’s vision of mystical chariot, and is used to refer to Kabbalistic teachings. The same morning on the way to synagogue I was passing by a different kind of ‘chariot’, a dumpster. The owner decided to name his company Maaseh Merkavah! The Rabbi giving the talk was at first horrified, but I told him how special it was that this Jew who is carting off trash from the construction sites building the land of Israel names his carting company after the Holy Chariot! Only in Israel.