I love puzzles. Jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles, acrostics, Sudoku, logic puzzles…a book full of puzzles even keeps me somewhat content on a cross-country flight. I am telling you this to put into perspective my answer to a question that came to our Ask the Rabbi column.
Matt asked, “I’m always wondering why your family never moved to Israel?”
While my husband and I always answer the Ask the Rabbi questions as a team, I’m going to make an exception for this one and let my husband answer in that venue while presenting my own answer here. You see, my husband and I received very different upbringings with regard to the modern State of Israel. While the land of Israel is unquestionably precious and special to all Jews and has been since the days of Abraham, how love for the land translates into action is a different matter.
I was brought up in a Zionist home and attended a Zionist school. We opened each day in elementary school saluting the American flag while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and we also faced the Israeli flag and sang HaTikva, the Israeli national anthem. Through high school we learned American and world history, math, literature and science in English for half the day and an equal amount of time was allotted to Jewish studies. Bible, Prophets, Hebrew literature and Jewish history and philosophy were taught completely in Hebrew with test, papers and classroom conversation taking place entirely in that language. (I was an adult before it dawned on me that my elementary school Hebrew studies teachers probably did understand and even -gasp- speak English.)
Had you asked me when I was in my teens where I would be living as an adult, I would have answered, Israel. That is exactly where about a third of my class now lives. Indeed, being able to get to Israel so easily and to live there in freedom is something that generations of my ancestors could only dream about. While, since the days of Joshua, there has always been a Jewish presence in the land, the community was often maltreated, impoverished and small. Today’s comfortable and thriving presence truly is a miracle.
What does this have to do with puzzles? The pleasure I get from puzzles is directly tied to the challenge. I would have little enjoyment doing the book of crossword puzzles that delights my six-year-old granddaughter, nor would I appreciate a book of puzzles that endlessly frustrated me because it was too hard. That is a metaphor for life. Attempting to live in accordance with God’s wishes is challenging. It isn’t easy, any more than being married, raising children, being a good friend, building a business, acquiring knowledge, staying fit or developing any skill is easy. Invigorating, inspiring, joyous, yes; easy, no.
While an evening of relaxation is wonderful, anyone who finds their entire life easy isn’t living it to the fullest. Each time we achieve a measure of growth we need to look for the next level. To do otherwise would be to stick with the easily solved Sudoku level; it would quickly become boring and demoralizing.
This week, Jews are in the middle of a period of mourning that culminates on Sunday. While our synagogues are usually centers of social activity, (although chatter ideally stops during prayers) this Saturday night and Sunday we will gather but not greet each other. Lights will be dimmed and we will sit low to the floor, exactly as a mourner does during the week following the funeral of an immediate family member. For that is what we are – mourners recounting the loss of the Temple and Jerusalem along with our exile from the land of Israel. That exile entailed losing a certain level of closeness with the Almighty that was only reachable when the Temple stood.
The establishment of the modern state of Israel changes nothing about this annual period of mourning. It is observed in Jerusalem just as it is in Brazil or Boston. As wondrous a gift as the State of Israel is, we are still in the period following the destruction over 2,000 years ago. Although current attacks on the state of Israel by left-wing media, organizations and universities are a barely disguised form of hatred against the entire Jewish people, there is a core truth that the the modern State of Israel is not equivalent with the Jewish people.
While living in the land of Israel is generally accepted as one of the 613 mitzvot, or commandments, obligatory on Jews, it is one of 613. No single Jew has 613 obligations; some laws fall only on men, others only on women; some only on those from the tribe of Levi, others only on those who are not Levites; some only when the Temple is standing, others only when there is a Jewish king ruling the land. Suffice it to say that there are enough challenges in any place and time to keep any Jew thriving spiritually. Not infrequently, in real life, two commandments conflict with one another. Very real issues that people grapple with, for example, include whether honoring elderly parents by living and taking care of them outside the land of Israel takes precedence over living in the land. What if one wants to move to Israel and one’s spouse refuses? Is it a greater affront to God to be non-Sabbath observant in Israel than in any other country? If you are struggling with a terrible habit of gossiping is it better to stay in another country until you get it under control rather than gossiping in Israel where God observes you more closely? As you can see, living in Israel is a tremendous privilege that is amazingly doable in our days, but that still entails a personal assessment.
My husband’s life-mission, which became mine when we married, is making ancient Jewish wisdom accessible to everyone. Whether that was through classes in the synagogue community he founded in California or whether it is teaching both Jews and Christians as he does today, for a variety of reasons it is work best accomplished by living in America. That is one of many reasons that we remain in the United States though we do feel a tug at our hearts every time we return to Israel. Is that calculation correct or is God shaking His head at our not taking advantage of the opportunity we have been given to move back to His land? We can only do the puzzles we are given to the best of our abilities.