Why not Israel?

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.

27 thoughts on “Why not Israel?”

  1. Hi Susan

    Thank you very much for these musings that are both thought provoking and enlightening.

    While thinking about what you wrote, I also wondered about how you and the Rabbi determine how God is leading you towards specific actions. In your concluding paragraph, you stated: 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?”

    Do you try to determine if God is shaking his head about your current actions? If so, what do you do to determine “God’s Will” in your life?

    Perhaps as one reader wrote: “I have learned God puts choices before us and sometimes insists we use the brain we have been given and make a choice.” It is possible that neither choice is wrong, but God is regarding how we use our brain and whether or not we are making the effort to love and obey God in our decision.

    Thanks again for your musings, Rich

    1. Rich, there was a sentence in a book I once read, written by a mother of a child born with Down’s Syndrome. She wrote how she and her husband had to make decisions about surgeries and therapies and had no way of knowing if they were doing the best thing. She wrote that she realized that they could only make the best decisions with the information they had at the time. If later on, there were better choices or it turns out that they didn’t do the best thing, they shouldn’t agonize. We can only work with what we know. I think that is the answer to your question. We try to do what we think is right and trust that a loving God will judge us favorably.

  2. My take on this is that it doesn’t matter to me where you live, it is about how you are doing the most good. My life has improved because of you both, so thanks. In saying that I appreciate your honesty on this topic. Life decisions are not always simple or straightforward.

  3. Lawrence Taylor

    Brilliant, as usual!
    I praise God daily that you reside here. I believe that God puts you where you will be of the most benefit to Him! Had you moved to Isreal, there is a possibility that you may not have been as “useful” as you now are. And that would be a shame! I have been a Christian for almost 55 years now, and I can say without a doubt, that you and your husband have INCREASED my faith100 fold. I now look at the Scripture from a totally different perspective. And it has brought me and my wife much closer to God.
    I believe I was taught very well, not raised or taught with “mushy” Scripture and ALWAYS with a love for Isreal and the Jewish people. But, since we found your TV show a few years back, it has been amazing!

    Thank you for all you and your Husband do!
    God bless you!!!

    1. Thank you, Lawrence. We do feel a responsibility to do what we do and that our impact would be severely muted were we not living in the States. That just means that we don’t think of moving, which means that we have never truly considered the tremendous plusses and negatives of being in a different culture even if it is one that it many ways (but not all – maybe my husband will deal with that in his answer to the question) is comfortable and ‘at home’ to us.

  4. As a hopeless sudoku addict (hooked on Loco Sudoku: can’t keep it in the house or nothing else gets done), I can definitely relate! Your description of seeking not too easy, not too hard is the point of Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience”.
    But your real point is the life challenge of deciding whether or not to live in Israel, where your background understandably points you while your life’s work seems to be best accomplished here. Unlike sudoku, many decisions don’t have a single right answer. I am so grateful that wherever you practice it from, you and the Rabbi set Jews and Christians alike a wonderful example.

    1. Deb – I did try to look at the link you sent but got an error message. I can definitely relate to puzzles too easily taking the place of what I should be doing!
      (Thanks, Deb. I found the article you referenced and enjoyed it.)

  5. Part of the challenge in the puzzle of life is that the correct answer sometimes changes as we change. Married or single, small children or grown and gone, and many other variables may call for reevaluation of our decisions. It helps to have made foundational choices non-debatable.
    (I’m one of the ‘glad you are here’ crowd!)

    1. Lyna, you are so right. When I was in college it was easy to picture moving to another country. As you get older you are responsible for others as well as yourself and recognize more deeply what it means to be an immigrant and out of one’s native culture. I didn’t speak about all those things because I was harking back to before I met my husband, but a move anywhere has many challenges.

  6. I think you are both an amazing couple doing amazing and important work. That said I wonder if with today’s technology you can’t move your center of operations to Israel which may entail you visiting the USA a few times a year. Remember, …….this weeks Torah portion says “come, inherit the land”……We here would love to welcome you home!

    1. Your family has built a beautiful home and life in Israel, David and we would enjoy being closer to you.

    2. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear David,
      Susan and I cherish your and Ronit’s friendship and time with you is one of the best things about our time each year in Jerusalem. You are always inspiring.
      What you suggest is not without merit and we are sorely tempted but leaving behind our seven wonderful children and their many children would be terribly hard to do. After all, we recently relocated across the country from an area we love to an area that is, shall we say, hostile to human habitation, only in order to be closer to family. And the truth is that this has been life enhancing. Hope to see you soon.
      Warmest wishes

  7. You feel the tug to live in Israel and return there as often as you can. At the same time you fulfill God’s command to impart knowledge to others and do that here. I have learned God puts choices before us and sometimes insists we use the brain we have been given and make a choice. He works with us to bless others if we simply make an informed decision, which you two have done. Maybe someday your residence will change, but as a Catholic Christian, I’m glad you’re in America.

    1. Thank you, Susan. We do both feel very much that we are American and owe gratitude and support to this country.

  8. I appreciate your honest answer, and the puzzles you must have to solve every day, just trying to be an observant Jew. I guess I don’t understand why you say “God observes you more closely” in Israel? I don’t understand either the logic behind it, nor why there is a limitation on what God can do. Then, I’m not a Jew, so don;t have that direction of learning/knowledge.


    1. You are right, David, that there is no limit on what God can do. But I do believe that He chooses to provide closer supervision and access to those in His land. It is two-sided. There is extra protection, but can also mean greater reaction to wrong.

  9. So thoughtful and beautiful in the way you weave your spirituality into your marriage and your life choices. God is smiling upon you even though Israel has not been chosen as your homeland. I, for one, am glad both of you are here and teaching me.

    1. God certainly has smiled upon us, Randy, and we hope that we cause Him to smile in some small way.

  10. You bring to mind Mrs. Lapin, the name of James Heriot , who was a veterinarian in a part of rural English countryside. He wrote, “All Creature Great and Small. ”
    I believe reply he spoke why he was not doing his task in city, as the need was right there where he was.
    There is seen similar reason why remaining here is not in error.

    1. I love James Herriot’s books and highly recommend them. Our mission is one of many reasons for living in the States, some of which are much more selfish – I don’t want to misrepresent us.

  11. Life consists of puzzles, and the puzzle your lives offer is daunting. Yet I see an analogy: consider the case of the thirteen Thai athletes, coach and boys trapped in the cave. The rescuers had the alternative of an easier life, staying outside the wet, perilous cave to man the pumps or widen the passages. There was also the option of diving in hazards that were oft invisible, with great risk to the rescuers as we have seen. Worst of all, there were the dedicated medical personnel who undertook to remain deep in the cave with the boys throughout, to endure days of smelly darkness and fear in order to minister to those trapped until the rescue was complete.

    Your dilemma of where to reside is likewise daunting, for each place offers its own situations, missions, blessings and perils. But mustn’t we take what God gives us? You have an audience here that needs and appreciates your AJW and we are very grateful for your mission, time and dedication.

    1. Thank you, James. I actually would love to see more celebration of those who joined the boys in the cave.

  12. At this time, I am always moved by the possibility that Israel was such a great kingdom, and had Israel stayed intact, it would have been a greater kingdom than England and more powerful than the U. S. and England combined.

    1. Lisa, I’m sure you aren’t surprised that a tiny nation makes the news so frequently entirely disproportionately to its size and population.

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