“It’s not the end; it’s not even the beginning of the end; but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”
I am finding it hard to believe that we’ve reached the end of the school year. We haven’t quite been here a year, but getting to the end of the academic year is a real milestone. This shabbat, one year ago, i gave a farewell dvar torah, somewhat off the cuff, to my beautiful community in london. I referred to a vort of the lubavitcher rebbe's, that every time there is a double sedra, the two names of the sedrot contradict each other. Matos-Masei: a staff, the head of the tribe, that which does not change but which serves as a marker, provides an identity, a reference point and a rallying point; + journeys, change, new situations and experiences. A year ago, i was about to leave a matos period in my life to enter a new period of masei. And now, i am partway through the process of transforming my masei period into a mateh, again.
We’ve come a long way, baby.
I’ve been trying to compose this in my head without reference to trite phraseology or clichés, but it’s proving impossible. I cannot pretend that others have not trod this path before me – and written about it – so I’ll just have to go for honesty, but unoriginality.
Looking back on the year we have (just about) completed in
making aliyah, I can only feel gratitude to Hashem and amazement at what we
have achieved. Chazal tell us that when the wicked and righteous reach heaven,
they are shown the yetzer hara – the evil inclination – which tempted them
throughout their lives. To the wicked, who gave in to it, it will appear like a
tiny molehill; to the righteous, who resisted, it will appear like a huge
mountain. The question that is asked is why it appears like this to each group
of people? Surely the sinners should see the temptation to which they succumbed
as overwhelming, and the righteous should see that which they overcame as being
insignificant? But it is, in fact, the other way around. The sinners will look
back and wish they had resisted something which was really so petty and
trivial. And the righteous will look back and see their struggle not to give in
transformed into an eternal triumph.
I hope it doesn’t sound too arrogant – or critical of those friends who are still living in chutz l’aretz – if I say that I identify with that somewhat. Not the triumph over temptation part, but that on looking back at our first year in the Land, all the difficulties which we have b’ezrat Hashem overcome seem so much larger than they did while we were struggling through them. At the time, it was hard, yes, but it was ok, we were managing fine. And now when I look back, I think – wow, I can’t believe we did this. I can’t believe we got this far. Oh we aren’t finished yet – the struggles continue – but now they are normal struggles, regular life struggles, and I can’t think how we ordinary mortals coped with the challenges we already faced.
I remember our first week in Israel, and how dislocated we felt, how much it was time out of step with the rest of the world, a kind of cross between the week of sheva brachot and life on the moon. We took our life apart in
packed it away in boxes and left it until we couldn’t remember it by heart –
and then we took it all out and put it back together again, but differently. The
weeks which we spent living with beds, appliances, one folding table, and 5
plastic chairs as our furniture, and how incredibly wearing it felt to have
nowhere to put anything down apart from the floor. I don’t think I have ever appreciated any
piece of furniture as much as the second-hand chest of drawers we picked up in
our second week here (at last, something to put things on!), and the luxurious
arrival of our couches just before rosh hashanah (weeks before our shipment
from London reached us) was a New Year’s gift from Heaven.
More: the utter discombobulation of taking the children to school for the first time, and not knowing which way to turn, what books to give them, and just leaving them to work it out. The vulnerability of being reliant on the kindness of strangers and G-d – and the lifelong lesson that comes from not having been let down. The loneliness of moving from a community in which we had built for ourselves a cosy and secure little niche to being a teeny tiny unnoticeable fish in a deep, shadowy and densely-populated lake – which leads you to reconstruct every stranger’s face as reminiscent of someone you knew ‘before’. And what a difference it makes to get a smile and a shabbat invitation, to recognise people that you pass on the street. I think perhaps it was a small taste of what life would be like without memory.
And one at a time, we moved through the markers of the year and slowly and gradually felt a new life take shape around us. Our children went to school and learned how to get to the toilets, what the teachers were called, how to distinguish the faces of friends from the mass of fellow students. We learned the past, the present, and the future, and not only in Hebrew grammar. One child cried at night because they missed their friends so much – but today that child came home from school with a paper of appreciation, engraved over and over again with praise of their smiliness, friendliness, and speed at learning Ivrit. One child was overcome with the stress of not being able to know which child was their friend – but is now quite certain that they are friends with the whole class. One child insisted it would only be awful here – but now admits it’s not as bad as they thought, and wants to bring souvenirs back for their friends.
The year turned – and so did we. The ineffable and indefinable different-ness of living in this country seeped into our bones and became part of us. Our week dances to the rhythm of Shabbat; our months marked by the white-shirted children on rosh chodesh; our milestones of acclimatisation by the chagim coming and going. And deeper than that, I find I have come to accept living to a different beat. There is a story about a rich businessman who once gave a very large donation to Rav Aharon Kotler. Rav Kotler gave him a long and heartfelt brachah that he should merit to spend eternity learning Torah in Gan Eden. A look at the man’s face told him that he was not sure this was a bracha he really wanted. Rav Kotler told the man not to worry “the bracha is, that you’ll enjoy it”. Sometimes I feel that this is the bracha we didn’t realise we were asking for – but we received it: don’t worry, you’ll enjoy it. We were told that here it is normal to live on a miracle, normal to rely on divine help to have enough money to reach the end of the month. I understood that those who were telling me that were telling me it as though it was something positive, or reassuring, but it sounded dreadfully insecure to me. Now, though, I understand it better. The bracha is that we enjoy it.
Yes, there are Israelis who are rude and abrupt, there is the difficult bureaucracy, there are the awkward and unpredictable opening hours, there is harsh sun and long lines at the supermarket and the (for me) inconvenience and handicap of living without a car. Mostly I ride with it, accept the hardships with gratitude as a kaparah and a kinyan ha’aretz, and hold my breath with the prayer that things will not become too hard, too long, too expensive, too much for us to bear.
We have come so far in this year. We have all learnt a new language; we have found employment; our children have learned how to walk and ride to school and elsewhere by themselves; they’ve learned to ride the buses and to get help from strangers (and to not-get-help-from-strangers); they have developed new talents in gymnastics, in drawing, in engineering, in sports, in comics, in making friends, in arts and crafts. We have all changed our value system somewhat and begun to reorganise our ties and loyalties and priorities. And we have so much further to go. It’s only the end of the beginning – and all beginnings are hard.