For years I couldn’t understand why American Jews have such a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea of aliyah. Now i finally got it.
Walking down the tree-lined streets of a typical New Jersey suburb on shabbos, with it’s spacious houses and manicured lawns, everything seemed just perfect. And the next moment I got an insight into the “three weeks”. Spending my summer in New Jersey, instead of at home, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, can do this to you.
Ask most observant Jews about their least favorite time of the year, and chances are the “three weeks” between 17 Betammuz and Tisha Beav will be high on the list. Three weeks without music, celebrations, and shopping, two fasts, and one week without meat can really dampen the spirits.
The stock notion is that the three weeks commemorate the tragedy of the Jewish People two thousand years ago. But Judaism is not a museum. Every single practice has relevance to our lives today.
That’s the thing. We are so far removed from normative Jewish life with a Beit Hamikdash that we don’t even know what we are lacking. Animal sacrifices seem at best irrelevant and at worst gross. Descriptions of annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem read like cute pieces of folklore.
I mean how many people you know who walk around yearning to sacrifice a sheep? Even learning about Beit Hamikdash and the daily avodah hardly makes your feel like you are missing out on something special. Despite all our difficulties, we can’t envision a different existence.
This is the understanding I developed this year. The community I am visiting has all the trappings of Jewish life: dozens of shuls catering to every taste, kosher restaurants galore, kosher supermarkets, schools, learning programs, you name it.
As I look at the Jewish life here, I see the tragedy of not knowing what you are missing. The “locals” think they have the perfect Jewish experience, but I know that it doesn’t even begin to compare with the Jewish experience of living in Israel.
For my kids, learning Tanakh with Rashi is a constant scavenger hunt for familiar words, places and ideas. Anatot, Beit El, Geva, and Mikhmas are as close as a road sign or a school trip. Gelida is not just a word in Onkelos; it’s the ice cream on their Shabbos table. Everything is just so relevant.
Back in high school, quite a few of my classmates couldn’t recite the Jewish months of the year even after 10 years of yeshiva education. But for Israelis, Pesach is in Nissan, not in April; and Rosh Hashanah is in Tishri, not in September. We actually had to teach the kids the months of the Gregorian calendar and they still ask when November is.
At kindergarten birthday parties, “May you see Moshiach” and “May you become a Cohen in the Beis Hamikdash” are the standard fare of 4-year-olds’ birthday greetings. Speaking Hebrew from crib makes Jewish learning that much more easy.
In Israel, mezuzas accompany you from the day you enter the world in a hospital ward (or walk into the Ben Gurion terminal) at school and work, in the army and at city gates, until the very last day. And in the words of Uncle Moishe “Shabbos is the day of rest” and family, even for people with minimal understanding of halacha and observance.
With all the westernization, Israel is still a far cry from the anti-Torah materialism. Here, Memorial Day is about memories, not shopping. Family and kids come far ahead of climbing the corporate ladder. Although American frum community also upholds these values, the society around them doesn’t. In Israel, even the non-observant usually marry young, have multiple kids, and maintain close ties with parents and siblings. And yes, all of us are definitely influenced by society at large.
Being frum in Israel and bringing up frum kids here is still a challenge, but it’s a different kind of challenge. The secular society may at times be anti-religious precisely because it wants to pick and choose parts of our heritage. Yet even the most fervent Israeli secularists are deeply connected to the Jewish cultural legacy.
On a metaphysical level, Chazal teach us that the air of Eretz Israel makes one wise. We may not feel the difference, but it is clearly there in ways that are too subtle for our conscious minds to distinguish.
Still, even those American Jews who have been to Israel, view the Israeli experience as so different from the “normal” back home, they can’t relate. For most of us “familiar” means good and “different” means bad. So aliyah seems foolhardy, because really people are perfectly happy living the way they do. Why rock the boat?
And this is exactly the problem we all have with the pre-churban experience. We just don’t understand it. It’s different and not at all alluring, because we are used to things the way they are. We daven for geula three times and day and pay lip service to Moshiach, yet we don’t have an inkling of what that means.
Along come the three weeks to remind us that although we don’t know what we are missing, we should just know that our existence is not normal. We are blind and deaf to the color and music of the Beit Hamikdash experience. During the three weeks we can feel the eyepatches and the earplugs and just know that there is a whole world on the other side, we will only appreciate once we experience it. Hopefully soon enough.
What do you do to connect with the Beit Hamikdash experience and make the three weeks relevant?
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