The theme of the Passover journey from exile to redemption has been deeply engraved in the collective and individual Jewish psyche since time immemorial. While for many generations the journey back to Jerusalem had been virtual—a longing, a prayer, a wish—today we witness the fulfillment of a dream that Jews in Nazi Europe would have considered utopian.
On an individual as well as on a national level, it isn’t enough to extricate ourselves out of exile . . . we also have to extricate exile out of ourselves.
It isn’t enough to extricate ourselves out of exile . . . we also have to extricate exile out of ourselves
This is a long and tortuous process for some. In my personal experience of 33 years, Israel has been an experiment in living, a personalized workshop in my personal and spiritual evolution. And needless to say, the process of replanting my roots in a Promised Land that so far had been virtual and ideal came at the cost of experiencing many moments of emptiness and uncertainty.
Perhaps ingrained in our collective and individual subconscious is also an impulse to want to go back to Egypt whenever the going gets rough. Despite receiving daily manna from heaven in their journey through the desert, the freshly liberated Hebrews craved the meat that was served in Egyptian restaurants. I, too, felt remote from all that was familiar. Amongst many other things, I particularly craved the scent and taste of the foods that had sustained me so far.
But the emptiness didn’t come from food cravings. The emptiness I experienced was the result of being in a state of gestation, a delicate passage from the comfort zone of my own exile to a place that seemed to elude me, that seemed to become more and more inaccessible the more I tried to approach her; maybe this is why they called her the Promised Land (she’s promised but not yet given). This state of “non-being,” of having abandoned the old for some ideal still in embryonic state, with no guarantees or certainty that it would yield; this state of “limbo,” of being a stranger to the language of the land, a new immigrant like many others—felt like crossing the desert.
The desert offers unparalleled opportunities to deprogram behavioral patterns, like addictions, selfishness, anger, attachment, conceit, to name a few. Yet in order to survive in the desert, we need to draw on our last drop of courage reserves so as to overcome the terror of feeling somewhat not existent. The word “desert,” midbar, is spelled the same as medaber, “speaks.” Yes, in its silence and desolation, our own inner desert can tell us everything we need or want to know, and beyond.
However exciting it is to embark on this journey, staying on it is fraught with obstacles which endanger our illusion of certainty and safety, of reliability and feeling part of the project. Personally, I have oscillated between fighting the obstacles and accepting a reality that I don’t fully understand. This land was originally named the land of Canaan, which etymologically means “surrender.” And she taught me a few lessons in humility.
I have oscillated between fighting the obstacles and accepting a reality that I don’t fully understand
While my teacher said that whoever turns to Israel to escape their problem will soon find out that their problem preceded them, when I moved to Israel I didn’t think remotely that I was running away. In my view, my journey was one of self-discovery, and my destiny could be met only in Israel. I thought it was imperative to show up at Ben Gurion Airport. Once the first step had been successfully completed, I registered at the Ministry of the Interior as a new immigrant.
But I didn’t know that Israel is unlike any other place in the world. The Torah says that G‑d’s eyes are glued to the Land of Israel from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. G‑d seemed to have enormous patience, as well as untiring perseverance and an extraordinary sense of humor. Perhaps He was—is—busy polishing all the facets of our souls, which are likened to diamonds, in order to make them shine with their true splendor. To this end, our character is put to the test.
As soon as I stepped down from the plane, a surprise was waiting for me at Ben Gurion Airport 33 years ago. G‑d didn’t waste any time; after crossing three continents and many hours of connecting flights, He had a good joke in store for me.
In 1979, Ben Gurion Airport was a three-terminal hangar, much different from the modern complex of the 21st century. The airport stood in the backdrop of cultivated lands which exuded an intoxicating scent of orange blossoms.
I counted the number of suitcases, packages and handbags per passenger, which averaged about seven per head. This is without mentioning the number of hats, coats, musical instruments, sculptures, strollers and all sort of valuable artifacts, stocked under the seats or in the upper compartments, which were about to burst.
I waited for my one single suitcase to be ejected from the carousel.
Meanwhile, I began to observe what was going on around me: hordes of family members and friends, dogs and children had come to fetch the lucky passengers, amongst shouts of joy and tears and loud conversations. I waited until the last of the passengers exited the airport, but my suitcase was nowhere in sight.
Could my suitcase have been lost or stolen? I thought. Could it be a coup of cosmic theatrical humor, signaling a rupture with my past?
I didn’t know a soul in Israel
As I walked around the airport, which resembled more a football stadium, I tried to process what had transpired during the flight. Images of pre-adolescent children, singing the traditional Israeli song “Hava Nagila”; passengers who took frequent trips to the bathroom, telling each other jokes; a few men with beards and hats, gathered together to pray in the corridor . . .
When the plane finally landed, after a two-hour delay, passengers began to applaud.
I didn’t know a soul in Israel, but I was hoping to rescue my suitcase, which contained all my little familiar treasures and things, my clothes, my shoes, my connection with my past, my identity.
I finally walked over to the lost-and-found counter to seek help. The hostess asked if I had a friend, a family member or someone I knew who could help me.
“What do you mean, you don’t know anybody?”
I blushed and admitted I didn’t. Then she began to argue with an El Al employee in Hebrew. They finally brought a green duffel bag that hadn’t been claimed since the Yom Kippur War. They began to unpack it, to check whether the clothes it contained were more or less my size. I was about to burst into tears. I refused to take the bag of a girl who had not claimed her possessions, and I was about to bang on the counter and demand my own suitcase at all costs; but something stopped me. Although the scene reminded me of the theater of the absurd, the host and hostess were being forthcoming and helpful in a most creative way. They finally convinced me to take the duffel bag, until my suitcase was found or until I could organize a new wardrobe.
I experienced a horrifying feeling of being dispossessed, as well as anxious about my fate in general, minus my clothes, my makeup and shoes, who were my only travel companions.
But as I grieved in shock over the loss of the last vestiges of my past, another, different persona awakened. She said: “If this were happening to somebody else, it would be extremely funny. LOL.”
Face to face with my obstinacy. There was one deeply ingrained trait of character that doggedly kept me from going with the flow, or from transforming my narrative, or even from surrendering, letting go of the understanding that I deserved to have things done my way.
And what if the symbol of the lost luggage at such a critical point in my life were to be interpreted as a new beginning, as if I had been assigned a new role in the script of my life that necessitated a change of garments? Actually, those long skirts and scarves and robust sandals were more appropriate for the hot weather than my silk dresses and high-heeled shoes. But the symbol of the exchanged bags still had many layers of meaning.
With time, I have come to the realization that life can be a comedy of errors
With time, I have come to the realization that life can be a comedy of errors, and that in trying to get rid of a problem, one often cancels many other exciting factors of life.
And suddenly, I remembered with excitement that I had just landed in Israel, and that I was on the brink of beginning a new life, a life with many other surprises and not a few expropriations.
My teacher was right. Many problems preceded me, too many to describe. I left tons of unfinished business, like relationships with family members and memories that were better swept under the carpet.
They have all come to haunt me. It’s part of the script. I fought them until I came to understand that in the new scenario of my life no stone was left unturned, although sometimes I wanted to hold on to the woman in high heels and silk dresses who wanted things her way, to procrastinate, to hope the obstacles would simply disappear, to take it easy.
Resisting change was not my invention. And habits are hard to break. But obstinacy is a stumbling block on the journey from exile to redemption. My scariest challenge was tackling the process of becoming who I was supposed to be, now that I had volunteered to be part of the Jewish people. And change feels like death. One needs to die on some level in order to move forward towards the destiny that one set out to seek, abandon familiar references and anchors, beginning from scratch like a newborn baby who hasn’t yet learned how to speak (Hebrew).
This is the lesson that I learned from my own personal exile, the most painful exile, the exile from myself. That there are moments of terrifying uncertainty, where one would prefer returning to Egypt, New York, Mexico City, to our comfort zone . . . but that going with the flow of that consciousness, we become the void . . . a void that is on some level a womb, a conduit to receive new life and come out of exile totally transformed, less haughty but more genuine.