First Person

Jewish World Review May 7, 2002 / 5 Iyar 5763

To be or not to be?

As Israel celebrates its 55th birthday, a powerful essay on the faith and spiritual courage needed to live in the Holy Land in these times of turmoil.

By Sarah Shapiro | It has always struck me as bizarre, mysterious and absurd that Israel's essential right to exist is ever a question in the eyes of the world. That which for other nations is a given, is for us something we must try to prove, in each successive generation. No matter that the one spot we claim as our own takes up less space then New Jersey. No matter that our presence here goes back three millennia. For Israel, it always becomes, again and again — as it has for Jews throughout history — a matter of "to be or not to be." We find ourselves repeatedly in the position of justifying our existence.

Yet everything in Jewish history which seems senseless, meaningless or unfair is eventually revealed to us as meaningful, and purposeful. Absurdities are not absurdities. Bizarre and mysterious, yes, but not accidental, or random.

It's no accident that we should be repeatedly compelled to explain our presence, to have to figure out what we're doing here. It might not be such a bad thing, to know we're in constant peril of losing what we love. It might not be to our detriment that our right to live is ever in doubt, that we're thrown back constantly onto the basic fact of our being present, and Jewish. Being a Jew is an issue, whether or not you want it to be. Our simple existence does pose a question.

Small events in our own small lives are as significant in the grand scheme of things as that occur on a larger scale. So, in a universe created according to a single blueprint, surely our personal histories are similarly designed — that the less we can take our existence for granted, the more we come alive. The more we lose of ourselves as years go by, the more we're compelled to find our real identities.

My friend Esther told me that after her mother got two knee transplants, she said, "Look at this. I don't have my own knees anymore. My heart's run by a pacemaker. My hearing's gone — I hear with my hearing aids. My sight's going. My teeth are false. Who am I, anyway?"

From the Gulf War in 1990 to the collapse of Oslo in 2001, Israel was catapulted from one crisis to another. The "peace process" staggered forth through seven years like a bloodied beast leaving grief in its wake. Yet amidst the deep and widespread suffering of individuals, threats to our survival as a nation were repeatedly diverted. We witnessed with our own eyes how we were repeatedly and unexpectedly plucked from the precipice. To the extent that each catastrophe had seemed impossible to escape, to that extent was each unforeseen rescue beyond anyone's ability to predict.

It is written that truth comes out of the ground. One morning back in the mid-nineties (when the Peace Process was going nicely and the Israeli government was promoting our future in "The New Middle East") I was leafing through The Jerusalem Post in a dentist's waiting room, looking forward to a root canal, when I came across the following news item: A speech given by Yasser Arafat in Arabic, before a closed gathering of Arab ambassadors in Stockholm, had been secretly recorded and published by the Norwegian daily, Dagen.

According to The Jerusalem Post, which delayed publication of his remarks until the report could be verified, Arafat told his audience that Israel would "collapse in the foreseeable future. We Palestinians will take over everything, including all of Jerusalem. Within five years we will have six to seven million Arabs living in the West Bank and Jerusalem If the Jews can import all kinds of Ethiopians, Russians, Uzbekians, and Ukranians as Jews, we can import all kinds of Arabs ... We plan to eliminate the State of Israel and establish a Palestinian State. We will make life unbearable for Jews by psychological warfare and population explosion. Jews will not want to live among Arabs." Then he added: "I have no use for Jews. They are and will remain Jews."

Arafat, as usual, later denied that those were his comments. The Israeli government, as usual, said his remarks were "just words." And I, as usual, went out of my mind, imploding in a kind of crazed inner frenzy. If not for the dentist whose excellent work kept me quiet for the next few hours, who knows what words I myself would have come out with? What in the world was happening to us? What dangerous insanity! The Arab leader was speaking truly of his true intentions, and it was precisely on such occasions that Israel's leaders sincerely doubted his sincerity.

Ultimately, an event took place that in its abruptness and implausibility was reminiscent of the sudden end of the Gulf War on Purim Day. An outgoing Prime Minister, eager for the Peace Process to finally yield fruit during his tenure, hurriedly offered the Palestinian Authority 97% of the territories it had always demanded. The Palestinian State along our border was about to be born, embracing the area Arafat had sought most urgently to possess, the Temple Mount, which includes the Western Wall.

The unthinkable — we were going to lose the Kosel (Western Wall) — had somehow become the inevitable, and it suddenly became excruciatingly obvious that all these years we'd been taking free access to the Wall for granted.

My daughter's in-laws in the Old City told us wryly that the proposed borderline ran through their living room. To get from their kitchen to the front door, they would have to get visas.

A Jewish Quarter posek (rabbinic authority) said that the proposed transfer to Palestinian control would constitute danger to life, and that under such circumstances, Jews might be obligated to abandon their homes.

One rainy winter morning, I was seated on our living room couch having my first cup of coffee, reading on page two of the paper about the latest shooting incidents. A Jewish woman in Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood had been shot while walking along a sidewalk, by a sniper in the adjacent Arab village of Beit Jala. I looked up from the page. My gaze drifted through our newly dry-cleaned white curtains, drifted out the window, through the bare outstretched branches of the trees, wandered across the street, over to the familiar rooftops of the adjacent Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

And something occurred to me.

When the upcoming transfer of military control took effect — my eyes roamed here and there among the houses — then somebody standing at any one of those windows, if he so chose, could, with impunity — shoot right into this living room.

A few days went by.

Then what happened? Get up and dance, get up and shout for joy! Illogically, wonderfully, absurdly, Arafat said Israel's offer was insufficient. Instead of taking his wife out for dinner that night and lining up the Palestinian Police Force for a victory celebration, he gave the nod to another intifada, thereby publicly lifting the veil on his true intentions. And that was the end — at least for now — of the Oslo Peace Process.

It is an irony of the computer age that the same technology which has brought about much loneliness and dehumanization has also given us the phenomenon of e-mail. Letter-writing — which thanks to the telephone had been largely abandoned — is now a resurrected art.

At a particularly violent juncture in the current intifada, when the fear was overwhelming and there seemed no realistic possibility of escape at all, I received an e-mail from my friend Bayla Sheva Jacobs, in Flatbush.

She was forwarding something she had received from someone else online — it could have circled the globe three times before getting to me — a quote from one of the masters of Kabbalah during the Middle Ages, the author of Tomer Devorah, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero.

His words — just words, spoke to me across the centuries that separated us.

At that time, in the future, the descendants of Yishmael (the Arab nations) will awaken together with all the inhabitants of the world to come to Jerusalem and start talking peace amongst themselves. This talk of peace will have one underlying goal, though: to destroy Israel. And their rationale shall be: because they [the Jews] established for themselves their own government. And though the Jews will be in tremendous danger at that time, nevertheless they will not be destroyed. In fact, from that very situation they will be saved.

As of this writing, our future is as veiled in ambiguity as ever, and the present is equally concealed. Lynchings of Jews, drive-by shootings, car bombs, suicide bombings — these things have become commonplace. The morning news reminds me sometimes of Holocaust diaries from the Lodz ghetto (this one has been killed, that one has been killed, this one has disappeared.) A 6-month-old baby died tonight from a stoning.

It is widely assumed that in the not-too-distant future we will be at war.

One evening a few weeks ago, a Jerusalem wedding hall collapsed and approximately 600 people, including the bride, fell three stories. Many were injured, many were buried alive. In its apparent randomness, that incomprehensible event overwhelms the mind, like a flooded river overflowing its banks.

We who were spared stand at the border, and gaze over at those who have crossed to the other side.

It is written that at the border where understanding fails, emunah (faith) begins. How many losses, accidents, and disasters — and how much kindness — will we experience, individually and collectively, before I learn how to believe that each incomprehensible event is bringing us closer to our real identity and purpose in the world?

Until such time as we serve as a light unto the nations, everyone, including us, will be asking what we're here for. And somebody will always come along to say, "They are, and will remain, Jews."

To be alive is to be in conflict. No matter where on earth one is, there is no such thing as safety, only the illusion of safety. I thank you, we say each morning as soon as we open our eyes, O King Who is always alive, for returning my soul to me in compassion.

Maybe it's not such a bad thing to be reminded, hour by hour, that the next hour is an unknown. To be a participant at this point in our history is to realize that there's no escape. There's nowhere to go but where we are. To be alive today is to be brought back, again and again, to the miraculous phenomenon of our being, here, in this wondrous present moment.

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JWR contributor Sarah Shapiro is the author of, most recently, A Gift Passed Along: A woman looks at the world around her, from which this was excerpted (Sales of this book, which can be ordered by clicking here, help fund JWR). Send your comments by clicking here.


© 2002, Mesorah Publications, Ltd.