When I was in middle school, there was a program to promote zionist education. Students were given a book and curriculum to study the history of zionism and at the end of a few months, there would be a test on the material. The top three students would win a free trip to Israel to participate in an International Zionism quiz.
I had never yet been to Israel. And while the commitment to studying copious amounts of detailed history was unappealing, the possibility of visiting Israel was too tempting to pass up.
So I signed up. Along with me were the most academically motivated Jewish kids from schools across South Africa. For months, I studied, until the day of the test arrived.
With sweating palms I completed the test, unsure of a number of my answers, but ultimately, pleased with my effort. And we waited for the scores.
I went to bed that night with dreams of getting on a plane and flying to the land that I had learned and heard so much about. I wondered how I would react to seeing Yerushalayim for the first time. Would I cry? That's what tzadikim did in stories. I heard that people kissed the ground when they landed. Is that what I'm supposed to do?
But then I paused. I shouldn't get my hopes up. There are tons of really smart kids that might have done better than me on that test. And who says I got it all right? But the dreams swelled again. And so I oscillated, from hope to measured expectations.
I reasoned at this point that it was out of my hands, and now up to Hashem. So I began to daven like I had never davened before.
Suddenly, I realized that more than half of the week-day Shmoneh Esrei is about our return to Eretz Yisrael. Hashem who "Redeems Israel, Returns us to Him, Gathers in the Exiles, Rebuilds Yerushalayim, Establishes the House of King David...
My Amida was immediately so relevant. For a week, I begged Hashem to ensure that I came in the top three, that I would be able to fulfill the dreams of walking in the footsteps of our ancestors, and breathing the air of the Holy Land, which is said to make us smarter. That would have been great to have before the test. But then, I guess, I wouldn't need to participate in the competition.
And then the great day arrived: The day we would find out our scores. I sat with bated breath. All the dreams and hopes of weeks of preparing and sleepless nights...
I come back to those Tefillos and emotions every year on Yom Ha'atzmaut. Every year it gets harder. It's been a few years since then. I am no longer a middle school boy in Johannesburg. I have merited to visit Israel many times. And yet, despite all this, I feel no closer.
Hashem, it seems, has directed me to a life of beauty and meaning and purpose outside of Eretz Yisrael. And I am beyond grateful for His immense brachos; of which I am so undeserving.
But I cannot shake those dreams of walking in the footsteps of our ancestors and breathing the air. And every year I question if I am to blame. Perhaps there have been inflection points in my life and career that I could have make Aliyah. Perhaps there still are. Perhaps COVID is one of them.
I have many friends and colleagues who have used COVID to catapult themselves to Eretz Yisrael. For me and my family, it doesn't seem practical or viable at this stage. But Aliza and I constantly wonder if that's really true or perhaps we are too cowardly to take a leap.
I don't know.
It weighs heavily to know that I am on the sidelines of Jewish history.
More upsetting is the world that my children, and our children, are inhabiting and growing up in. Of course, Boca is amazing, and Israel is not a perfect place. Raising children carries enormous social, religious and emotional challenges wherever we are. It's not simple.
But, I guess, I'm jealous of the definitions of "normal" available in Israel when compared to the "normals" offered in the US. And I wonder if the "normals" of our kids' childhood would be better served with hikes in the Golan rather than a pilgrimage to Disney. (I'm not bashing, the Blumenthal's love Disney.) But how might we learn and teach Chumash if our national holidays were on the Shalosh Regalim rather than December 25th?
I wonder if our children might be better off over hearing stories about fighting in south Lebanon from the guys at the back of Shul; rather than fights about the NFL. I wonder what they might dream of becoming if they dreamed in Hebrew.
I wonder, perhaps, if they they would still dream of their college experience as ultimate destination of their academic career. Don't get me wrong: I wholeheartedly endorse a college education, even a liberal arts education. But I cannot fathom why we, as a community, still endorse that amorphous value of a "college experience". And why we're so willing to spend so much money it, when we all know well that the "college experience" is little more than a glorified opportunity to indulge in activities that are not part of the value system we are working so hard to instill.
I would hope, instead, that they might dream of being accomplished Talmidei Chachamim, of being generous ba'alei chesed. I hope that they would dream of becoming intellectually curious, successful professionals, and experts in their fields. That they would spend their lives working on their Derech Eretz and middos. That they might live to build families of connection and commitment to Torah and Mitzvos.
Most importantly, I hope they might dream of living a life of Ahavas Hashem and Yiras Shamayim. A life infused with Kedusha and Tahara, and a love of all Jews, indeed, of all people. I would hope that we would all live with Hashem as a living, personable and active Presence in our lives.
Of course, none of this lifestyle is impossible in Boca. Overall, I think we're doing pretty well with the details. But the dreams? I worry we're still dreaming other people's dreams.
The Ramban notes that when our nation finally left Egypt, received the Torah, build the Mishkan, and welcomed Hashem into our national and personal lives, we were נחשבו גאולים - considered redeemed. We were still in the desert, so the redemption was incomplete, but pretty close. Complete Geulah could only be in Eretz Yisrael.
So maybe if we work hard and dream a little together, we too, here and now can achieve a small measure of redemption.
Perhaps I am an unrealistic romantic. Perhaps these dreams are far off from real life, regardless of whether we're in Boca or Beit Shemesh. Many olim tell me that even when you make Aliyah it doesn't quite work like magic. They tell me it's really hard. That many dreams are still just dreams.
But how would I know? On that day, when the quiz results came back, I learned that I came in fourth place. I just missed it.
I guess I'm still davening to be in Israel, though my tefillos are bigger now. I have a family and community that Hashem will have to bring along too.
Here's to hoping that we're all still dreaming and davening to live the fullest life hand in hand with the Ribbon Shel Olam, wherever He might lead us. But at least this week, I hope you'll dream and daven with me that He should help us to take our place on the center stage of Jewish history.