A number of years ago, after hailing a cab in Jerusalem and settling in for the ride, I noticed the driver’s name: Chaim Ben Attar.
Chaim Ben Attar?!
“Are you a descendant of the holy Ohr HaChaim?” The sainted Rav Chaim ben Attar, originally of Morocco, eventually of Jerusalem, and now resting on Har Hazeitim (the Mount of Olives), is known to all who study his epic Torah commentary as the Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh.
With an amused smile the driver explained that he was not a descendant of the original Rav Chaim Ben Attar as the Ohr HaChaim had not been blessed with children. But, he proudly and warmly shared, he was part of his extended family, and the tradition in the Ben Attar family – who have lived in Jerusalem for many generations – is to name the first son in every family Chaim, preserving their connection to their family legacy.
That is an Israel story. A ride in a cab yields a comfortable conversation with someone who soon feels like a long-lost brother and who happily shares the richness of his family history and of his proud connection to that history. Delicious. Those kinds of things just do not seem to happen in a NYC Uber.
What does Israel mean to you?
It may be the anchor of your Jewish identity, as the center stage for Jewish life at this stage of history. It may be the place you go to restore your sense of wonder and faith as you behold the fruits of a miraculous and unprecedented process of national return and rebirth. You may treasure its role as ground zero of the revival of Jewish learning and living, a critical resource for your own experience of active Jewish life.
I relate to each of those sentiments; Israel as a source of my identity, faith, and religious growth. But the overwhelming feeling that emerges every time I have the privilege to visit Israel is a feeling of strength. That strength has nothing to do with power, with Israel’s impressive military, scientific, technological, or economic accomplishments. It is not a national strength but a personal one, a firm and secure feeling of belonging to the past, to the future, to a family and to a community.
In a world of instability and insecurity, in which identity, morality, and purpose are undefined, Israel tells me who I am and provides for me a place of belonging. Here I find my history as I retrace the steps of my ancestors, my Avot and Imahot. Here I find my destiny, as I recognize that G-d miraculously brought us home because this is where we belong. Here I feel so deeply connected to brothers, sisters, and cab drivers whom I had never previously met. And while Torah is far from being the law of the land, it is very much its ethos.
There is a science to human resilience, a series of protective factors that make us stronger human beings more capable of withstanding traumatic events and changes. Critical to our personal resilience is the strength of our relationships with family and community, our narrative of personal and national resilience, our ability to see ourselves beyond the specifics of a time, place, and environment, a higher purpose for which we live, and a firm faith in the G-d of nature. As hard as I try to live with these perspectives in America, in Israel they constitute my natural state, enveloping me securely and comfortably. Here I belong. Here is where we belong. We always have, and we ultimately will.
Rabbi Moshe Hauer is the executive vice president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.