Two years ago, I was standing at sunset overlooking Wharariki Beach, appreciating one of the most picturesque scenes that I have ever seen, if not the most, when a man approached me. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” he said. “Incredible,” I replied. I asked him where he was from and he said he was from a suburb of London. He had come to this part of the world with his wife for their anniversary, to see what he described as “heaven on earth” with his own eyes. He asked me where I was from, and when I replied Israel, his wife, who was standing next to him went, “Ohhh.” I asked her what she meant.
She said she had a friend, when they lived in Portugal, an Israeli, who used to talk about Israel all the time when they used to have dinner together. She told me about how he used to go on and on about his army experiences, the wars he fought in, and the smell of the Machaneh Yehuda market in Jerusalem. When she finished, her husband said, “We visited there once; a beautiful country you have.” “Yes, it is,” I responded, “but it’s different.” He asked why, and in that split second, I then understood why at moments like these, while appreciating God’s breathtaking creations, I had missed home more in the few days I had been on summer break in New Zealand than all the time I had been working on shlichut in Australia so far.
“It’s different because in Israel everything has meaning behind it. Sure, God created the entire world, the incredible beach here, the beautiful fjords in the south, and the amazing sunset we’re looking at right now. But in Israel, there’s something behind each view that’s much deeper.” He asked me to specify what I was talking about.
So I told him about where I live, and the view I have from my front porch. The biblical significance of my community, and the fact I used to live on a street named for the spring underneath it, that used to run all the way to the Temple in Jerusalem. I told him about the prophecies of Ezekiel that are coming to pass in my backyard, and the most mentioned prophecy in the entire Old Testament, which I experienced first-hand, live, four and a half years ago while getting off a plane and kissing the asphalt. I told him that I learned for two and a half years in a place where there’s a town square emblazoned with a 2,000-year-old prophecy from Zecharia, of old men and women returning to sit and children returning to play in that very spot, and how the local schools make sure that they time their recesses so that the square will never be empty of playing children.
I explained to him how when I prayed there, I prayed overlooking the place where the Temple once stood and will soon again stand, just needing to look up from my prayer book through the window to envision what I was praying for. I tried to convey to him how when my cousin in Israel finished a portion of the Bible relating to the story of our forefathers, he celebrated with his classmates in the very tomb of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
He was astounded by my response, and when saying farewell, commented to his wife “we must visit there again.”
When I returned from vacation back to Melbourne to start another year of trying to inspire all sorts of Jews from all different backgrounds to connect to Judaism and their homeland, many people in the community and friends asked me how my experience there was.
As I said to one of my friends who sarcastically joked based on my photos about me moving to New Zealand instead of coming back to Israel in August: There are two kinds of beauty in this world. Inner beauty and outer beauty, or in Hebrew יופי פנימי and יופי חיצוני. Many times over the trip I came to a viewpoint and saw something so incredibly beautiful that it caused me to just throw up my hands in the air and say “מה רבו מעשיך ה”, but even at those times I felt that something was missing when feeling the longing I had for Israel. Because the awe-inspiring forms of nature that I witnessed there may very well be some of the most beautiful scenes I will ever see, but the word “beautiful” here is only referring to the outer beauty, the יופי חיצוני. True beauty is composed of both inner and outer beauty. In other words, external beauty and meaning.
That doesn’t mean that I won’t travel to see the wonders of God, and try to witness landscapes that will increase my awe of heaven—spectacles so impressive that they will inspire me to spontaneously pray to God. But everything in life is perspective.
I may never see a more beautiful landscape of waterfalls running down the side of a mountain as I saw at the Rob Roy Glacier in Wanaka, but the mountain itself is empty. It’s a creation of God just like anything else in the world, but its holiness is limited.
And most of all, it isn’t mine. It wasn’t promised to my nation and myself by God.
It’s beautiful. But it isn’t truly beautiful.
Doni Cohen, 24, made aliyah from Bergenfield, NJ, to Efrat in July 2013. He did hesder in Yeshivat HaKotel, serving in Tzahal as a commander in the Military Rabbinate, did a year of shlichut through “Torah MiTzion” in Melbourne, Australia. He’s currently studying political science, Jewish history and contemporary Jewry in Hebrew University on Mount Scopus while working on various non-profit projects. He has written for and his aliyah story has been featured in various tri-state-area papers and he can be contacted at [email protected].