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Why I’m Grateful to Feel at Exile in Israel this Rosh Hashana

Making aliyah is proving to also be an opportunity to experience life as an outsider, evoking greater empathy and compassion. Being an immigrant to Israel is a reminder of how most of us are simultaneously insiders and outsiders everywhere we go, finally coming home but feeling in exile
Rabbi Leon Morris is the President of the Pardes  Institute of Jewish Studies and was until 2017 the Vice President for North American Programs in Israel at the Shalom Hartman Institute. Previously he served as rabbi of Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, New York, and was the founding director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan. Leon was ordained from Hebrew Union College in 1997, where he was a

Originally published in Haaretz


We moved to Israel from America three months ago. After years of aspiring to build a life in Zion, we decided that the time was right. Like most of those who make aliyah, we came here primarily for ideological reasons. We believe that Israel is the most important project of the Jewish people in our time. We want to contribute to that project. We want to give our three children the opportunity to experience an all-encompassing and organic Jewish life informed by the Hebrew calendar, Hebrew language, and a shared sense of destiny. This holiday season will be the first time our children experience the High Holy Days and Sukkot not as “Jewish holidays” but simply as “the holidays.”

But immigration is not an easy process. It never was. Like most American immigrants to Israel, we gave up a great deal to be here. We were not escaping anti-Semitism, nor were we seeking a better material life. We were drawn here – uprooting our family, giving up meaningful jobs and a comfortable lifestyle – despite the sacrifices we knew it would require of us. The anticipated compensation for all the obvious sense of loss was the desire to feel that we were home.

In truth, we were leaving home to come home. While heartened by those who greeted our arrival with the words of “welcome home,” the irony of coming home to Israel – as every immigrant has surely experienced – is simultaneously experiencing a sense of exile. I’m waking up in the same bed I slept on in Sag Harbor, New York, but to the sound of the muezzin (and sometime to sirens), and the smell of rosemary, and dry breezes and to news on the radio, a good 20 percent of which I don’t fully comprehend. The nuances and subtleties of the language, the shift from being in the know with just about everything to suddenly not knowing what number to call to report a fire, the instantaneous transformation from being someone who gives help to being someone who needs help – all these contribute to a sense of disorientation and alienation. I empathize with my six-year-old son who says when I pick him up from school, “Abba, I just don’t understand what’s going on here.”

This experience, and the feelings that it evokes, can be helpful tools this time of year. Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance) tells us how moving to a new place can help us to transform ourselves:

Among the ways of teshuva are: (1) The repenter cries out constantly before G-d with crying and supplication. (2) He gives charity according to his ability. (3) He distances himself greatly from the matter in which he sinned. (4) He changes his name, as if to say ‘I am another; I am not that same person who did those actions.’ (5) He changes all of his actions for the better and towards the straight path. (6) He exiles himself from his place, as exile atones sin since it causes the person to be subdued, humble, and of lowly spirit. (Hilchot Teshuva 2:4)

I wasn’t interested in making a break with my past. I didn’t come to the Promised Land to escape who I was there. I didn’t come, ostensibly, to doteshuvah. But if teshuvah can be understood in a broader sense of self-actualization and self-transformation, then there is no greater impetus than moving to another country, even one that is our own. As Rosh Hashanah approaches, it is helpful and appropriate to feel subdued, humbled and of lowly spirit.

The experience of being an immigrant provides an opportunity to start again. By leaving behind accomplishments, connections, reputation and areas of expertise, there is an opportunity to be reminded of who I am in the absence of all of them. Who am I when I am inarticulate, when I miss social cues, and when I lack an understanding of a good deal of that which is happening around me? Who am I apart from everything? In the formulation of these questions come resilience, self-awareness, and perhaps an ounce of wisdom.

Making aliyah is proving to also be an opportunity to experience life as an outsider, evoking greater empathy and compassion. Being an immigrant to Israel is a reminder of how most of us are simultaneously insiders and outsiders everywhere we go, finally coming home but feeling in exile.

Perhaps, as one friend who immigrated from America almost 30 years ago has suggested, the Israel we have moved to is not the same Israel of unbounded confidence and strength to which he made aliyah. It is an Israel that feels a bit disoriented, an Israel with an increasingly uncertain future. Indeed, the Israel to which we moved collectively shares a great deal with the life of an uncertain immigrant. The Israel we arrived to this summer is one that realizes that a strong military only goes so far, that the Jewish State’s most articulate spokespeople are still unable to evoke sufficient support and empathy for the Zionist cause, that the window of a two-state solution is closing, and that hopes for a real end of the conflict are dim. Here too, Rosh Hashanah renews that hope that from such a state of alienation may emerge the promise of transformation, adaptation and growth.

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