Eisenbud's Odyssey: The lesson of Israel’s existentialism
The most important lesson Israel teaches us is as timeless as it is priceless: that we are the sum of our parts, which will only function at peak performance with a shared sense of humanity and responsibility.
IT IS shared humanity during war and peace that propels Israel to greatness in existential struggle Photo: MCT
As an American living in Israel, I have found that life here has a way of
testing you. And changing you.
The ultimate juxtaposition of theory
versus practice, one quickly, and indelibly, learns incontrovertible, profound
truths that cannot be taught in a classroom or through word of mouth,
no matter how well intentioned or realistic the syllabus, instructor or
To be sure, explaining the realities of life in Israel to someone
who has never lived here is as futile as attempting to “teach” someone the joy
of becoming a new parent, or the grief of losing a loved one.
be explained; it must be experienced.
From being perpetually and
outlandishly outnumbered by enemies conditioned from birth, to Pavlovian
proportions, to want to eviscerate you, all the while gleefully launching
thousands of their rockets at noncombatants – at children – to knowing that
mundane tasks, such as food shopping or riding the bus to work, could result in
your violent and untimely death by a suicide bomber, the darkness is always
Conversely, the light created by the brotherhood and sisterhood
that defines this country is equally tangible, representing the ultimate yin
From dancing with uninhibited joy until you’re winded at a friend’s
wedding, or child’s bar or bat mitzva, to celebrating a new birth and the
possibilities it evokes for a better future, to the privilege of watching an
elderly Holocaust survivor walking peacefully through the streets of Jerusalem,
the dark side of life here has a way of making the light purer. More
This incongruity forces you to live in the moment, one way or
another, and embrace the rarefied beams of light that miraculously make their
way through a vast darkness that could easily consume you, like a black
Indeed, all these overwhelmingly opposing variables can’t help but
make you rethink what you once thought you knew about life. About
That said, I am no longer the same person I was when I moved
here nearly three years ago.
For me, this is not a bad thing, as
Manhattan’s rat race was conditioning me to think in terms of “me,” lest I
wanted to end up road-kill before reaching the finish line to
I have learned that “success” here has an entirely different
metric, and meaning.
IN AMERICA children are initially taught that they
must share, play well with others – even make sacrifices for a group. But life
quickly teaches them such sentiments are all well and good (wink wink), but
self-interest is the true calling card for success.
become indoctrinated into a culture that bombards them with countless
conflicting messages, subliminal and direct, that lip-service about teamwork is
nice, like blessing someone when they sneeze, but individuality and the pursuit
of grandeur is really where it’s at.
In short, they learn that conformity
of any kind is for sheep, not “winners,” who must elbow competitors out of the
way on life’s merry-go-round if they are to reach the coveted brass
However, in an existential struggle like Israel’s, such solipsistic
thinking is counterproductive and unsustainable if you hope to survive, or find
meaning of any kind here.
Israel teaches you to rethink the
ubiquitous Westernized “me” ethos.
APART FROM being a soldier in combat,
perhaps there’s no greater feeling of connectivity to fellow human beings than
being sequestered in a confining bomb shelter for hours at a time with other
men, women and thoroughly traumatized children wearing gas masks while under
brutal attack by a common enemy.
While this experience is equally
horrifying and maddening, the lesson it imparts is profound: Without shared
humanity in the face of struggle, we cannot survive.
Not for long,
In short, you learn that if you expect anyone to look out for you
in a volatile country that you care deeply about – to simply care about your
fate – you must first become your brothers’ and sisters’ keeper.
primal reciprocity, while harrowing in the given context, has resulted in the
most pure and enlightened state I have ever attained. This is because it taught
me that while life is delicate, by loving or caring for others as much, if not
more, than ourselves, uncommon strength and bravery can be found. That it’s not
This is the Israeli way.
Furthermore, this understanding can
then lead to what is perhaps the most elusive and vexing state of all:
Purpose. Even if that purpose is simply to help make a terrified child
smile, or to hold the hand and look after an elderly man or woman who can no
longer properly protect themselves, it is a powerful force that cannot be
Most significantly, it teaches us in no uncertain terms
that humanity, combined with purpose, leads to meaning, which in turn leads to
an inner peace that cannot be matched by any selfish endeavor.
understanding is what keeps this country alive and well in the face of an
incomparably evil and aggressive enemy.
Indeed, it’s what makes it
ISRAEL IS proof that the selflessness that defined The Greatest
Generation during World War II is not an antiquated notion or sucker’s bet if
one hopes to “succeed” in life’s rat race, but rather a timeless and
indispensable element for survival, connectedness and humanity.
there certainly are a number of millionaires here, myself and the multitude make
a fraction of the wealth of our Western counterparts, yet we stay and remain
happy and fulfilled for reasons that transcend material wealth and can’t be
quantified in dollars and cents.
Ultimately, I believe it is our shared
fate in this existential struggle that makes us perhaps the most
disproportionately outnumbered, yet happy, grateful and enduring group in the
history of the world.
Don’t get me wrong, we all would like to be
millionaires. Who wouldn’t? And without question, there are tens of
thousands of sabras who leave this country every year seeking material riches
that simply cannot be amassed here.
However, many of them return,
learning that all that glitters is not gold, and that in the final analysis,
Israel’s natural resource of meaning and purpose presents incalculable riches of
To be sure, those of us who traded in material grandeur to live
in an occasional war zone, while barely making ends meet, know that no amount of
money can compare to that which can only be derived from being our brothers’
From being on the front lines in the battle for of our very
AS PASSOVER teaches us, this feeling of belonging and purpose
– of brotherhood and sisterhood – is worth more than any golden calf, and it
always will be.
This is the most important lesson one learns living in
Israel: It’s not about ourselves, it’s about us.
And this understanding
is the only reason we will continue to flourish.
Join us next year in
Hag sameach to you all.