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.

gas mask 370 [do not use] (photo credit: MCT)
gas mask 370 [do not use]
(photo credit: 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 friend.
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.
It cannot 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 tactile.
Conversely, the light created by the brotherhood and sisterhood that defines this country is equally tangible, representing the ultimate yin yang.
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 remarkable.
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 hole.
Indeed, all these overwhelmingly opposing variables can’t help but make you rethink what you once thought you knew about life. About yourself.
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 “success.”
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.
Ultimately, they 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 ring.
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, anyway.
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.
Such 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 about “me.”
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 underestimated.
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.
This 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 thrive.
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.
Although 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 its own.
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’ keeper.
From being on the front lines in the battle for of our very existence.
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 Jerusalem!
Hag sameach to you all.
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