In plain language: Lost – and found – in Israel

I thank and acknowledge you, O living and eternal King, for having compassionately returned my soul to me; great is Your faith (in me). (The “Modeh Ani” prayer, said upon awakening)

Kari with phone  (photo credit: SUSSIE WEISS)
Kari with phone
(photo credit: SUSSIE WEISS)
The day I arrived in Israel, a quarter of a century ago, a close friend who had already been living here for several years offered me a piece of wisdom that con- tinues to support and strengthen my aliyah. “You will face a lot of challenges in the years ahead and no lack of disappointments,” he told me. “There will be times when you will be so frustrated, so disenchanted with life in this country that you will even contemplate leaving.
But then something will happen – either to you personally or to the country as a whole – that will reaffirm your decision and remind you what an amazing place this can be.”
Not long ago, my niece was visiting the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Stopping to take a picture at the magnificent Mooney Falls, she accidentally dropped her phone. It fell into a whirlpool below and vanished. She let out a scream, not only because a smartphone today is a compact library, symphony and lifeline all in one, but because she is a serial picture-taker and her precious phone contained thousands of photos and videos. She and her friends searched for hours, but couldn’t find the phone; she even returned the next day and looked again, but to no avail. The phone had vanished.
Fast forward one month. A group of Israeli kids were rafting near the canyon – is there any place on Earth that Israelis aren’t visiting? – when one of them spotted the waterlogged phone. He thought he would discard it, but another boy took it and said, “It’s a mitzvah to return a lost article; I’m going to somehow find the owner and get it back to him or her.” So the young man removed the memory card, which was still intact, and scrolled through the pictures until he came upon a screenshot of my niece’s Facebook page. He looked up the names visible in the picture and then searched through all their friends until, lo and behold, he finally saw a name he recognized; it was that of my son, with whom he served in the army!So he took the phone back with him to Israel and gave it to our family.
Some time later, my niece came on her first trip to Israel and was reunited with her precious phone/photo album.
She called her rescuer and pleaded to send him a reward. He refused any compensation. “Mitzvot are their own reward,” he told her.
“Well, let me at least come and thank you in person,” she said. “I’m studying in yeshiva now,” he replied, “so I don’t have much free time. Just knowing you got back your phone is thanks enough.”
This is one of those feel-good stories that help to restore our faith in the kindness of strangers and the goodness of others. But as I thought about the concept of lost and found, it struck me as being particularly relevant to the current month of Elul and our fast-approaching New Year.
IN A way, many of us also find ourselves “lost” at times. We wander dizzily and directionless through the days as they frantically speed by us, wondering where we are going with our lives and how we are spending the precious, finite minutes which our Creator has given us. It is precisely that sentiment we express each morning when we open our eyes and recite the Modeh Ani prayer, thanking God for returning to us our soul, which lay dormant throughout the night in a state of semi-death. We are buoyed by the knowledge that if the Almighty, in His eternal wisdom, saw fit to give us another day of life, then He must surely believe in our ability to make good use of that life.
Yet lost and found is not restricted to our individual lives.
It is also a collective syndrome and metaphor for national life in Israel. Our society at times resembles a stranger lost in the woods, searching desperately for the way back to civilization and normalcy. We wonder if there will ever be peace with our neighbors, and what the best way to accomplish it is. We hear voices – strident voices calling for actions ranging from conquest to capitulation, and we feel lost. We are proud of the miracles we have witnessed and performed in this marvelous country of ours, yet so many – including various writers who fill these very pages – seem ashamed to unabashedly raise the flag of the only Jewish state in existence. We continually vacillate between forging a unique identity of our own, complete with a distinct moral and civil code, or mimicking the mores and causes celebres of the world at large.
Though Elul is devoid of any Jewish holidays, it does contain the custom of sounding the shofar each morning. That sound is meant to be a bell, a beacon to those struggling to find their way out, to find their way home. It is a call to lose our uncertainty, our self-doubt, our incitement and our infighting – to find our common ground, our collective soul and the absolute confidence that we are not sacrifices to, but shapers of, our own glorious future. 
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana;