In Plain Language: The art of shifting gears

The most obvious example of this demanding dichotomy, of course, is the conjunction of Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day) and Yom Ha’atzma’ut (Independence Day).

ORI TUVIA and T’chelet celebrate their engagement. (photo credit: S. SCHREIBER)
ORI TUVIA and T’chelet celebrate their engagement.
(photo credit: S. SCHREIBER)
I woke up this morning to two radically different announcements: One was that a good friend – far too young – had succumbed to cancer, and that his funeral would be held in a few hours. The other was that a beautiful young man, stricken as a child with cerebral palsy, had become engaged to another physically-challenged young woman. Ori Tuvia – literally, “child of good light,” and T’chelet, the sky-blue color of the heavens – would be starting a new life together, even as another friend’s journey on Earth was ending.
A number of years ago, I bought a car with a standard transmission. There was a time, for much of Israel’s history, when the only cars on the road were those of the manual-shift variety. Only wealthy shvitzers could afford an automatic transmission – usually in an American car – and they would drive these rare automobiles up and down the road to “oohs” and “aahs” from their envious fellow-drivers and pedestrians. 
But how things have changed. I had to special-order my current car, and wait an extra two months for its delivery. And to this day, the first time my Israeli friends get in for a ride, they stare in wonder at the stick-shift. Few know how to use it.
But for me that little car – it’s now well past its bar mitzvah and still getting me where I need to go – has been the perfect mechanized symbol of life in Israel. To survive in this country, we have to be supremely skilled at “changing gears” in order to navigate the emotionally-charged highway that is day-to-day existence in the Jewish state. As the 2001 Versailles wedding hall tragedy so vividly epitomized, one moment we are dancing enthusiastically at a simcha, and the next moment the bottom drops out and we are plunged into angst and anxiety.
The most obvious example of this demanding dichotomy, of course, is the conjunction of Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day) and Yom Ha’atzma’ut (Independence Day). Here, on an annual basis, we pause in our daily activity to mourn as a nation over our fallen heroes, and then, in an instant, jump seamlessly into our mood-changing clothes to sing, dance and celebrate another national birthday.
This is a society of stark opposites and confounding contradictions. We shudder at the brutal murder of another Ori, another young and precious light – Ori Ansbacher – yet one more victim of a barbaric, bloodthirsty Palestinian penchant for terror. But at the very same time we marvel at the songs of love and redemption the mourners sang at her funeral. 
We cynically mock the proliferation of political parties vying for seats in the coming election, yet we can’t help but be impressed by the eagerness of so many who want to share in the leadership of this country. We gnash our teeth at the frustrating bureaucracy that still haunts our government offices, yet we continue to modernize and move forward in virtually every way with each passing year.
And even as we decry the shortage of doctors and hospital beds throughout Israel – we have one of the lowest physician-to-citizen ratios in the OECD, and too many patients are forced to sleep in the halls – we also take pride in our great advances in medicine over the last few years, with Israeli scientists continually making important inroads in the battle against cancer, ALS and other deadly illnesses. In fact, I’m sure that when cures are finally found for many of these diseases, Jews and Israelis will be centrally involved.
And though there is still a long way to go toward caring for our special-needs citizens – including their educational and social rights, and the lack of handicapped-accessibility in many restaurants, museums and other public places – we have a lot to be proud of. Ori Tuvia, for example, served in the IDF’s Medical Corps, and T’chelet led a course for Egged bus drivers on how to relate with sensitivity to people with disabilities.
Israel is a small country by geographical standards, but it is huge in terms of intellect, imagination, creativity and diversity. It’s all here – from the snow-capped mountains in the North to the sun-kissed waters of Eilat – employing the technology of Tel Aviv and the spirituality of Jerusalem (though both cities have made great strides in both directions). The rabbis describe the Land of Israel as “concentrated kedusha (holiness),” a whole lot of greatness packed into a very petite but potent package. This is a country that is constantly in the news and in the public eye, drawing the interest of hundreds of millions on a daily basis. And so it has the very best chance to influence the planet on a grand scale. 
The secret is to seek out the good, to accentuate the positive and – when the urge comes over us to throw up our hands in despair and to lose faith in our ability to overcome – shift our gears and do just the opposite.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana;