When we bought our tickets to Israel several months ago, it was a leap of faith...and to cushion a possible fall we combined our ticket purchase with cancel-for-any-reason travel insurance. With my Dad's condition an unknown from day to day, we weren't sure if we would want to be out of the country for nearly two weeks. As the weeks got closer, and there were no hospitalizations or major turns for the worst, I began to just barely entertain the notion that we wouldn't have to cash in on that superb travel insurance. Maybe, just maybe we would be able to go.
And then, it happened. I sniffled a little as I drove off and left the kids with doting grandparents and I thought as I drove four more hours alone to the airport that there were still so many things that could go wrong that would prevent us from leaving. I had to find a place to park somewhere in the city and take a shuttle to the airport, hauling both the Engineer's and my own luggage. I had to make it through security not totally sure if I had even brought along the correct paperwork for our paper-less tickets. I had to find the Engineer somewhere past security, assuming his plane hadn't gotten delayed due to the storms over New Orleans. Finally I was standing in line at the ticket counter, feeling intimidated and overwhelmed because being such an infrequent flier I have never checked myself in before. The airline checker-iners looked so unsmiling and unfriendly, except for one and I found myself asking G-d, "Couldn't You please time it so that I end up in her line?" The next thing I knew, she had climbed over the luggage counter and walked over to me, still several people back in the line and said, "Are you ready to check in, ma'am? Please follow me."
It's then that I remembered a beautiful thing I heard in a shiur once: anyone who makes it to Israel does so only by special invitation of the Holy One. It's His place. Not just another state on a happenstance piece of soil. The state is a separate miracle, a story of kindness in it's own right. But the ground itself - that space - maybe it's some kind of different spiritual dimension and you can't just buy a ticket and go. You have to be invited. I felt then that it was as if a cosmic Caretaker said, "It's ok. I've got this. Just sit back and enjoy the ride." I felt as if I was handed a gilt-embossed invitation...and that He even sent the limo to pick me up. I floated through security and chirped to TSA that I would rather a pat-down than walking through the machine that makes you glow in the dark and two uniformed agents led me to a private room and gave me something that honestly felt like a pre-flight massage while we all giggled about babies and pregnancy. I found the Engineer, found our gate and the trip was as smooth as could be, with my pregnant body keeping me constantly entertained by the baffling effects of high altitude travel.
We were hosted by the Engineer's twin brother and his wife and they were absolute dears to give up their comfy bed for us. My two nightmare-inducing fears prior to the trip would be that I would never be able to get comfortable enough to sleep and that I might run out of food - illogical since I was surrounded by kosher restaurants of endless variety. But I was amazed to find that wherever I laid down to catch a few winks - on the floor of the airport, on the ground in the Negev, on the foam mattress of a Jerusalem apartment, or in my brother-and-sister-in-law's bed - I slept as soundly as if I was at home (which is to say, not really soundly, but enough that I felt sufficient energy to power me through the next day).
Thanks to the convenience of a rented car, we jetted around to our heart's content. We went to Sfat and walked up and down it's stairs and hills until our calves burned. We hiked down Mt. Arbel, camped in the Aravah, and sloshed through Hezikiah's tunnel beneath the streets of Jerusalem. Our time was limited and we knew it, but there came a moment when I just needed to stop and breathe. It was a great vacation...but if I was here by invitation of the King, then what did He want from me?
Rosh Chodesh Adar and the Western Wall was packed on the women's side. I wriggled my way as close to the wall as I could and davened ma'ariv one row back. When a space cleared, I stepped up and there I was, feeling suddenly lost for words amongst so many women who seemed to know just what to say.
"What should I say? What do you want from me? The last time I stood here I was so full of questions and confusion and I felt then like this Wall was here to keep me out."
"And this time? What is the question in your heart now? What presses against all the seams, wanting to burst out?"
"I want to know why You invited me here. What can I get here that I can't get anywhere else?"
A quiet moment and I lay my forehead against the smooth stone. Maybe, maybe I'm not here to get something at all. Maybe it's to do something for Him.
Then everything and everybody faded away and I felt a gentle whisper resonate through my whole body: "I'm glad you came to see Me."
The last time I stood in that spot, I had no idea how rich and full my life would be the next time I returned. My mind suddenly exploded with pictures of the countless gifts He has given me, of all the restless questions that have been gently put to rest, of all the ways He has taken me by the hand and guided me through adventure after adventure. And then the tears came and if there had been any space between He and I, would have run it with all my might. I smiled and sobbed and stroked the wall with my fingers, feeling love oozing out of all my joints as I was squeezed back in some sort of cosmic hug.
"Thank You...Thank you!" I must have said it a hundred times. "That's why I'm here...I just came to tell you thank You! And I love You! There's no way I can repay in in my whole lifetime all the gifts You give in just one minute. And You give without questions or conditions. Just from love. You are so kind to me. I wish I could become like that..."
And we just stayed that way for awhile, pressed together, full of affection.
In the pursuit of a godly life, it's easy to begin to measure yourself by how well you perform...and to imagine that G-d decides your worth using the same criteria. Life can become a never-ending treadmill of "doing"...and even praying becomes more about adding to your own merit rather than whispering to G-d in the way that you would to a beloved - saying something just to see them smile. In my so-grown-up way, I've fallen into the trap of thinking that all of the favors that I receive from G-d must be paid back in a similar currency; I've to got to do Him so many favors in return. But maybe He's not really looking for that. Maybe it's more like I feel after I've made dinner for all my kids and of course I'm not looking for them to say, "Add it to my account, Mommy. I'll pay you back one day." What gratifies me the most is when they get so excited about what they see that I've put in front of them that they jump up from the table and come around and kiss me and say, "Thank you, Mommy! I love this food! You are the best Mommy ever!" Maybe G-d does all these tremendous favors for us not because He's looking to get it all paid back with interest, but because He loves to see us turn to Him with shining eyes, with a heart that wants nothing else so much as to come closer to Him.
The last time I stood at the kotel, I was so consumed with myself and with the distress of knowing that when it came to performance I fell woefully short. I found it hard to believe that He would want me there, unworthy as I am. This time, from the moment I began the journey to Israel, through every step I traversed in the country and especially that moment at the kotel, I was slack-jawed and stunned by how extravagant G-d has been towards me. The King of all Kings wanted me to come and see Him, to be at His house! And not because of any merit of mine...just because He's so unfathomably sweet and kind and giving. Because of that, I realized that unlike last time - when I stood at the kotel with so much to ask for - this time I came to say thank you.