“You have to go to Israel.” “It’s a life-changing experience.” “You’ll never forget it.” “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”
I recently got back from a 7-day trip to Israel. Before I went, all I heard was how amazing Birthright was – from my whole two Jewish friends. They waxed poetic about the friends they made while they were over there, the things they saw, how in touch with their spirituality they felt when they got back. But I wasn’t sure I really believed them. I mean, how much can you change in 7 days?
Famous last words, apparently. In seven days, I met people who will stick with me forever. Made friends who feel closer to me than people I’ve known for a lifetime. Connected with people from a different country, raised in a thousand different ways than me, on a level I didn’t know existed. Bonded over Judaism. Felt spiritually awakened. Faced feelings I’d been pretending didn’t exist. Conquered a mountain where my ancestors died defending our religion. Learned that I knew more about Judaism than I thought. Sang in a different language and felt moved to tears. Slept in a tent on the ground. Met a visionary, revolutionary, insanely strong woman bringing equality to her village. Rode a camel. Cried. More than once.
And I realized, for all my professing to live life to the fullest, to saying yes to adventures, I’ve been hiding. For a while. Since before The Event in December. Since I moved to Charlotte. Since I broke up with David. I haven’t wanted to be seen. I haven’t gone out of my way to make friends or try new things. I haven’t tried things that put me out of my comfort zone. I haven’t felt awake. I haven’t felt challenged. I’ve been hiding.
I go to work, I come home. I go to sleep. Sometimes I’ll have a glass of wine, make dinner. Sometimes I’ll read. Mostly I just eat cereal and popcorn and tacos and watch Parks and Rec for the 50th time.
That’s not to say I don’t have friends. I do. And I love them dearly for letting me hide with them, on their couches, one glass of wine and episode of Game of Thrones or Westworld or This is Us at a time. I love the time that we spent together doing nothing.
And I did try a few new things. I haven’t completely abandoned myself. I went to Atlanta to Music Midtown. I did the ropes course at the White Water Center. I flew to Phoenix for work and made it to the top of Camelback Mountain and threw a party for 2,000 people under the Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas.
I learned to say “no” to going out every night. I learned that I like sleep and that I thrive at work when I’m busy (well, that’s not really new).
But Israel reminded me who I really am. Who I want to be. Deep down in my soul, I need to be challenged. I need to go to a foreign country. I need to go on trips where I don’t know anyone. I need to feel scared. Because that’s when I feel alive.
In Israel, I was completely out of my comfort zone. Before we took off from New York, I knew no one. By the time we landed back in JFK, we were already making plans to see each other again. I tried new foods. I learned (a few words in) a new language. I opened myself up and allowed others a glimpse of my soul. And that, my friends, is more scary than everything else combined.
On the flight back, I read The Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes. One of my goals for this year is to read more books that help me discover myself, that challenge me to grow and change and be the best version of myself. I figured a book by the creator of Gray’s Anatomy would be a good way to ease myself in.
Instead, I found myself profoundly connected to Shonda’s struggle. I’m an extrovert by nature, as opposed to her introvertedness. But the struggle to get out of a comfort zone, to not run home and hide behind a glass of wine, that’s real. That permeates personality types and job descriptions.
Something she wrote reminded me Israel. She wrote:
“I see two paths – a ragged rocky one that goes up to the top of the mountain and a nice easy one that heads down under it. I can fight to make the rocky climb, get a few bruises, risk getting hurt. And I can stand on the mountaintop and breathe the rare air in the warm sun, taking in the whole world before me. Or I can take the easy route underground. There’s no sun down there. No air. But it’s warm. It’s safe. Oh hey, and there’s a big supply of shovels. But really there’s no need to work that hard. The dirt is nice and soft; if I just curl up on the ground, I’ll slowly sink deep enough to form my own grave.”
In Israel, we saw several mountains, each with their own symbolism.
Masada, the Jewish stronghold that withstood attack from the Roman army for a whole year. 960 Jews against the whole Roman army.
The Romans soon grew weary of losing to the Jews, and decided to build a ramp up the mountain. Knowing that their defeat at the hands of the massive Roman army was certain once the ramp was complete, the Jewish people held council in their synagogue atop the mountain. Their choices were clear: fight and die, surrender and (likely still) die, or take their own lives.
Now, the Bible says suicide is a sin. So this was a serious matter for the Jews. But they were so fiercely against being taken into slavery or dying at the hands of the Romans, that they almost unanimously chose this option. In order to spare each other, each man slaughtered his family and then his neighbor, so that only one man committed suicide. When the Romans arrived, they found the bodies of the 690 Jewish men, women and children living on Masada. Only one woman and her children escaped down the mountain, making it out through the sewage system.
Because of this woman, their story survived. And the for the Jewish people, it became a rallying cry. Masada shall not fall again.
We shall not be subject to rule from others again. We shall not be forced to kill ourselves to remain free.
Then there was Mount Herzl, the military cemetery. Anyone who dies in service to the country, or as part of a terror attack, can be buried here. Winding among the rows of graves, mostly of soldiers younger than me who willingly gave their lives to defend Israel, I couldn’t help but cry. These brave men and women fought and died for their country, for their brothers and sisters, their parents, their way of life.
Mount Herzl is structured like a body, so as you wind your way up the mountain, you see different kinds of graves. At the base, the foundation, you have the arms and legs of Israel – the soldiers. As you move up, you reach the heart – the leaders of the country. All the same. No one more or less important than anyone else. All feeding the heart of Israel together.
And then finally, at the top, the head. The thought leaders. Theodore Herzl, the journalist who first suggested an independent Jewish state.
I can fight to make the rocky climb, get a few bruises, risk getting hurt.
Listening to these stories, seeing their sacrifice, feeling their love for life and those around them, how do I choose anything else?
I can fight to make the rocky climb, get a few bruises, risk getting hurt. And I can stand on the mountaintop and breathe the rare air in the warm sun, taking in the whole world before me.
Israel reminded me that I need to feel alive. That I need to be challenged. That I need to make mistakes and fall down and say yes to things that might open me up to getting hurt. That it’s okay to cry, and those who love you will never fault you for showing your emotion. That unless you open yourself up, let people in, you’re living a shadow of a life. That you have to climb the mountain. You have to get a few bruises. You have to risk getting hurt. Otherwise you can’t stand in the sun at the top of the mountain.
So this is my year of yes (thank you Shonda Rhimes). I’m going to try as many new things as I can. I’m going to get out of my comfort zone. I have new friends in new cities to go visit. I have a trip to Thailand that needs planning. I have music to hear and places to go. I have friends to make here in Charlotte. It’s time to stop hiding behind being tired and wanting to sit alone.
It’s going to be a great year. Who’s in?