It is one of those initiations that every new immigrant to Israel must endure.
It’s a short conversation that repeats itself numerous times in the first weeks and months. For those really slow and stubborn Americans, the conversation continues even years after aliyah. It occurs when one applies his or her rational, logical, and Western mindset to a situation that doesn’t accept those basic rules.
For instance, you turn to the man in the government office (who is being paid by your tax money), or the store owner (who should be interested enough in your business to understand basic customer service), or the bank teller (who should want you to deposit your money in that bank), or the phone company (or any utility company for that matter) and ask why they never seem to be open, or why they seem generally not so interested in explaining any of their policies, or what all those papers you are signing actually say.
Always priding yourself on being an educated consumer, you ask the simple question: “Lamah? Why?” “Why are you never open?” “Why can’t this be processed?” “Why am I being charged these fees?” “Why does it say one thing here and another thing there?” “Why is everyone else in this office being helped and I am not?” Lamah? Lamah? Lamah?
And then comes the oleh’s “Hey-Dorothy-you’re-no-longer in-Kansas-moment” (I would substitute Yankel in Lakewood or Blimie in Boro Park for Dorothy but it seems that they missed that aliyah flight… hmmmm): The person to whom you just posed that seemingly very simple question looks at you as if you are a three-year-old who has just asked for the entry code to one of Israel’s top secret military bases. They therefore respond with just one word, the most frustrating of all responses for an oleh: Kachah. That’s just the way it is.
You, being a very perplexed American, feel as though the store owner or the bank teller or whoever must have misunderstood your question. It was a basic one, after all, that deserved a simple response. So you show off your Hebrew and add two words that you are sure will resolve the entire issue: “Aval lamah bevakashah? But why please?”
It is to no avail. The answer is still “Kachah, that’s the way it is.” Welcome to the country where your “lamah” questions will always elicit meaningless “kachah” responses. That’s just the way it is.
Being a tour guide, it is my job to provide my clients with answers to their questions. Or at least make up ones that sound good on the spot and that I can recite with great confidence. But as a rabbi, I look to the Torah for answers into the mysteries of the world. And the truth is that if we investigate the personality of the first Hebrew/Israelite ever — our forefather Avraham — we may find some answers to this frustrating Israeli reality.
We are introduced to Avraham at the ripe young age of 75, when Hashem tells him to pick up his family, leave everything behind, and go to a foreign land where he is promised all manner of good things. Incredibly enough, Avraham does so. Avraham doesn’t ask why, he just goes.
Next on the agenda of Avraham’s ten tests is the famine in Israel, for which he is forced to leave the country Hashem had previously told him about. Again, no “lamah?” His wife is kidnapped — no “lamah?” His nephew Lot, the son of his deceased brother, leaves him, and again, no “lamah?” He goes to world war to protect that nephew after he has been abducted by the four kings — still no questions. He and Sarai remain childless, he has all kinds of problems with an Egyptian maidservant (and the child born from her), and yet, amazingly enough, there is never once one simple word: Lamah? In short, Avraham is a “kachah” man. It is what it is and whatever Hashem throws at me, that’s what’s best for me. Questions are a waste of my time and His.
Finally, we reach the first “Jewish” mitzvah in the Torah (up until this point all the commandments were Noachide and universal). Avraham is commanded the eternal covenant of circumcision, bris milah. Not the most fun of mitzvos at any age, but certainly not a picnic at the age of 99 and without the benefit of anesthesia. Yet the way the commandment is formed is truly fascinating.
“Hishalech lifanai v’heyei tamim — Walk before me and be tamim,” which can mean complete and/or perfect.
The Ibn Ezra, the great 12th-century commentator and philosopher, explains that Avraham’s temimus here is that he does not ask questions. “Walk before me,” “Do as I tell you,” Hashem is telling him “and don’t ask Me why.” Kachah. That is the test of Avraham. In fact, that is the core of all the tests of Avraham, and it is in that merit that we received the Land of Israel and that the Jewish People remain eternal.
If one examines the 3,000 years of Jewish history, it is possible to ask many questions. How is it possible that we are still around? Why has this nation survived? Almost everything about the Jewish People and its history is beyond rational. Our existence makes no sense. We are a nation with only one answer to the “lamah” question: “Kachah.” It is because Hashem has thus desired. It is because our forefather didn’t ask questions. He just acted.
After close to ten years of living here, I have trained myself to stop asking why. (Although it is quite challenging when I have traveled two hours to register my license at an office that is only open twice a week for two hours in the afternoon, only to find out that the person who processes the licenses decided on her own to switch the hours for that week to twice a week in the morning. It seems she had an appointment to get to.) The truth is that the native-born Israelis understand this concept much better than olim. It doesn’t pay to ask. It is what it is and we have to accept it and go with the flow. We live in a country that defies rational explanation. We are only here in the merit of Avraham Avinu, who understood that concept and programmed it into our DNA. The mishnah in Avos tells us that the more we nullify our will to His, He will make our will His Will. May He Who has all the answers bring the day soon when there will no longer be any more questions and we all live in the “kachah” that Hashem created.
Rabbi Schwartz, a former outreach professional, rosh kollel, and rav in New York, Iowa, Virginia, and Seattle, moved to Eretz Yisrael in 2010 where he is the rav of the Young Israel of Karmiel and a professional tour guide. His column appears once a month.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 784)