To Die For

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Palm Tree
19 Apr 2007

There’s a popular cross-cultural expression that’s floating around, and it has a variety of uses. If you say something is “to-die-for,” it’s the same as saying “great” or “fantastic.” If a person is “to-die-for,” it shows a level of affection. And if a place is “to-die-for,” then by all means, you simply must travel there.

But these days I am a literalist when I consider the world. Radical fanatics have taken this expression to a whole new level. They persuade their children to strap on those holy Jihad explosives. They convince them that “to-die-for” is an honor, that it’s heroic.

And I am left sitting among the Mothers of Zion, weeping bitter tears when our children go off and train for war. I’ve been thinking about my son who had a US army contract, and then managed to get out of it before making aliyah over the summer. Israel’s army only wants him (maybe) for a few months…but he’s ready to sign himself away for 3 years just to get into an elite unit. Then, recently, he got a wake-up to reality phone call when a close friend of his from tzanchanim was killed in a freak parachute accident. I can’t tell my son how to live his life anymore. He’s an adult, he makes his own choices. But if he ever has “to-die-for,” it’s still a piece of my life that ends up getting destroyed.

So on the subject of “to die for,” I have a friend who is an administrator of a girl’s high school. And every year I get a call, v’zeh holech kacha (and it goes like this): “Joyce, get back into teaching. I need you for science or computers…which class would you like?”

But I’m one of Arcady Duchan’s coffeehouse dinosaurs, m’shumamim ad ha-tzavar, bored up to the neck and extinct. The newer theories of quantum are light years beyond me, and the programming languages I used to know are dead, buried and gone. “OK, I’ll come back and teach, fine,” I tell my friend, “but the class I want to give is called: Let’s Talk About the Meaning of Life.”

“The meaning of life?” my friend responds, “Sorry, it’s not part of our curriculum. We cover the secular subjects required by the state, a little tanach, a little tehillim. These are high school girls, you know. We don’t want them to think about the meaning of life. We want them to graduate, get married, support their husbands who study in yeshiva…and pop out lots of nice babies year after year after year so we can increase the Jewish population.”

I shrug my shoulders and sigh, “But listen, I’ve got some great reading material in mind: Life of Pi, Four Letters of Love, Teacher Man, 1001 Arabian Nights, Peter Pan…The Little Prince.” Too late, click…she hangs up on me, but I know I’ll get the same call next year. And suddenly I’m feeling sad, because I remember her brother, a mythological fellow who gave me The Little Prince when I was just a high school student myself.

The Little Prince…that brilliant fable for adults. It’s a metaphor about the ultimate traveler, a fragile soul who finds the meaning of life and learns the significance of “to-die-for”. He takes care of (and is tormented by) a vain little rose that grows on his smallish planet until one day, he runs away to visit nearby asteroids. He meets a king, a business man, and a geographer, among others. Then he lands on Earth and discovers the fox.The fox (my favorite character) is the wise teacher who sums up everything about the meaning of life in half a chapter less than four pages long.

The story takes an interesting turn when the Little Prince tumbles upon a fantastic garden filled with hundreds of roses (all identical to the one on his planet). He is astonished and unhappy to realize that his flower is quite common. He thought she was something rare and unique in all the universe. Turns out, she’s not so special. But later on, the fox reveals an essential truth about relationships:

“It is the time you have wasted on your rose that makes your rose so important.”

Before the Little Prince leaves Earth, he revisits all the roses and speaks to the garden of flowers:

“You are beautiful but you are empty,” he went on. “One could not die for you. Of course, an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But in herself she matters more than all of you together, since it is she that I watered; since it is she that I placed under the glass dome; since it is she that I sheltered with the screen…since it is she that I listened to, when she complained, or boasted, or when she was simply being silent…”

So what is the point? I’m getting there, it has something to do with the Caymans. I took a vacation recently and it’s the first time my passport ever got stamped somewhere besides Ben Gurion airport. The Caymans are gorgeous, spectacular diving, but I don’t have a single story to tell about anything above sea level. Before I left, I took a stroll around the hotel gardens and said good-bye to the islands:

“You are beautiful, but you are empty,” I say…”One could not die for you.”

And I think about Jerusalem; how it pulls at the heartstrings; how I am attached and connected to nieces and nephews, cab drivers and lifeguards, real estate investments, flute lessons and a private school near Abu Gosh. I wonder if I have “wasted” too much time and money on a much loved country and its citizens, when I could have been traveling to other destinations. Maybe the fox is right. Is it the time which I have “wasted,” that makes it such an important place for me?

I can buy a plane ticket to any far-flung spot on the planet. I can afford to act out all the traveling fantasies of the most ardent globetrotter. I have friends who talk about places like Europe with stars in their eyes; they say it’s just “to-die-for” and it sounds so seductive. Should I spend my pennies, pay the price,and travel to such places for pleasure? Then again, didn’t so many Jews in recent generations already pay the price of “to die for” over there?

And all the young Israelis love wandering around the world these days. They fill their eyes with the sights of other nations, they fill their hearts with the adoration of foreign cultures. They don’t quite understand us Diasporans, whose compass needles point East, when North is the more obvious direction. But they are simply stuck living difficult lives, and sometimes it’s hard to see the bigger picture. All I want to do is focus the lens. Just a little bit.

Because here’s the deep end: I’ve raised my son to be a Zionist, I believe in it. If he puts his life on the line for a country, if I pay the ultimate price and it costs me the life of a child, then “to die for” is no longer just an expression or a bunch of vacant words. There is one special place on Earth, and for me it’s not about a vacation. And even though it turns out to be the one place on Earth that the Israelis are always traveling away from, it also happens to be the one place one Earth that they can name as their country, list as their return destination, write down as their address in every blank space that’s marked with the word known as “home.” How many Jews in the past two thousand years had such a right?

So I pray for my son and I pray for the Israeli jet-setters as well: May you never have “to-die-for”. Wherever it is that you pack your bags for, you are the ones who are blessed. Wherever it is that you journey to, return safely and in peace to your land. Whichever borders you cross in a lifetime, may you always be able to carry Israel’s passport in your pocket.

I hope that one day in a lifetime, I am able to carry Israel’s passport….. in mine.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.