Rosh Hashana, Aliyah, & Divine Providence


Full version with footnotes originally posted here:

This is a true and personal story which I have, over the years, told multiple times, but I have never fully written down. It deals with the most profound and on-going religious experience of my life. It may sound crazy or irrational to someone who has not had a similar experience, but no-one should assume to have complete knowledge about the limits of possibility or of our existence. Just as there are new discoveries, there is new knowledge to uncover and new experiences to be had.

This story takes place over the course of a few time periods: Rosh Hashana and Sukkot of 2006, our Aliyah two years later in August 2008, and it continues on to this very day. To tell it, I need to add a little background. While I was raised in a Modern Orthodox religious family, there was little that was spiritual about me until the experience I am about to describe. For many years I did not even enjoy singing Shabbat zemirot (and forget about dancing) because I did not feel that “connection.” I did not always have a strong faith in Hashem or the doctrine I was raised with. While in college, after a period of rebellion, I made a conscious decision to lead a religious life, and I started to strengthen my belief and practice, but not so much my spirituality.

In 2006, I had already wanted to make Aliyah for a few years, and I had taken a job at Avaya knowing that they had a site in Tel Aviv and hoping that I can transfer there one day. As luck would have it, after a few years my department began work on a joint project with the Tel Aviv office. Though I was working on a parallel project and even utilizing the same technology, unfortunately, I was not interacting with the Israeli team at all. I asked my manager if there was any chance that I could assist with the joint project but to no avail – they were not reassigning people. For months I had been keeping up on their progress and started hearing Hebrew in the Lincroft, NJ office hallways as Israelis began to visit for meetings. I fought back the urge to introduce myself and speak some Hebrew with them. An Israeli with chutzpa would have never had a second thought about connecting, but I was not yet Israeli and had resigned myself to carrying on while being depressed about not personally working with them.

That was until everything changed – forever …

For Rosh Hashana, we had gone to visit my in-laws in Allentown, PA and were davening with the local Chabad who had rented a room for services at the local Days Inn. The services were being led by Rabbi Yaacov Halperin and he gave a moving speech about the importance of Rosh Hashana being about crowning Hashem as the king of the world and accepting the “Yoke of Heaven.” This means keeping Hashem’s commandments because He commanded them and not due to any intellectual or emotional cause. I don’t remember Rabbi Halperin’s exact words, but I do remember that prior to beginning my silent shemonah esrai prayer, I consciously decided that I was going to try to do what he said, to concentrate on crowning Hashem as king and on submitting to His commandments. I also remember that during that same prayer I decided to ask Hashem for help with the thing that I had wanted to accomplish for so many years, to help me and my family make Aliyah. What happened next is difficult to describe, but I will do my best.

During the prayer, while making this personal request, I experienced a kind of frisson or euphoria – a pleasurable feeling of warmth, immense love, and a connection to something much greater than myself. And a strong feeling that my prayer had been received (which apparently it had been, read on…).

It is understood in kabbalah that existence is not just made up of the physical world we all experience, but also multiple spiritual worlds and an infinite spiritual energy which provides blessing and abundance in our world, to the extent that we are able to receive. It is said that kabbalists know how to focus on specific spiritual intents and utilize various heavenly names to “tap into” that spiritual energy and effect change both in the spiritual as well as the physical realm. Such change includes facilitating the delivery of abundance into this world. Traditionally such techniques have been used, for example, for praying for rain.

I make no claims to have such abilities, but I feel that the kabbalistic system may offer an explanation for what I experienced. I tried reaching a similar level of focus and intent at the following day’s service, but renting space next-door was a gun show, and something about their band playing fiddler-on-the-roof songs (I’m sure they had good intentions) during the middle of the silent prayer must have distracted me… To this day, I have never in my life had a similar feeling or have I experienced such immediate effects as I had in the sequence of events I am about to describe.

The very day I returned to work after the two-day holiday, my manager scheduled a spontaneous 1-on-1 meeting with me. When I went to his office, the same manager who until then had no interest in me working with the Israelis suddenly presented me with the following question. “As part of the joint project with the Israeli team and to further foster knowledge sharing and a spirit of camaraderie, upper management has decided that we should exchange workers overseas every few weeks. Due to recent hostilities in the region nobody on the NJ team is interested in visiting Israel right now. How would you like to go?” What was frightening for my co-workers was a dream come true for me. I answered that of course I would like to go and asked when. “In two weeks.” Only then did it hit me that I was being asked to please go on a fully paid trip to spend my first Sukkot holiday in Israel. Not only that, but perhaps in order to make an impression or maybe due to the state of tourism after the conflict, they reserved a room for me at one of the top luxury hotels in Tel Aviv: The David Intercontinental.

Of course I invited my wife Roni and our 1-year old daughter Leora to come along. For the 3 weeks of work I was picked up and dropped off by taxi, while Roni spent her days visiting family and other attractions with Leora. We extended the trip, tacking on a 2 week vacation following the 3 week business part, for a total of 5 weeks in Israel, making it the 3rd and longest visit to Israel in my life up until that point. One of the many highlights was enjoying extravagant Sukkot holiday meals at the enormous and beautifully decorated hotel sukkah and having room service deliver gourmet dinners almost every night. By the end of our stay, my bills for the 3 weeks totalled more than $10,000 and due to internal policy, they required special approval by the CFO of the company. It was a luxurious experience that we could never have afforded ourselves.

More important than the material benefit, the entire visit reinforced my desire to make aliyah and enabled me to make close personal connections with many Israeli co-workers, some of whom greatly encouraged my aliyah dream. I returned to NJ knowing that the Israelis valued my friendship, my technical abilities, and that they would help me when the opportunity presented itself. Except the opportunity did not present itself.

I returned to my previous project, they continued to work on theirs, and no amount of hinting to my boss that I was interested in a relocation arrangement seemed to gain any traction. After about a year, management had decided that the Israelis would fully take over both sides of the project, and for various reasons, I was chosen to arrange and conduct several weeks of knowledge transfer to them – remotely. I sensed that by transferring all the knowledge and the entire project to them, any opportunity I had of utilizing the joint project as a means to relocate was slipping away. They would no longer need my unique experience and abilities. Soon they would own the project and our daily contact would be reduced to weekly, then monthly, then quarterly, and finally perhaps just wishing each other chag sameyach from overseas.

In my mind, if the potential opportunity was an open door that I was trying to walk through, I was seeing it close before my very eyes. This visualization is what finally made me realize that if I want to make aliyah via an internal relocation within this large international company, I needed to stop pussyfooting and be more aggressive. Of course my current management had no interest in me leaving; I was a productive and valued worker. I discussed the situation with Roni and she agreed with me. The next time the general manager of the Israeli office (whom I had met on the trip a year earlier) paid a visit to NJ, I requested a personal meeting with him and explained that I had decided to make aliyah and would like to join the Israel office. I asked if they would be interested in me relocating and how he thought I best approach such a move. He advised me that for internal political reasons the request to US management should come from me and that the Israeli management would fully support it.

And so, after so many years of hinting to my boss that I would like to relocate, I asked to meet with him and stated bluntly, “I have decided to move to Israel. Can I keep my job?” Once I said those key words “I have decided,” everything changed. “Let’s see what we can do.” In the end it was my Iranian-American Senior Director who approved my relocation with the understanding that while I would physically sit in the Tel Aviv office, I would continue to report to and be a member of the NJ team. From my perspective, who I reported to really did not matter – both teams were great and both projects were interesting (and closely related). Having opened an aliyah file with the Jewish Agency years ago while still students at Rutgers, Roni and I put our aliyah plans into high gear, completing our paperwork, going on a pilot trip, signing a lease on an apartment in Modiin, and preparing for our August 25th, 2008 flight.

Why have I provided so much background? I think it’s a good example of what it takes to make what I called “Aliyat Hi-Tech” via internal relocation and more importantly it is leading up to the moment when I suddenly realized that whereas I had thought that I was solely in control of my family’s destiny, Hashem was giving me a lesson in hashgacha pratit (divine providence) to my immense benefit.

Picture this: the very day we land in Israel and get driven to our nearly empty apartment in Modiin, after being exhausted from the flight and from getting set up, that evening, after the girls (ages 3 and 1) went to bed on the air mattresses we had brought, I went outside to sit by the Holy Bagel cafe and use their public Wi-Fi to re-establish contact with friends and family in the USA. One of the first calls I made was to my office-mate and good friend to let him know we arrived ok. As soon as he heard it was me he said, “Ezra you are never going to believe what happened. While you were on the flight they called the whole team to a meeting and told us we are all laid off.” In shock, I asked him how this was possible and what would happen to the product that we had designed, developed, and continue to support which was in use by so many customers around the world. “The project is moving with you to Israel.”

I was in complete shock. There had been waves of layoffs at the NJ facility, and for years the company had been consolidating sites and moving projects to India. They had finally decided to proceed towards closing the Lincroft facility. I was simultaneously sad and worried for my NJ co-workers and grateful that my career had been spared from the jaws of “fate.” With time, I came to understand that had I not independently decided to move (with my hard-earned expertise) to Israel, the whole project would have been moved to India as had many others. From what I understand, all of my co-workers found other jobs which most likely were more stable anyway. And instead of being a geographically distant member of a larger New Jersey team, I was now a fully fledged member of the Tel Aviv office, as well as the sole surviving subject matter expert on the product in the entire company. This was a huge career boost for me personally, and I quickly trained a team of co-workers from the Israeli office to continue the development and support of this enterprise product, which had arrived, alongside me, at their doorstep.

This was not the only instance when we were saved from catastrophe. Remember the real-estate crash which started September 2008? We had sold our home at the end of July 2008 for the exact price we had purchased it for 2 years prior. After the crash, which was mere months after our aliyah, it ended up falling 26% ($90,000) and has never recovered to this day.

So just to review the following was the sequence of events:

● An intense, euphoric, spiritual experience while praying on Rosh Hashana after asking Hashem to help us make aliyah.

● An immediate (next day!) surprise opportunity to network (and enjoy luxury) in Israel – setting the groundwork for my future aliyah.

● An ongoing potential opportunity for aliyah that became realized only when I took the small and necessary step of publicly declaring my decision thereby actively setting things in motion.

● A surprise “rescue” from being laid off and potentially losing the opportunity that had been waiting for me.

● A surprise “rescue” from the 2008 real-estate crash and potentially being stuck either with a home we could not sell or with selling it at a major loss.

Coincidences? Luck? Not in my experience – which I have lived through and described here.

If I visualize pre-aliyah life to be like driving a car down a pretty straight road, then aliyah was like “grabbing” the steering wheel of life with both hands and making an extreme turn towards the direction which my heart really wanted to go. Having succeeded with such an exhilarating move, this gives confidence that the sky’s the limit and makes us feel that we are the masters of our own destiny. It is empowering and this may seem to be true, but I have learned through the experiences described above that while we may need to invest a minimum of personal effort (hishtadlut) to hold the wheel and stay on the road, what was really keeping my “car” from missing important exits, not breaking down, and not getting totalled, was none other than the guiding hand of Hashem: Divine Providence. Other than making the conscious decision to actively push the “Aliyah button” by telling my boss my decision, everything worked itself out orders of magnitude better than I could ever have imagined.

My takeaway from the experience is that if we take even just little baby-steps in the direction that Hashem wants us to go, he will truly swoop us up “on the wings of eagles”.

“פתחו לי פתח כחודה של מחט ואני אפתח לכם כפתחו של אולם” – (שיר השירים רבה פרק ה, ב)

Our sages teach that if we take even just a tiny step towards teshuva, if we make an opening for Hashem the size of the head of a pin, he will widen it to be like the entrance to a hall.

“בדרך שאדם רוצה לילך בה מוליכין אותו” – (גמ’ מסכת מכות, דף י’ ע”ב)

“Whatever path a person wants to follow, that is the one he shall be led upon.” This Jewish concept is a good explanation for the common phrase, “Be careful what you wish for.” According to the concept, if you will it hard enough, with your heart and your soul, there is a good chance it will happen!

Making aliyah is choosing: Choosing Hashem, choosing to align our personal destinies with the national destiny of Am Yisrael, choosing to accept the gift of Eretz Yisrael that the Torah teaches us Hashem gave us. I can now see that all of those seeming “coincidences” that Hashem arranged for me (and the above is just a sampling of some of the major ones), they were all a lesson to prepare me for living in “G-d’s country.”

As I mentioned at the beginning of this story, I was not a spiritual person and not even always religious. But from the moment when I first prayed for help to make aliyah that Rosh Hashanah in 5767 (2006), the feeling that Hashem is personally presiding over my life and in fact everyone’s life, has never left me. And I have experienced the idea that:

“וְהָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים שָׁמָּה … אֶרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ דֹּרֵשׁ אֹתָהּ תָּמִיד עֵינֵי ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ בָּהּ” – (דברים יא)

“Israel is a land that Hashem unceasingly seeks out and that his eyes are always watching.”

With the exception of my aliyah, I never experienced divine providence outside of Israel as I do pretty much every day in Israel. For example, I have wanted to write this story down for 10 years. I was always busy or distracted and could not just sit down and write. Finally, at this very moment, I find myself in Corona quarantine and I have no more excuses. Another “aliyaversary” of ours just went buy, it is Rosh Hodesh Elul, and Rosh Hashana is again just around the corner. I believe in my heart, Hashem knows I have this story to tell and that I yearned to tell it, and He arranged for a Corona-positive co-worker to spend a little too much time in my lab at work, so that I would finally sit down and write it. I am sure I am quarantined for lots of other reasons as well, but that is beyond my comprehension to know.

I finally understand what I think is one of the meanings of:

“לפיכך כל אחד ואחד חייב לומר, בשבילי נברא העולם.” – (משנה סנהדרין ד ה)

“Therefore every single person must say, ‘The world was created for me.’”

Not only is every human life a world unto itself. But the first of the 13 Principles of Faith as set out by the Rambam explicitly states that Hashem guides all his creatures. This guidance is the definition of Divine Providence, or the hidden hand controlling the car of life.

“מטרונה שאלה את ר’ יוסי בר חלפתא … מה הוא עושה מאותה שעה ועד עכשיו אמר לה הקב”ה יושב ומזווג זיווגים” – (בראשית רבה סח ד)

A Roman matron once asked Rabbi Yossi, “What has G-d been doing all this time since he created the world?” Rabbi Yossi answered, “Sitting and matchmaking.” Setting up husbands and wives – from the moment that they are born – that they should have an opportunity to meet. Clearly this is describing divine providence and I have recently heard an interpretation, that this refers not only to matching up couples, but to every “chance” encounter between people, between souls. Experiencing this, and trying to fathom the infinite complexity involved in actively guiding nearly every aspect of life, is truly awesome. I am in awe.

Let this true personal story and the time I spent writing it, and any good that it does, be dedicated as a small recognition of the endless blessings Hashem has showered us with.

So this Elul and Rosh Hashana, as you pray at home, in the street, or perhaps even at shul, dream big and pour out your heart.

“If you will it, it is no dream; and if you don’t, a dream it is and a dream it will stay.” – Binyamin Ze’ev (Theodor) Herzl

“לשנה הבאה בירושלים הבנויה” – (מחזור יום כיפור, סוף תפילת נעילה / הגדה של פסח)

“Next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem.” . Amen.

Ezra Gilbert,
ל באב, ראש חודש אלול, התש”פ
August 20, 2020

Epilogue: Besides for wanting to put this true and personal story down on paper, it is a dream of mine to compile a book or collection of stories of Divine Providence and Aliyah. It is my belief, based on many stories I have heard over the years, that every Oleh Chadash experiences Divine Providence during the process of their Aliyah and/or in their first years in Israel. I think it would be a Kiddush Hashem, Hakarat Hatov to Hashem, and great Chizuk to Jews everywhere to be able to read such stories. If you or someone you know has a story to share or would like to participate in this project, please reach out.

Special thanks to Naami Ganz for scrupulously editing my first draft and providing valuable feedback.

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