It is still dark outside when I open my eyes to take a quick glance at the electronic radar or GPS screen on the wall. It is somewhere in between Monday night in New York and Tuesday morning in Israel. The screen flashes at me just as I open my eyes. It says that Jerusalem is 1,932 miles away. “Oh,” I catch myself thinking, “we are almost there.” To my aviation-challenged mind, anything that is closer to New York than California is close enough to be considered almost there.
It’s been dark since we took off from JFK at about 6 p.m. New York time. I lift up the plastic window shade to spy an ever-so-slight and graceful shade of early-morning pink on the distant horizon. A further study of the electronic map tells me that we are 37,000 feet over Hamburg, Germany, racing our way at 650 miles per hour towards Eretz Yisrael.
Now that I’m up, it looks to me like we are approaching the proper time for the morning prayers. I look around the El Al cabin for any unofficial confirmation that the time for davening has arrived, but everyone seems to be sound asleep (except me, as is not unusual).
The scene, and my surveying the increasingly pinkish horizon, reminds me of the late Lubavitcher chasid Rav Mendel Futerfas, who endured a brutal Siberian exile for the sin of teaching Torah during the Communist era not so long ago. The way I heard it, Rav Mendel was grabbed by Soviet agents from his home in the middle of the night, removed from his family, and taken blindfolded via train to the far reaches of the Soviet gulag.
When Rav Mendel was finally liberated–I guess it was in the 1970s–and moved to Brooklyn, he was asked what he thought when the train stopped and the blindfold was finally removed. He answered, “When they took off the blindfold, finally I looked around outside and saw that it looked like it was time for Minchah, so I davened Minchah.”
The pink off in the horizon does not deceive. I think it is about 5:30 a.m. down there in Hamburg, or maybe it was Hanover, when I decide it is clearly time to reach for the trusty tallis and tefillin. There is a Sephardic gentleman on board the flight who wants to organize a minyan, but he is not having any success. The days of putting together a quorum of ten men in the narrow aisles of a speeding jet seem to have passed. Numerous rabbanim have issued decisions that urge people to pray privately on a plane so as not to disturb other passengers.
This gentleman wants to be able to recite Kaddish but, after a quick but unsuccessful effort, abandons the idea. We will be landing early enough in the morning for him to assemble ten men around the luggage carousel. He’ll recite Kaddish while we wait for the suitcases to spin around, trying to catch their excited and distracted owners’ attention.
Even without the ambitious obtrusiveness of a mile-high minyan, there is something special and even intimate about davening at 35,000 feet. I like the idea of being able to don tallis and tefillin in that environment and being able to focus on prayer and little more. As I’d observed, it is barely light and it looks like the sunlight is in a struggle with the darkness, trying to convince the dark to allow it to make its appearance for another day.
I am especially enamored with the idea of there being no uncertainty about what direction to face while saying Shemoneh Esreh. This time, I am in a front row in a relatively new plane. The screen displays a crisp design, easy to read and see. The plane is speeding straight ahead, and an arrow alongside it points to Jerusalem.
What a difference it makes between standing in New York and guessing where to turn to face Jerusalem, and having it indicated in such certain and absolute terms. So I am standing there, looking up at the screen, knowing that I am not just directing my prayers to the Holy City, but drawing closer to it with each passing moment.
And then we arrive. Even after all these decades, I feel an anticipation to breathe in all that Israel has to offer us Jews. Within a few hours of arrival, it becomes clear that once again we will be experiencing and dealing with the inside Israel versus the outside one.
The outside Israel that we read about in the New York Times or hear about on CNN is something that seems to have little connection or relationship to the day-to-day Israel we experience once we are on the ground here. We are on the cusp of a particularly special time of year with the signs and sounds of Chanukah.
Chanukah is early this year, but that did not stop the jelly doughnuts–such a staple of the chag–from making an even earlier appearance. They are on display in every shop that has anything to do with food. Here in Jerusalem, the tops of the streetlights are decorated with the most magnificent colorfully illuminated menorahs. There is no mistake that Chanukah is here and the joyful celebration is about to begin.
And one other thing. As we land in Ben-Gurion Airport on Monday morning, the pilot innocuously announces that it is 34 degrees Celsius in Tel Aviv and the same in Jerusalem. He quickly followed that up with a mathematical note that it is about 95 degrees Fahrenheit. So as we look outside at the Tel Aviv shoreline, we are looking ahead to the next few days of Chanukah and Thanksgiving, all occurring together right here in the middle of an unexpected but quite enjoyable summer. Chanukah sameach. v
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