“Abba’s going to be late.” My son, Akiva, was on the phone.
It was a year ago, Thursday noon, Rosh Chodesh Iyar, the fifteenth of April. My husband and oldest son, Hillel, had left Israel for England two days earlier for a quick business trip, leaving Akiva to take care of the family business.
“How late?” I asked warily. As it was, their flight was scheduled so that I did not expect my husband to arrive home before midnight. We had plans to go to the luxurious Kibbutz Lavi for Shabbat and I wanted to get an early start Friday morning.
There had been some news of a big volcano in Iceland, but I had paid scant attention to the story. After all, what did a natural disaster in a densely populated country, almost half a world away, have to do with my life? Apparently a lot. Because of the volcanic ash airports were shutting down all over Europe. As Thursday afternoon wore on I began to realize that the question was not how late the plane would arrive; rather if it would arrive at all.
Akiva learned that the airports in Germany were still open, so he made reservations to Israel for his father and brother on a flight from Munich. However, it was not clear to them that they would be able to make it to Munich in time for the flight. Better, they decided, to wait in England and hope that their flight would indeed fly and they would be home for Shabbat.
Who knows what would have happened if my husband and Hillel had taken a chance? Perhaps they would have made it home and Hillel would have had a nice Shabbat with his family and my husband and I would have had a nice Shabbat with friends in Kibbutz Lavi. Or perhaps they would have been stranded in Germany or France, without a visa, sitting in an airport or train station, trying to make a meaningful Shabbat.
Whatever the case, by Thursday night they had lost their chance to make it to Germany, El Al had told them their flight was postponed until Monday, and they were stuck in England for Shabbat. Anyone who has ever played Jewish geography knows that you can always find a Jew who knows a Jew you know. It was less complicated for my husband and son. Hillel has a good friend who is married to a British girl and her parents were happy to put my men up for Shabbat. And not just for Shabbat. Hillel and my husband moved in Friday afternoon and left Monday, not because they were finally leaving England, but because they believed the old adage that fish and company stink after three days.
By Sunday the two of them were fed up with being on the British Isle. El Al informed them that their flight had been postponed ten days. They decided they had to get off the island and spent hours Monday waiting in line to buy the last two tickets for the Tuesday train to Belgium. From there they would rent a car, drive to Spain, and catch a Thursday flight from Barcelona. With HaShem’s help that airport would stay open and they would be home for the upcoming Shabbat.
Back at home, my daughter-in-law and I were trying to be patient and optimistic. Still, I found the situation stressful, reminiscent of the many Holocaust books I had read. Once a country fell to Hitler, the Jews had to decide whether to flee north, south, east, west, or stay put. Of course, my husband and Hillel did not have the Nazi murderers on their backs. However, just like the Jewish refugees of World War Two, they had to make quick decisions without being fully aware of the variables. I prayed the decisions they were making were the right ones.
They arrived in Belgium safely Tuesday night and discovered the Brussels airport had opened up. Again El Al changed their reservations and they were given seats on a Thursday flight from Brussels. Tired of being stranded and longing for home, they decided to go to the airport Wednesday to try and fly stand-by. To everyone’s delight they made it. We had my husband and son home Wednesday afternoon, six days after we expected them.
From the vantage point of looking back, six days is not a long of time. When Hillel and my husband were in England, though, we did not know if they would be stranded six days or six months or six years. In the middle of the story Hillel kept reminding his father how Rav Kook had travelled to England before World War One and was trapped there until after the Armistice. Thankfully that did not happen.
We know that HaShem never gives us any tests that without giving us the strengths to pass those tests. Once the tests have passed, though, we try and understand what we are supposed to learn from them so we can become better human beings. What was the Almighty trying to teach us?
The most obvious answer is that old Yiddish proverb, Man plans and G-d laughs. Although we all know that plane malfunctions, missed flights, and bad weather can mess up the best planned trip we still think that we can hop on a flight and arrive at a simcha or business meeting without any problems. It never hurts to be reminded Who is really in charge.
Perhaps I was supposed to learn a deeper appreciation for my family. That erev Shabbat that I was supposed to be in Kibbutz Lavi, I spent alone in my house. How big and quiet and lonely my house was! Several of my friends, widows and divorcees, have big, quiet, empty houses much of the time. Now I had a bit more understanding for how they feel.
Maybe we were supposed to feel gratitude for our country. There are many things about the government we do not agree with. Yet El Al, the national airline, made tremendous efforts to bring all their passengers home.
As I pondered all the possibilities a story began circulating on the internet. A young yeshiva bochur from Jerusalem had a debilitating liver disease and desperately needed a transplant. Rav Firer advised him to go to Belgium, the liver transplant center of the world. The bochur followed Rav Firer’s advice, even though transplants were limited to residents of Europe. Sure enough, a liver that was a good match for this bochur became available the third week in April. The first match on the list could not fly to Brussels because of the volcano in Iceland. Neither could the next match. As they went down the list every candidate for the liver was too far away to drive to Brussels in time and all were unable to fly. With time running out, the liver was given to the bochur. According to the internet story his liver was so badly damaged that the surgeon said he would not have survived more than a couple of days without the transplant. Now he is recovering nicely.
This story was not some urban legend. I spoke to someone who indeed knows the bochur. And here, I believe, is the lesson my family needed to learn. As I wrote in the aim of my blog, emunah does not mean believing only good things will happen; it means believing that whatever HaShem does is for the best. Having part of our family marooned in England was not a good thing. It was expensive, difficult, and tense.
For the bochur the volcanic ash was a good thing. And this is the crux of our lesson. All Jews are connected, one to the other. It may have been bad for my husband and Hillel to be stuck in England but the reason they were stuck meant that a Jew’s life was saved. That was good for my husband, Hillel, me, my daughter-in-law, the rest of the family, and for all the Jews stuck in England.
I am so grateful to the person who sent me the email about the bochur. Many times things look bad and we know we should believe they are for the best. This time we were able to see clearly that there is a reason for everything.
Rosh Chodesh Iyar: first day of the Hebrew month, Iyar
Simcha: happy occasion
erev Shabbat: Friday afternoon
Bochur: young man
Bochur: young man