“It was unbelievable to arrive at this random apartment in the suburbs of the capital of Botswana to find a welcoming note left only a few hours earlier from my eldest child, a fridge filled with kosher food, and kitchen utensils labelled fleishik on the counter!”
Hurdles and the Holy Land
By: Maria Beider
Pesach is a time when we express gratitude to Hashem for taking us out of slavery. On seder night, one of the highlights of the evening is when we sing “Dayeinu” to show our sincere appreciation for Hashem’s guidance along each and every step of the way that took us from Egypt to Mount Sinai and eventually into the land of Israel. Why is there such an emphasis placed on gratitude, not just in the religious sphere but also in the current mainstream secular world? Is it intrinsic to our lives?
According to peer-reviewed research, having gratitude moves us to feel uplifted and experience more genuine positive emotions such as joy and an overall sense of well-being which, in turn, can improve our health, help to deal with adversity, and develop and maintain good relationships.
When we express gratitude, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin — two hormones that make us feel lighter and happier inside. Dopamine is our brain’s pleasure chemical. The more we think positive, grateful thoughts, the healthier and happier we feel. Basically, we can surmise that cultivating an attitude of gratitude is good for our health and mind and general well-being. I would like to share one of my own personal stories of gratitude and appreciation that took place during Covid-19, to illustrate how gratitude had an impact on me personally.
I do not think I really knew what it was to be truly grateful until I experienced the lockdown during 2020 and 2021. South Africa was placed on an international red zone list for reasons I will never fully understand, but nevertheless this meant that many countries barred travel unless you were given permission to enter the country and visit one of the host countries’ delightful corona hotels for a 2 week quarantine period at a huge expense and only then if you fulfilled many other criteria (which changed day to day!)
I had left Israel, my home, temporarily (the original plan was to spend a sabbatical year in South Africa) in January 2020 expecting to fly back in June to visit. No one could have predicted that international flying would become an impossibility. Over a year and a half later, I was becoming desperate to see my home, friends, and community, and also to see my family who live in the UK. There was no end in sight regarding the complicated laws that had been put in place on entry requirements into Israel, however I was determined to get there somehow. I was in exile and it was not a pleasant feeling.
First, I needed a vaccine. Next, I needed to wait long enough to build up enough antibodies. Also, legally I had to be out of South Africa for 14 days prior to entering Israel. My husband was sympathetic to my plight and devised a July family winter holiday trip to Botswana and Zambia. We had always wanted to visit the Victoria Falls and had heard wonderful things about the Chobe safari experience. Once I had all my papers in order (including entry permit to Israel, Covid vaccine certificates, negative Covid test, etc.) we were on our way.
We encountered many unforeseen obstacles along the way which made the journey very memorable to say the least. First of all, I was flying two days ahead of my husband with three of our children. At the Johannesburg passport control, the official questioned us, our visa status, and delayed us to the point that when we arrived at the gate it was already closed. We had missed our flight to Kasane, Botswana. I was obviously anxious because I had calculated my arrival in Israel to coincide with a belated graduation I wanted to attend and so I did not want to go back into Joburg again. My children were incredibly calm and helped me from losing my cool too. Luckily our travel agent was able to get us a flight to Gaborone a few hours later, so we just had to wait in transit. First obstacle overcome!
On arrival in the capital of Botswana, another Covid test was conducted in a field tent at the Gaborone airport: results of which were negative. Phew! You are probably wondering where on earth we would stay in Gaborone being complete strangers to the place. It just so happened that my eldest son, Yossi, and a friend of his had just spent 14 days “quarantining” in a flat in Gaborone, in order to also get back to Israel to study. They were just vacating their flat, so we arranged to keep it for an extra two days. It was unbelievable to arrive at this random apartment in the suburbs of the capital of Botswana to find a welcoming note left only a few hours earlier from my eldest child, a fridge filled with kosher food, and kitchen utensils labelled fleishik on the counter (thoughtfully brought by the other boy’s parents who had visited the boys the week before)!
Two days later, after a domestic flight to Chobe, we met up with my husband and went on to spent an incredible week on safari in Botswana. We came close to sleepy lions and had a hair raising encounter with a hungry hippo who chased us down the river, among other things. The next round of Covid tests were administered before we left the country and then it was just a short drive to the border crossing into Zambia where we met with more bizarre hoops to jump through.
Unbeknownst to us, in order to enter Zambia (take note, should you ever take this trip) one needs to pay a certain amount per person in American dollars, cash only. Where does one procure dollars, all of sudden? We were directed to the local bank. However, surprisingly the electricity was down and so the bank computer system was unable to carry out a transaction. Back at the border crossing, the official conveniently decided there and then that he would accept Zambian Kwacha. Now my husband needed to drive to a cashpoint machine to get the necessary cash for six people to enter the country. This is a lot of Kwacha, and guess what? The local ATM was out of cash. So he drove to another and another trying to gather the necessary funds. Meanwhile we waited in the border crossing office. It was getting late.
Eventually he returned and told the officer that he had managed to find about three ATMs but they did not hold much money in them and he was still very short of the needed funds. The Zambian immigration official told him that he must go into Zambia and try the ATM machines on the other side of the border! So let’s just be clear here. My husband was told to go into Zambia illegally to get money in order to pay the immigration authority to get permission to be allowed into Zambia. This was brilliantly Kafkaesque to me! And guess what? They have no ATMs near the border into Zambia. There are plenty of elephants and monkeys but very little cash. He came across a little money booth, where he attained about 20 dollars’ worth from the local money exchange agent, but this was still not enough! We were becoming quite desperate by this point. There was a driver waiting on the other side of the border to take us to our hotel. He very kindly agreed to lend us the necessary money in Kwacha. We were so grateful.
We had an awe inspiring time at the Victoria falls (see my JL article; Chanukah edition 2021) and spent an unforgettable few days together in Zambia strolling with the zebras and giraffes in the grounds of the hotel. I would also like to mention and show gratitude to the kind crocodiles who generously spared me my arm when I took the risk of toivelling (ritually cleaning) a pot in the lake by the hotel. On Sunday it was that time again: I did my third Covid test.
On Monday I bid farewell to my family and started making my way to the airport. Luckily, I had received the entry permit to Israel and a negative result of the Covid test just in time. Hurray! Two more obstacle removed. I would be taking three consecutive flights to Israel, the first from Livingstone to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. Then from there on to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and from Ethiopia to Israel. It was daunting, but I kept my end goal in sight – the holy land. But alas, getting to the airport was not as simple as I thought. Traffic? Well ,yes, I guess one could call it Zambian traffic. There was a huge elephant standing in the middle of the road mindfully chewing leaves and not interested in budging for a good few minutes. Waze did not pick that one up! Thankfully I arrived in time and I took out my papers to show the first steward. This was very anxiety provoking each time as I fretted my documents would be refused at each stage (the Covid rules changed so often who could keep up?) Thankfully they were accepted.
As I boarded my plane, I was laughing to myself with no one to share the joke with. The plane was like a combination of something out of an Indiana Jones movie and Noddy. It was a ten-man sort with no hold. I could see my suitcase had been bundled into the back of the plane by the door where I had boarded. I asked where I should put my carry-on and the stewardess told me to just plonk it on top of all the other checked-in luggage! As the plane took off, I began to feel queasy. I managed to hold it together for a good hour into the flight. I will leave the rest to your imagination. We landed a few minutes later in Lusaka and my luggage was taken off the plane and I was very pleased to access it straight away so I could change my outfit. Thank G-d for small mercies! My nerves were pretty frayed as I stood at the check-in, waiting to have my documents scrutinised for the third time. The check-in attendant said I was covered now till Israel. This provided huge temporary relief.
My connecting flight to Ethiopia was relatively uneventful, although I was still anxious when my documents were checked yet again, before boarding my third flight to Israel. I had heard of people being turned away from Israel at the Ethiopian check-in and sent back to Joburg or diverted to Dubai instead! I silently whispered prayers to myself. I was nodded through. Finally, I sat on the plane to Israel and warmed myself with the familiar sound of Israeli babble around me. It was like music to my ears and brought tears to my eyes. Early the next morning we touched down in Ben Gurion. As I stood in the line to enter Israel, my knees were weak. The immigration official checked my documents and asked me where I had come from. I explained I had been in Zambia and Botswana for two weeks and prior to that in South Africa. She told me blankly that they were red zones. I corrected her, “No, No! That’s South Africa. I have not been there for 14 days.” She was confused. “Zambia is in South Africa, no?” I was about to take out Google maps to show her the layout of the continent. She clearly did not have a handle on African geography! I started silently murmuring prayers again. She told me to wait, while she went to brush up on her general knowledge or ‘phone a friend’. Thankfully she returned a minute later and nodded her agreement. Indeed, it turned out that Zambia was not a part of South Africa after all!
I was through the gate but still could not let my guard down. It was time for the last Covid test, which was shoved up both nostrils vigorously, of course. Eyes watering, I made my way to my taxi and out into the familiar Israeli humid breeze. Having arrived in Jerusalem in a fragile state, I dropped off my bags at my host’s house, a dear friend, and went straight away to do the antibody test which would allow me to not quarantine at all. A few hours later I got the results and was finally free to move around and enjoy my stay in the country. It felt like nothing short of a miracle. Even though I desperately needed to rest, I could not sleep but rather I lay in my bed feeling shaky, muscles cramping, brain overloaded and exhausted. The stress of the journey was overwhelming to my mind and body. Eventually after some rest, it started to sink in. I had been a vessel of complete vulnerability with very little control in the outcome of my journey.
As I walked the streets of Jerusalem, I felt overwhelmed with joy and beyond privileged to have leaped over each of those hurdles and really be there. I wanted to sing, dance, and jump up and down, but instead I went to the Kotel to thank the Divine Director of this production. (My profile Whatsapp picture, me at the kotel smiling from ear to ear, is a testament to this trip and a constant reminder to me of my appreciation.)
As usual, the brilliant words of Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks z”l sum up my experience beautifully:
Gratitude, the acknowledgement that what we have is a gift, is one of the most profound religious emotions. At the risk of sounding corny, arriving successfully to Israel and overcoming so many obstacles in order to get there felt like winning the lottery – a priceless gift. We often talk about paying a debt of gratitude. And yet how can one repay it, if it feels priceless? And another question I grapple with is how we can access more gratitude in our lives without having to undertake a perilous journey or difficult challenge. Is it human nature that we have to struggle or suffer first, in order to arrive at a place of appreciation? While I do not have all the answers, I can offer some suggestions.
Yes, we should endeavour to develop a sensitivity to seeing the good (hakaros hatov) in our sometimes mundane existence. However, I have come to the conclusion that for me it is more about celebrating the gratitude. I feel that by sharing my story or publicising the small miraculous steps of my journey, I am actively engaging in practising gratitude. Brene Brown, the renowned research professor of Social Work, recommends such ‘tangible gratitude practices’ as this, or alternatively quietly writing a gratitude journal or performing family gratitude rituals, as opposed to just being grateful. She believes there is cause to celebrate. My experience stirred in me a deep, spiritual outpouring from the heart that goes beyond any scientific recommendations for well-being. It both uplifts and elevates the soul, when we can recognise the hand of Hashem in our everyday lives, filling us with both a sense of joy and calm.
“When Hashem will return the captivity of Zion, we will be like dreamers. Then, our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongue with glad song.”
Epilogue: Ten days after arriving in Israel, I was officially allowed to enter England (having been out of Africa long enough), and as I disembarked my plane in London, I found out that the Covid laws had just changed again. The new rule stipulated that Botswana and Zambia were also now on the red list for Israel. And after two more rounds of Covid tests and a highly emotional and cherished visit to see my parents in London, I arrived safely back in Johannesburg feeling filled up and very blessed.