“Didn’t I tell you that everything God does works out for the best?” Tevye said to Nachman as everyone gathered excitedly around the coffin on the beach. “If the Turks had let us disembark in Jaffa, I would never have seen my Golda wash up on shore.”
It didn’t matter that, in fact, Nachman had been the one who had reminded a crestfallen Tevye that God’s loving, invisible hand never stops guiding life’s twists and turns. If Tevye, in a moment of despair, had forgotten this teaching of the Talmud, God would certainly forgive him. Now, with Golda once again at his side, Tevye’s faith was stronger than ever.
But Tevye’s reunion with Golda was not the only miracle which had transpired. Since stepping foot in the Land of Israel, Tevye had imperceptibly changed. He couldn’t say why. He couldn’t explain the sensation, but somehow, his mind, his soul, and his heart underwent a rejuvenation, as if the clock of his life had turned backwards, making him feel twenty years younger. Yes, he felt more confident now that his beloved Golda was back at his side. Yes, he felt comforted that the Almighty had returned her to him. But even more than these blessings, the realization that he had reached the Land of Israel overwhelmed all of his thoughts. The prayers, the prophecies, the dreams, the yearnings of two-thousand years, all had come true. Wasn’t it written in the Book of Psalms, “When God will return the exiles of Zion, we will be like those who dream. Then our mouth will be filled with laughter and our tongue with glad song?”
Tevye the milkman, the son of Reb Schneur Zalman, was in Israel! He was in the Land which God had promised to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. It was the Land of Joshua and the prophet Samuel. The Land of King David and his son, Solomon, the wisest of men. It was the home of the Jerusalem Temple, of the Maccabees, and Rabbi Akiva. While Tevye’s faith in the Biblical stories which his father had taught him had always been steadfast, now he was standing on the very soil where Jewish history had unfolded in all of its glory and pain. Suddenly, the ancient stories had a down-to-earth setting. Suddenly, the Land of Israel was real, not just a faraway dream. It was like hearing about a famous person, and then suddenly meeting him, like when Tevye had met the great writer, Sholom Aleichem. What a thrill!
Nachman experienced the same indescribable sensation. Feeling the secret power of the Land surge into his body, he burst into song. Everyone had the same feeling. Everyone sang. They were in the Land of Israel! They were home!
Their singing gave way to exhaustion. It was time to learn their next lesson. Life in the Land of Israel, like its sand dunes, had its ups and its downs. Everyone was astounded at the landscape as they started the trek north back toward Jaffa. Dunes and desert stretched around them as far as the eye could see. Occasionally, they had to make a long detour around a foul-smelling swamp. The land was barren and desolate, as if still suffering from the Divine curse which had fallen upon the soil since the Jews had been exiled from their home. Gone were the lush gardens, the fruit trees, the fertile green valleys, and overflowing rivers of Biblical days. If there had once been milk and honey in the Land, the ferocious sun had long ago turned them to sand. Miles passed without the sight of a single tree or bush. Beside their motley-looking caravan, there was no sign of human life. Eyes searched the horizon for Jaffa, but all they could see was an ocean of heat waves rising off a desert wilderness.
Before long, their enthusiasm started to wane. It was as if they had returned three-thousand years through history to their ancestors’ wanderings through Sinai. Their footsteps became heavier. The fierce sun beat down on their heads. More and more frequently, the men had to set down Golda’s coffin and rest. Tzeitl fainted. Once again, Tevye had to carry her in his arms. Within an hour, their supply of fresh water was finished. Children cried. Grown-ups collapsed in the sand. Complaints could be heard in every corner of the camp.