"The code of the bush is the survival of the fittest," my father always said. I grew up with impala and sable antelope, burnt-amber kudu, zebra and wiry wildebeest. All of them kept a nervous watch for lion. If you studied bush-life, you learned about survival of the fittest.
I felt deeply connected to Africa, as if an invisible vine stretched upwards from the earth and through my body, binding me to the land.
The years passed, and securities from my childhood days slowly disappeared. Instead of the wild fig trees of the savannah, security companies began to sprout all over the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. Wails from alarm signals replaced memories of snorting hippo bulls, and high, concrete walls with spiked electric fences grew in place of the flat-topped acacias of the grasslands.
In the wake of the New South Africa, rather than straggling hyena, we grew afraid of a different kind of being that roamed the streets of urban life. I had stepped out of childhood; into it stepped a new breed of certain black youth -- hungry, fearless, savage.
Stories of people being hijacked in their cars or brutalised in their homes became increasingly frequent. In the beginning, you read about these events in newspapers. They happened to other people, not to you. Then, like hungry wild dogs in the black night, the stories crept closer.
A friend who had recently emigrated from Australia was renting a semi-detached section of a house that was some distance from the nearest shopping center. Since she had no car I agreed to take her shopping and had left all my kids at home.
The Sages say, "A person on his way to do a mitzvah is not harmed." I turned into her quiet little street. It was lined with houses that you couldn't see because they were hidden, as usual, behind high walls and electric gates. As I drove towards my friend's house, I noticed two men walking in the direction of my car. One of them carried a huge radio-tape player under his arm and seemed to be singing in time to the music. It went through my head that perhaps I should drive around the block so that I wouldn't have to stop the car with the two of them in the street. But neither man seemed tense or expectant, so ignoring them, I drove up to the electronic gate that sealed off the driveway from the street and hooted for my friend.
At that moment, I had a strange premonition. Imagine if I was hijacked right now? I thought. Imagine if one of those men accosted me at gunpoint right here? The idea gave me a queasy feeling in my stomach and for a moment I regretted not having driven around the block.
As if sprung whole and alive from my thoughts, the door to the driver's seat swung open and I spun around to see a revolver pointed directly at my face.
"Get out!" a voice snapped.
A strange, intense calm swept over me. I thought about my baby who only hours before had been strapped into the car seat next to me. In one, fluid movement I unbuckled my seatbelt and slid out of the car. The hijackers, appearing no older than eighteen, were caught in a frenzy of tearing off my wristwatch and ripping the necklace from my throat.
I should have been afraid, but instead time seemed to close into a deep silence within me. The outside world smoothed into a thin, two-dimensional surface in which the aggressors flattened out into paper-cutouts. In absurd contrast, my body seemed to loom huge and full like a giant of flesh against the backdrop of this cardboard world outside. My head throbbed with the sense that there was much more going on here than met the limited eye. I felt the presence of Great Energy pulsating through these events, brandishing a message into my soul.
I stared long and deep into barrel of that gun from whose depth the words seemed to fly out as if on an invisible chain: THIS IS NO LONGER YOUR COUNTRY.
I stared long and deep into barrel of that gun from whose depth the words seemed to fly out as if on an invisible chain: THIS IS NO LONGER YOUR COUNTRY. MAYBE IT NEVER WAS, BUT IT ABSOLUTELY ISN'T YOUR COUNTRY ANY MORE.
I grew aware of the other paper-person jumping about in the driver's seat, his hands tearing at the gearbox with frantic jerks. As he caught my glance, he punched both fists against the steering wheel and swore at me.
I faced the wall, completely certain that the one with the gun was going to shoot me through the back of the head. Strangely, there was still no fear, as if this too was part of the dream projecting from the deep silence within me. Only the words of Shema Yisrael that took shape on my lips seemed real, weaving through my body.
I heard the explosion of the accelerator as my BMW roared down the street like a wild animal trapped in a great cage. I remained standing where I was, the final verses of the Shema throbbing in my head.
In the weeks that followed my hijacking, I did not experience the usual symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder -- I was not jittery, I remained focused and I did not have sleepless nights or recurrent nightmares. I was afraid to drive for quite a while, though, and when I did, I found myself constantly looking over my shoulder. But that, they say, is what you are supposed to do if you live in South Africa. You have to be on your guard -- something like the survival of the fittest.
Someone said, "I thought if you're on the way to do a mitzvah you won't harmed?"
"I wasn't harmed, thank God," I said.
I wasn't only looking for a place that was physically safe. I was looking to live for issues that were mine.
How could she have known what the experience would alter in my life? How could she know that the invisible vine stretching upwards from the South African earth through my body had been severed, and that I felt free for the first time to leave my homeland forever?
Others asked, "Do you really think it's any safer in Israel with all those Palestinians?"
They completely missed the point. I wasn't only looking for a place that was physically safe. I was looking to live for issues that were mine, issues that united me with the klal, concerns that struck at the heart of the Jewish people. I did not want to be caught in the crossfire of somebody else's war. If I had to fight at all, I wanted the war to be my own.
From my home now overlooking the Judean Hills, I often think about those long-ago days on an open land rover in bumpy quest for the heartbeat of the bush, or the grace of crocodiles swirling through the rush of the Olifant's River. In the bush, survival of the fittest means physical strength. But true survival is about spiritual fitness -- the ability to see beyond the smokescreen of natural, social and political worlds to the One in charge of them all. We must cling to that knowledge through the seeming chaos -- through the terrorist attacks, through September 11, through Bin Laden.
"Ke'ayal ta'arog al afikei mayim" -- as the deer entreats by the springs of water -- "Kein nafshi ta'arog elecha Elokim"-- so does my heart entreat you, O God… (Psalms, 42)