כִּי ה' אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ, מְבִיאֲךָ אֶל-אֶרֶץ טוֹבָה: אֶרֶץ, נַחֲלֵי מָיִם--עֲיָנֹת וּתְהֹמֹת, יֹצְאִים בַּבִּקְעָה וּבָהָר. אֶרֶץ חִטָּה וּשְׂעֹרָה, וְגֶפֶן וּתְאֵנָה וְרִמּוֹן; אֶרֶץ-זֵית שֶׁמֶן, וּדְבָשׁ. אֶרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר לֹא בְמִסְכֵּנֻת תֹּאכַל-בָּהּ לֶחֶם--לֹא-תֶחְסַר כֹּל, בָּהּ; אֶרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲבָנֶיהָ בַרְזֶל, וּמֵהֲרָרֶיהָ תַּחְצֹב נְחֹשֶׁת.For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper.
This is such a gorgeous image; one which, I suppose, colors our understanding of the land of Israel today. I will come back to this.
One advantage to being on Facebook is that you get to join others on their vacations. So this summer, while Rabbi Stecker is on sabbatical and I have been mostly in the office, I have had the pleasure of viewing photos from vacations abroad. And the ones from Israel are always the most captivating. Many of you know that I fly to Israel at least twice a year, and I have been to all of the major tourist sites numerous times, and I have visited most of the minor sites as well. In fact, I am often surprised and pleased when I am able to find someplace new to visit.
But watching others go to places that I know well is also fascinating, because it is kind of like experiencing it again for the first time, through the eyes of the tourist. It is a reminder of the many things that I love about Israel, about the special place it occupies in my life as a Jewish American.
There is a cryptic Talmudic passage about two Jerusalems, the earthly one and the heavenly one (BT Ta’anit 5a):
ואמר ליה רב נחמן לרבי יצחק: מאי דכתיב (הושע י״א) בקרבך קדוש ולא אבוא בעיר, משום דבקרבך קדוש לא אבוא בעיר?אמר ליה, הכי אמר רבי יוחנן: אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא לא אבוא בירושלים של מעלה עד שאבוא לירושלים של מטה. ומי איכא ירושלים למעלה? ־ אין, דכתיב (תהלים קכ״ב) ירושלים הבנויה כעיר שחברה לה יחדו.R. Nahman said to R. Isaac: What is the meaning of the scriptural verse (Hosea 11:9), “The Holy One is in your midst, and I will not come in to the city”? [Surely it cannot be that] because the Holy One is in your midst I shall not come into the city!He replied: Thus said R. Johanan: The Holy One, blessed be God, said, I will not enter the heavenly Jerusalem until I can enter the earthly Jerusalem. Is there then a heavenly Jerusalem?-Yes; for it is written (Psalm 122:3), “Jerusalem, you are built as the city that is your companion.”
One rabbinic take on this idea is that Yerushalayim shel ma’alah, the heavenly Jerusalem, mimics Yerushalayim shel matah, its earthly counterpart, but while the city on high is fully built and hence infused with a particular holiness that is worthy of the presence of God, the lower one is incomplete. We might read from this that it is upon us to finish the project of making Yerushalayim shel matah worthy of God’s presence.
But all the more so, this image suggests something for Israel at large. Too many of us in the Diaspora, when we visit Israel, or even when we consider Israel from the comfort of our living rooms, think that we are dealing with Yisrael shel ma’alah, the heavenly Israel, and lose sight of the fact that Medinat Yisrael, the modern State of Israel, is built in Yisrael shel matah. It is indeed special, and possesses a fundamentally different resonance to us than France or India or New Zealand. But it is decidedly earthly, where people have to make a living, garbage needs to be collected, and students need to do their homework.
As such, the State of Israel as we know her and love her fulfills not the ancient vision of the Holy Land, not the mythical place of messianic vision, but a whole new offshoot of modern Jewish expression. It is, after all, a land built primarily by secular Zionists, even though a large chunk of the money donated to build that land was contributed by religious Jews. And we at Temple Israel have been committed to that vision of Yisrael shel matah for more than six decades. Even so, it is sometimes very easy for us to forget that Israel is not just about politics, about conflict, about our image in the international sphere. As with every other mundane nation in the world, the Israeli experience is about the palette of interpersonal relationships that characterize human existence.
Two alumnae of Temple Israel's Hebrew High School, Zoe Oppenheimer and Jessye Waxman, each spent a semester studying in Israel this past spring. Zoe studied Hebrew in a program at Ben Gurion University in Beersheva. Not only was she in Hebrew classes all day, but was also required to speak Hebrew outside of class, even with her American friends. Jessye spent a semester at an international environmental program at Kibbutz Ketura, not far from Eilat, where she learned with people from all over the world: Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the US, Europe, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, etc.
Their experiences were quite different from one another. However, something that both Zoe and Jessye came home with was, in my mind, the primary reason that Diaspora Jews should try to spend more time in Israel than the typical ten-day-to-two-week vacation jaunt allows. They both spent time with a variety of Israelis, and were able to get an on-the-ground picture of what everyday life is like while Israelis work, study, have fun, commiserate, argue, and generally live. And that is not the picture of Israel that most of us have.
On the contrary, our view, the one most often seen from the comfort of an air-conditioned coach bus, is more about our ancient stories than it is about modern realities of the Jewish state. The tourist trip to Israel generally includes a good deal of time in ruins, particularly in Jerusalem, and a hefty dose of Jewish history. This is, of course, very important – it is, in some sense, our history that connects us to the land. Without the biblical, rabbinic, and linguistic connections to the land of Israel, the one identified today by the Seven Species, or the one yearned for by Isaiah in the haftarah, the Zionist case for building the Jewish state in that land becomes much weaker.
But the real Israel, the actual, modern state is not the Israel of the Torah, nor is it the ideal of the messianic redemption to which the ancient rabbis pointed. Israel is a very complicated place, plagued by deep political, economic, and social divides (and fortunately, a recently-discovered, sizeable natural gas reserve in her territorial waters).
But even though Medinat Yisrael is not a fulfillment of any kind of messianic ideal, the lion laying down with the lamb and Lo Yisa Goi, full-on Isaiah-type stuff, it is, as we refer to it in multiple places in our liturgy, “reishit tzemihat geulateinu,” the dawn of the flowering of our redemption.
And indeed, as the Jewish population of Israel is now the largest in the world, as Israel becomes ever more influential in producing teachers and professors and what you might call “Jewish content,” as Israel's economic power continues to grow, and furthermore as Diaspora Judaism continues to struggle with maintaining itself, it seems that we may indeed see a glimpse of the Jewish future in Israel.
Some of you may know about studies that have shown that younger American Jews are not nearly as attached to Israel as their parents and grandparents. That might have something to do with what we learn (or do not learn) about Israel. I am often saddened by the fact that generally the only news we hear out of Israel is the bad news. (Even the optimistic news this week about Secretary of State Kerry’s minor success in bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to the table for peace talks was muted.)
But the solution to this is not to lecture our teens about why they should appreciate Israel, and may not necessarily be to send them on free 10-day trips to Israel where they can have a full-on tourist experience in five-star hotels, a la Birthright. Rather, the real solution is to encourage our young people to go and live there for a while - to spend a semester in an Israeli university, to figure out how to pay the rent on your Jerusalem flat, or to manage renewing your visa at Misrad Hapenim, the Interior Ministry (which can, at times, resemble an auto-da-fé), or navigate the Tel Aviv bus system, or haggle over the the price of a bag of za’atar in the shuq. The real Israel is not Yisrael shel ma’alah, but is alive and vital and very, very human.
And it is our duty to present an honest picture, and to engage our young people with that picture, and not just through Facebook.
I had a buddy in college, a guy who lived in my freshman dorm at Cornell, who was an American of Thai parentage. He was preparing for medical school, but he knew that some time in his 20s, he was expected to spend a year living as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, a family tradition that would help instill within him a greater sense of connection to his ancestral home and his faith. We lost touch after school; as far as I know, he went, and he is now practicing emergency medicine in Florida.
But would it not be a wonderful idea for us to expect our own children to spend a year in Israel, engaging with Yisrael shel matah? I think this would be a much better use of our collective financial support for Israel than Birthright.
Today’s haftarah, the so-called Second Haftarah of Consolation, speaks of the hope of national restoration in the wake of destruction. Isaiah paints a bleak picture of his reality, in exile in Babylon, but hints that redemption might come if we return to our roots (51:1):
שמעו אלי רודפי צדק מבקשי ה' הביתו אל צור חוצבתם ואל מקבת בור נוקרתםListen to Me, you who pursue justice,You who seek the Lord:Look to the rock you were hewn from,To the quarry you were dug from.
We too can take from Isaiah a piece of this hope, the hope that Yisrael shel matah will continue to strive to reach toward Yisrael shel ma’alah, that all we have to do is invest ourselves personally with the earthly Israel to help raise her heavenward: to engage personally with her people, to commit ourselves to supporting those institutions that are working for peace between all of the disparate groups living on that small strip of land, to help cultivate the figurative Seven Species so that all may reap that harvest.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 7/27/2013.)
This is the fifth installment of my first-ever Summer Sermon Series - a seven-part discussion of the most essential values in Temple Israel of Great Neck’s vision of Jewish life. The first four topics were as follows: