Israel's existence is a miracle: After wandering in exile for almost twenty centuries, the Jewish people have returned to their homeland where they govern a Jewish state, speak the ancient language of the Torah and the Mishnah, and conduct their daily routine in the neighborhoods of Isaiah and King David. It is easy to take this collective resurrection for granted. Even after visiting Israel three times, I still forget how astonishing the establishment of Israel really is.
Occasionally, however, a simple intrusion in my life can abruptly focus my amazement on that little state.
A few years ago I received a small airmail package from Israel. My college roommate had moved to the Negev region (the desert region in southern Israel) shortly after graduation and was living on a kibbutz. One March, a few weeks before Passover, he mailed me a copy of the newly-printed kibbutz Haggadah. It was beautiful. Although similar to many others I've seen, there were two striking differences: the text was entirely in Hebrew, and the Haggadah emphasized agriculture and land over the traditional rabbinic concentration on liberation and commandment.
Only in Israel, I thought, would such a Haggadah seem perfectly natural. Where else would a translation be superfluous, since even the youngest child at a kibbutz Seder understands the Hebrew of the Bible and the Mishnah? (I am so used to evaluating the translation of American Haggadot that this one seemed almost incomplete.) And where else would the emphasis on agriculture and the cycle of the seasons seem so natural? Restored to their own land and once again farming the soil, Israeli Jews experience a heightened sensitivity to the seasons and natural rhythms of growth and harvest.
Within the confines of this little package, I was once again reminded of how unique Israel truly is.
One of the most remarkable achievements of the Jewish People has been our virtual unanimity of love of Eretz Yisrael for close to three thousand years. That love is not only a shared passion; it is a mitzvah, the mitzvah of ahavat Tziyon (love of Zion). The prophet Isaiah records the command: "Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her (66: 10)," and the psalmist speaks for the Jewish people when pledging:
"If I forget you, O Jerusalem, Let my right hand wither;
Let my tongue stick to my palate
If I cease to think of you,
If I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even in my happiest hour
(Psalm 137: 5, 6).
Our continuity as a People is due, in some measure, to our ability to unite around the memory of a common home, and our determination to restore that home to a physical reality. Since the first Exile from Israel in the year 586 B.C.E., Jews have incorporated a longing for the Holy Land into our daily lives. We face Jerusalem in prayer, observe a day of fasting in memory of the destruction of Yerushalayim and its Temple (the fast of Tisha B'Av, the 9th of Av), recall the Temple service on Yom Kippur, and cultivate the centrality of the land of Israel in Jewish dietary laws, Sabbath observance, and virtually every aspect of Jewish life.
This passion for the Land, however, was never limited to the realm of ritual and religion. Throughout history, small groups of Jews sporadically left their homes and villages to live in Eretz Yisrael, where there was always a continuous Jewish presence. Funds collected in the Galut supported Jewish settlements in Yerushalayim and other cities in Israel, and several medieval Jewish movements that supported the return to Israel were significant enough to receive attention from European and Middle Eastern monarchs.
Despite the historical attachment of our people to Israel, it is still worth asking a fundamental question: "Why should the Land of Israel matter to us today?" Several reasons come to mind:
Israel has been the central focus and symbol of Jewish unity and Peoplehood throughout the generations. A visitor to Israel cannot be but moved by the archaeological testimony of our ancient roots-David's City, the steps leading up to Solomon's Temple, Massada, the tomb of Maimonides, the synagogues of the 4th and 5th centuries, the synagogues of the medieval mystics in the city of Safed; each age of Jewish civilization has left its mark in Eretz Yisrael.
The great treasures that have come to light due to the careful studies and exploration of Israel's archaeologists-the most notable of which are the Dead Sea Scrolls-enrich our sense of belonging and of peoplehood wherever we live.
The last time I was in Jerusalem, I went to the Israel Museum near the Knesset building. The exhibition of pottery, jewelry, and glass was from an unearthed tomb of the Seventh Century B.C.E. I passed each case fairly quickly, until I was stopped by a spotlight illuminating a metal strip no larger than my thumb. Scratched onto this thin silver band were the ancient Hebrew words of the Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing. That little scroll, unearthed in Jerusalem, is the oldest existing fragment of a biblical text. I stood staring at this prayer, one that I recite every morning as part of the Shaharit service, and I began to weep.
I wept at the mystery and majesty of finding my own spiritual expression rooted in almost 3,000 years of Jewish living. Across the ages, a distant soul mate had found purpose, comfort, and identity in the same prayer that Jews today use to start our day.
Israel has restored pride and creativity to the entire Jewish People. For too long, Jews were reputed to be weak, passive, and incapable of productive work. Hidden inside dimly-lit houses of study, Jewish pedants would supposedly mull over obscure and archaic books, as the rest of the Jews lived in fear, poverty, and ignorance. While that characterization is not an accurate reflection of Jewish history, it was shared by many Jews and non-Jews alike.
In the late 19th Century, as nationalist movements planted the idea of independence in the minds of peoples around the world, a group of Jews recognized the need for a Jewish state to ensure Jewish liberty. Led by Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), these Jews created a political movement dedicated to establishing a Jewish government on Jewish soil. Herzl's stirring slogan was "If we will it, it is no dream." They called themselves Zionists, reflecting their love of Tziyon, which was originally the name of a mountain in Jerusalem, and then grew to signify the entire Land of Israel. A Zionist, then, is one who affirms the right of the Jewish People to exist as a free and sovereign people on their own soil.
The Zionist Movement, and later the State of Israel, deliberately encouraged a new self-image for the Jew. No longer a figure of weakness or passivity, Zionist women and men were pioneers, transforming the desert into bounteous farmland, restoring ruined cities to prosperity and habitation. Israel's ability to defend itself against a sea of hostile and implacable neighbors, Israel's vibrant (and occasionally chaotic) democratic system, and Israel's first-rate system of schools, research laboratories, and universities have restored an image of Jewish self-worth that had been denied for too long.
The renewed Jewish image of self-worth has transformed life in the United States as well. One morning, after I had just finished shopping in my neighborhood supermarket and was waiting to pay for my purchases, a group of nine-year old boys walked in, absorbed in their conversation. I recognized that one of the boys was a student in our religious school. He saw me, smiled, and shouted across the entire store, "Hello, Rabbi!" Then he returned to his conversation with his friends.
He didn't notice what he had done. His friends thought nothing of it either--after all, they would just as easily have greeted their ministers or priests the same way. But I was amazed. This child was so comfortable with his Jewishness that he didn't even consider whether or not to reveal it to the entire world. Being Jewish, for him, did not mean weakness or passivity. Instead, it was a source of pride. That lack of self-consciousness is, in no small measure, an outgrowth of the State of Israel.
Israel is a center of Jewish cultural life. While it is certainly true that many Jewish artists, writers, and thinkers adorn Jewish communities of the Diaspora, it is no less true that Israel has had a tremendous impact on Jewish culture throughout the world.
Think about how many synagogues and Jewish centers offer Hebrew classes. Now recall that until this century, Hebrew was not a spoken language. Like classical Greek or Latin, Hebrew was a language that scholars used to read ancient literature; but it hadn't been used as a living language for two thousand years. Zionism restored Hebrew to life.
Israel is a living laboratory for Jewish expression in the modern world. In Israel, Jews must resolve questions of power, violence, government, and the responsibility of being a ruling majority in ways that Jews elsewhere only think about.
Israel's writers and thinkers exert an influence out of proportion to their numbers. Writers such as Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, poets like Yehudah Amichai and Lea Goldberg, and philosophers such as David Hartman, Emil Fackenheim, and Eliezer Schweid have profoundly shaped Jewish thinking and Jewish culture through their insight and their talent.
Israel is a haven for Jewish refugees, and an advocate for Jewish concerns on the international level. During the Sho'ah, every nation in the world closed its borders to the Jews. Countless millions would have survived if the western democracies would have taken them in. During World War II, Jews had nowhere to go. With the establishment of the State of Israel, all Jews acquired a second home. Israel has welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees from Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, Ethiopia, and elsewhere. By taking in tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews, Israel became the only white country in the history of the world to voluntarily welcome and integrate a large population of African people as equals. Oppressed Jews are no longer abandoned--they now have a haven in Israel.
That concern for the abandoned extends beyond a concern for Jews alone. When the "boat people" of Southeast Asia were drowning at sea, Israel opened its arms to them. In fact, Israel took in more Indochinese refugees than any other country except the USA! When Arabs in Jordan or Lebanon need advanced medical help, they utilize the free medical expertise of Israeli hospitals, and following the catastrophic nuclear accident at Chernobyl, Israeli experts flew to the Soviet Union to help save lives.
For all of these reasons-biblical memory, rabbinic longing and love, unity of the Jewish people, a renewed Jewish culture, pride, and character, and a haven for oppressed Jews-we can benefit from a deepened link to the Land and the citizens of Israel.
Only in Israel can a Jew live in a society in which a majority of the citizens are Jewish, where the spoken language is Hebrew, where the holidays are Jewish holidays, where the schools teach children the literature of Torah, Talmud, Midrash, and Hebrew poetry. Only in Israel do Jews wrestle with questions of integrating their Judaism with questions of Jewish sovereignty and power. And only in Israel is there a total rootedness in Jewish history and destiny.
Many Jews will choose not to live in Israel, often for legitimate and noble reasons. But every Jew who wants to grow as a Jew should consider the possibility.
Like every other mitzvah, aliyah does not have to be an all or nothing venture. Spending a month each year, or acquiring a second home in Israel instead of elsewhere is a way of embarking on a partial aliyah, one that creates a permanent connection to the Land and the People of Israel.