Many Jews view this land as a fail proof solution to horrific events like the Holocaust, a home for our long-persecuted nation to escape to. Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, provides an answer to the question: Where will the Jews go when they are evicted from yet another hostile country? Where will they go when the next wave of antisemitism hits?
This is no small matter. Throughout history, Jews have been targeted for abuse and destruction again and again, from the Spanish Inquisition to the modern-day Aleppo Riots. Jews are no stranger to hatred from outsiders. We’ve been vilified, persecuted, and murdered by the many communities we’ve wandered through. With the modern-day state of Israel, religious persecution is no longer something we have to contend with, at least in our own land. But is this all there is to the state of Israel?
I knew nothing of the true nature of Israel when I moved here twenty years ago. To me, Israel seemed like a good place to raise kids, a place where my children would be surrounded by their people’s values and supported in a Jewish way of life. But through years of experiencing the land, its character and customs, its nature and hiking trails, I’ve been exposed to an entirely different side of Israel.
One can’t help but feel, while gazing at magical sunsets, breathing in the mountain air, or climbing through a desert canyon, that there is something inexplicably special about this land.
Often, I walk the Path of the Patriarchs, a short hiking trail near my home, on Shabbat afternoon. The small part of the trail that I walk is just a piece of a long, ancient roadway, one that ran from Jerusalem to Hebron and beyond. This ancient path was the road any local would have traveled to get between these important cities. For example, Abraham, the first Jew – he would have traveled on this road with his son Isaac to Jerusalem, then back to Hebron to Ma’arat HaMachpela where he buried his wife. Path of the Patriarchs is dotted with ancient Roman milestones, along with old mikvaot (ritual baths). Grapes and figs, two of the seven species designated for bikurim in our Torah (a Temple offering of the first fruits) grow wild along the trail, begging to be picked and tasted in late summer. As I walk through the land, I wander through stories from our treasured Torah.
Israel may be the Holy Land, but since the creation of the first human being, man has been pulled into a less than holy relationship with land, with earth. The first man, Adam – who was formed from earth infused with Godly spirit, was enticed to sin by the temptations of a tree, growing from the ground. His punishment was to toil the earth, the sweat of his brow merging with the soil. Ten generations later, Noah emerged from the ark and became a “man of the earth” (as it says in the Torah), immediately planting a vineyard to escape knowledge of good and evil. He returned to the state of Adam in his drunkenness, naked and unaware.
Ten generations later, God sent Abraham away from his land. God said “Lech lecha m’artzecha,” Go out of your land…away from a place where idols were formed from dirt, wood, and stone, where the earth was worshipped in place of God.
The destination? Israel – a land of true holiness. A place where the water that nourishes the ground falls from the sky (albeit only during the rainy season), forcing us to turn to God in supplication. Here in Israel, there are no great rivers like Egypt’s Nile. We rely on God for our sustenance.
This land must observe shmita, a Sabbatical, every seventh year, just as man must observe Shabbat (the Sabbath) to maintain a level of holiness. If Israel’s inhabitants do not allow it to rest, the Torah says the land will “spit them out.” Israel is not just a regular place; the land itself is part of the Jews’ connection to holiness, to God.
I am probably biased, but when I sit down on the ground in the Land of Israel, I feel a difference. Dry in the summertime, moist with rain in the winter, the earth of Israel exudes a richness, a smell, a taste, a feeling of holiness. The stories of our past whisper to me from rocks, caves, and ancient olive presses. The land draws me in and makes me feel deeply connected to it, in a way I’ve never felt in any other place.
The Jewish people can be thankful for the safety and security that Israel brings us and grateful that we have a Jewish state which supports the values of its people. But if we look deeper, we will recognize that Israel is a uniquely special land, more than just a place to call home. This is the land of true holiness, and when we reside here, our nation becomes more deeply connected to the divine.
Thanks to Rabbi Eitan Mayer, who was the source for some of the ideas in this post!