Part I: Netanyahu & Beyond: The Meaning of Israel
When Prime Minister Netanyahu makes the case for Israel, whether from the UN rostrum or at Bar Ilan University, he makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Why? Because his message is too Jewish. At the UN, he quoted the prophet Amos who foresaw the day when exiled Jewry would “rebuild ruined cities and inhabit them … never to be uprooted again.” Then, at Bar Ilan, he identified what he sees as the defining issue that must be resolved to achieve peace with the Palestinians: The Palestinians must recognize Israel as “The Jewish state, the nation state of the Jewish people.”
As troubling as these Jew-centric messages may be to some, I believe there is a much deeper issue at the heart of the Jewish people’s struggle to live in Israel. The issue is not the Palestinian understanding of Israel, but our understanding of Israel. Yes, Israel is the ancient Jewish homeland, and yes, the correct geopolitical terminology might be “nation state of the Jewish people,” but this is just the beginning of what Israel is, not the totality.
So What Is It?
Israel, and Jerusalem in particular, are the heart and soul of the Jewish people. That may sound poetic or metaphorical, but I mean it quite literally. Tear us away from Israel, and you have ripped out our heart. For two thousand years, even with our remarkable tale of survival and our breathtaking accomplishments, Jews everywhere have been living on life support. Without Israel, we barely have a pulse. And Jerusalem, well, without it, we are spiritual zombies. No matter how profound our connection to Jewish life and learning may be, without Jerusalem we have virtually no connection to the essence and point of everything that all of Jewish life is about. Without Jerusalem we are like a patient with emphysema endlessly struggling for air, every breath is an accomplishment, yet every breath is a tragic facsimile of what breathing is supposed to be.
Why do I say this? Because when the Talmud says that anyone who lives outside of the land of Israel “is as if he has no God,” and when Nachmanides says that “the only reason we do mitzvot (live a Jewish life) outside of Israel is so that we will remember how to live when we return to Israel,” and when the great collective refrain of Jews throughout the millennia is “Next Year in Jerusalem,” what they are all talking about is something far more than just a nation state. They are talking about the heart and soul of everything Jewish.
Are You Serious?
If those of us who live in Israel were more keenly aware of the deep, inner meaning of what it means to be here, we would be the happiest people alive—by far. But more than that, our embrace of Jerusalem would be so deep, that it would be crystal clear to anyone who saw us that the bond of love between us and Jerusalem is as beautiful, transcendent and pure as the passionate love between a young bride and groom on the day of their wedding. It would be ridiculous—unthinkable—for anyone to question the bond. And, if our fellow Jews outside of Israel were more keenly aware of what they are missing, they would be running here like young military wives rushing to the embrace of their husbands returning from extended duty in Iraq.
No matter where you happen to live, I’d like you to consider what the Torah has to say about the Jewish people’s relationship to Israel.
It All Begins With Abraham
The life of the Jewish people—our lives and that of our children—begins with Abraham. The very first word that God spoke to Abraham, in their very first encounter was, “Go.” And where was he to go? “Away from your land, the place of your birth, and your father’s house; to the land that I will show you.” And the land He was talking about wasn’t Canada. Tragically, there are children born into abusive families, and that is all they know—it’s what defines their reality. Others are born into great privilege, and that defines their reality. When God introduced Himself to Abraham by telling him to go to Israel, the existential context of every Jew’s life was forever forged. Every Jew is born into a journey, a journey to Israel, and ultimately, to Jerusalem. From Abraham leaving his home and family, to the Jews leaving Egypt, to Moses appointing Joshua to lead the Jewish people into Israel, the entire Torah is nothing other than one long journey to the land of Israel. Because nothing that Abraham was to become, and nothing that the Jewish nation was meant to be, can be realized anywhere other than in the warm embrace of the land of Israel, and Jerusalem.