A few years ago, we took a family trip to Israel.
One of the activities that we did during our stay was a Virtual Reality program called Back to Jerusalem. It is located in the Old City below the Kosel.
This was a program that explained the path Jews have taken throughout the centuries, starting from the exile after the destruction of the Second Beis HaMikdash. It was a really interesting program as you were able to put yourself in that moment and dictate your future with each decision you made along your journey.
It started with the Temple’s destruction by the Romans and the Jews being sent into exile. Jews were dispersed throughout Asia, Africa and Europe. In this program you can choose which country you want to go to. As history marched along, so did the Jews. Fleeing persecution, as well as pursuing economic opportunities, the Jews often relocated to new communities throughout the world.
As part of the virtual reality program, the children had to choose which path to follow at each juncture in Jewish History. I encouraged them to follow their maternal great-grandparents who emigrated to the United States from Hungary following the Holocasust. I wanted my children to understand the possible route their ancestors took from ancient Jerusalem to modern day America.
This was a question that I had never before considered. How did my grandmother’s family travel from Israel after the destruction of the Temple to eventually make their way to Hungary? All I had grown up with were the stories of how she came by ship to America after the Holocaust. She had been a refugee, with not much but the clothes on her back, alongside, her new, also Holocaust survvivor husband, my grandfather, Zeidi.
As I considered the decisions that my ancestors made along the way, it forced me to reflect on my current status as an American Jew. I was born in the United States and raised by parents who were also born in this country. My children, as well, were also all born and have now been raised in the United States.
This program showed how approximately every 500 years there was major upheaval for the Jews, forcing them to once again pick up and start over somewhere else. Some of these challenges lasted for many years. And during the in-between centuries, things remained relatively calm and manageable for the Jews.
What about during those quiet and calm years? The Jews often prospered economically, gained in numbers physically and strengthened spiritually with great wellsprings of Torah emerging all over the globe. And Jerusalem? It still lay in waste. There was no big push to go back, although there were always some Jews living there, with small numbers returning during each century. However, over the long exile we did not have sovereignty in Israel. And there were hardships to be faced with traveling and making a living there. The dream to go back may have been there, but with little opportunity to follow through. To make matters more challenging, when we prosper in our new home and plant roots, we may forget that really our homeland is elsewhere. We may forget the real goal.
It reminds me of when, years ago, we bought a swing set for our backyard and we had to have it cemented to the ground so that it wouldn’t topple over. The Israeli Shlichim in our community saw the structure and the cement and bemoaned the fact that it will be all the more difficult for us to leave America and return to Israel if we keep cementing our place in this land.
So a new question formed in my mind.
If we hadn’t left Jerusalem under duress, we would still be there. The problem is that, in the past, we were never given the opportunity to go back due to physical, economic and spiritual hardship. We kept moving further west, east, north or south in hopes of finding better conditions. All the while, Jews throughout the ages made tough choices of whether or not to cling to their faith and traditions as religious Jews. Many unfortunately were lost to assimilation
In truth, the question I am asking is not only how we came to live where we do as the program showed us, in America or anywhere else in the Diaspora, but more importantly, how do we get back to where we truly belong, to Jerusalem?
And I know the answer already, as I am sure many of you do also. Barring Mashiach’s imminent arrival, may He come speedily in our days, we would need to make Aliyah and just, well… go back. Thank G-d we live in a day and age where Jews can freely travel and engage in commerce and pick any profession. We have no serious physical threat of persecution as we did in Europe less than a century ago. Truly we are blessed, even spoiled.
And yet, here I am, typing this on the porch of my house in my Southfield, Michigan USA neighborhood. I haven’t gone, and neither have my parents, my in-laws, siblings, nieces or nephews. Although I do have various aunts, uncles and cousins who have chosen to take the leap and go, and most of us have visited at least once if not multiple times. But we are comfortable here. We have roots here. It is not easy to leave. There are complications and consequences to consider.
Fast forward to this past week on reflecting with our son on Parshas Bereishis. We learn all about creation and the birth of mankind. Our son asked an interesting question which I had thought about before, but this time it opened up even more questions.
He wanted to know what were the four rivers that flowed out of and around Gan Eden. We know that two of them are the Euphrates and the Tigris Rivers. What about the other two? Well, with a bit more searching in the Daat Mikra Bible Atlas, we find that they are identified as the White Nile and the Blue Nile of the Great River, the Nile River from Egypt. The Nile River flows North to the Mediterranean Sea. It starts out as two separate rivers, the White Nile and the Blue Nile. The Blue Nile (the Pishon River wrapped around Havilah) begins in Ethiopia and flows north to the Sudan where it merges with the White Nile northbound. The White Nile (the Gichon River which surrounds Cush) begins in Lake Victoria on the border of Uganda and Tanzania and heads north through South Sudan and meets up with the Blue Nile in the Sudan and together they form the Nile River and continue heading north on to the Mediterranean Sea. The Tigris (the Chidekel River which flows towards the east of Assyria) and the Euphrates River (the Pras River which has no direction listed) run parallel to each other starting in Turkey flowing South through Syria and Iraq and finally emptying into the Persian Gulf.
Our son was trying to wrap his head around the potential location of Gan Eden. He was curious. Where was Gan Eden located? Based on the river locations listed above, this is a huge area! Also, river beds do disappear under the earth and reemerge elsewhere. And the listing of the rivers in the Pesukim just states that one river emanated from Gan Eden and then is divided into or was lost unto these four rivers. It doesn’t actually give the borders of Gan Eden. So a mystery remained.
I wasn’t really sure why it mattered. I reminded him that Gan Eden, like many of the utensils from the Temple, Hashem had hid away not to be revealed until the coming of Mashiach. So it’s not like he could locate Gan Eden and its boundaries today, even if he knew exactly where the rivers were.
I then shared with him something I learned in my study of Nach Yomi with the OU’s Women’s Initiative. In sefer Yechezkiel chapter 47:1-13, Yechezkiel is shown a vision of the structure of the Third Temple. It will be built in Jerusalem in the same location as the first two Temples, on top of the Even HaShesiya, the foundation stone of the world at creation. From below the Temple threshold under the Holy of Holies, water will begin to trickle out and will flow out from under the ground and exit the Temple. The commentaries discuss how the trickle will grow into a raging river and will spread out and divide into 12 rivers leading to all of the rivers, streams, lakes and oceans of the world and heal the world’s water, earth, vegetation and people of the world and that the boundaries of Israel will expand. In addition, in Sefer Yeshayahu 51:3 it states, when redemption will come, “He will make her wilderness like Eden and her wasteland like a garden of Hashem.”
So I suggested to our son that perhaps Gan Eden included the site of the Temple, or perhaps in the future it will be revealed there.
Well, let’s just say, he wasn’t convinced. How do we know where man was placed in the world, except that it states he was in the Garden of Eden to the east, which has a potentially huge circumference!
So how to prove?
I looked ahead to this week’s parsha of Noach. Noach’s generation was evil in Hashem’s eyes. Once again man had sinned, but this time it was so bad that Hashem decreed their complete annihilation except for Noach, his wife, his three sons and their three wives and select animals to repopulate the world after its destruction. However, this time we have no idea where Noach was living prior to the flood. In fact, we do not know where anyone lived after Adam and Chava were banished from the garden for their sin. They are removed from the Garden, but it doesn’t say where they are placed. We only know that the Cruvim are placed to the east of the garden to protect its entrance.
So we are on the move already at the dawn of time.
But then our daughter interjected with a very thought provoking point. She exclaimed that Adam and Chava were buried in Maaras HaMachpeila located in Chevron not far from Jerusalem in Israel. This could potentially be in the midst of the 4 rivers emanating from Gan Eden! Not only that, given that Noach and his family were the only survivors after the flood, then Adam and Chava must have already passed on before the flood. Indeed there is a 20 year or so gap between Adam’s death and Noach’s birth. So someone buried them in Chevron in Israel prior to the flood! Now Adam lived for 930 years! He could have travelled anywhere over that time period.
But we are not told of his travels. In fact we are not told much of anything at all. So why is this important?
The Pesukim state that G-d planted a garden in Eden, to the East, and placed man whom He had formed in it. The Chizkuni states that G-d had formed man outside of the garden in order for man to first see the rest of the world filled with thorns, and then the amazing alternative of living in the garden. This proves that there was a portion of the world outside of the garden. But in reality, we were supposed to stay in Gan Eden. G-d never intended for man to leave.
But man sinned and was then banished, but no location is listed as to where he was placed.
Back to the story of Noach!
When the Ark lands at the end of the flood, we are finally given our first location out of Eden! The mountains of Ararat. We understand that this is the current day country of Armenia. So wherever Gan Eden was, and wherever Adam was located, Noach and all mankind now stemmed from Armenia, to the Northeast of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Could that have been where Adam and Chava were originally from? How did they get to be buried in Maaras HaMachpeila in Chevron?
So here is my theory! Gan Eden encompassed Israel and its surrounding land. With four major rivers emanating from the garden, it couldn’t have been too small of an area. When man was banished from Gan Eden it was hidden from our sight, yet Israel still remains a central place for all Jews and indeed has a unique atmosphere that strengthens our closeness to G-d to this day. And with the coming of Mashiach, it will once again be revealed to us.
We are meant to go back; and slowly, painstakingly we do.
Parshas Noach ends with Avram and his wife Sarai going to Eretz Canaan, Israel, but they stop along the way and settle in Charan.
Until this point we know that Avram has lived in Aram and Ur Kasdim, modern day Iraq and Turkey (Southwest of Armenia), finds G-d, and the next thing we hear is that he intends to head to Canaan, but settles in Charan. So now let us look ahead into next week’s parsha of Lech Lecha. In the very first pasuk of Parshas Lech Lecha we see Avram approached by G-d to leave his homeland of Aram and to travel to a land that “I will show you,” says G-d. Where is this land? He doesn’t initially tell Avram, rather He says it is a land I will show you and then it states in the next few Pesukim that Avram went to Cannan with his wife and all he had with him as Hashem commanded him. Two Pesukim later, Hashem says that He gives this land of Canaan to Avram and his descendants.
Wait a minute! What was in Canaan that Avram was already drawn to it prior to G-d’s command? And if Avram was planning to go to Canaan, why did he stop in Charan? And if he was intending to go to Canaan, why then did Hashem say the place I will show you? Why not just say, hey you got waylaid in Charan along the way, but you really need to go to Canaan? And finally, why all of the introductory words to tell Avram to go to a place he already knows and wanted to go to in the first place?
Because Hashem is now saying, I am going to show you not where Canaan is, because clearly Avram must have known its location, but show you why it is important.
G-d was telling Avram that Israel is G-d’s special land, and that he and we are meant to be there, and now is the time to go back and take hold of it. We as humanity got waylaid back on the first day of mankind; we ate from the Tree of Knowledge and were expelled from Gan Eden.
Noach’s generation then chose idolatry over allegiance to Hashem, and this time the entire world’s population was destroyed.
But we were given another chance as Hashem allowed humanity to flourish once again. But it wasn’t until Avram came along making his way from Turkey, not only recognizing G-d, but spreading the knowledge and greatness of G-d to the entire world. And now, G-d is telling Avram that it is time to make his way back west. It is time to come home. The problem is that Avram didn’t know the way, not physically, but spiritually. Throughout all of the generations between Adam and Noach, and Noach and Avram, we got lost and idolatry was a way of life. The idea of G-d in the world was so lost, that no one could find their way back into His good graces, until Avram came along and found G-d and declared His greatness to the world. And so now G-d is singling out Avram to tell him how to find the path back to His special place. Back to where? Back to Israel.
We aren’t told where Gan Eden was, but Adam and Chava are buried in Israel. We don’t know where Noach lived at all until after the flood when he landed in Armenia in the east. And now Avram is called by G-d to go back home to the west, to Canaan, to Israel.
Alas, we have had and continue to have a long journey back. In Avram’s time, no one knew Israel’s value. It was passed on from Avram to Yitzchak and onto Yaakov and finally the 12 tribes forming Bnei Yisrael. However, we gained and lost the land of Israel many times over until it was lost to us for thousands of years. But now we are in an era where Israel is back under Jewish control, and we can once again go back home. Hashem has shown us the way and He continues to await all of our return.
And so where is Gan Eden? Hidden away for the right moment when Hashem will once again reveal it. But in the meantime, Israel has clearly been proven the place for us to be and yearn to go. To go back to Jerusalem.
And the decision is once again ours. Hopefully this time we will not be waylaid again and we will make the right decision that will bring us all truly home.