Sitting next to then-Knesset member Reuven Rivlin (current president of Israel) in a committee meeting when we served together as members of the 19th Knesset, I told him how jealous I was that his family has lived in the Land of Israel since the late 18th century. They were students of the Vilna Gaon, trailblazers who made the difficult move to live spiritual lives in Israel. Rivlin responded, “You are jealous of me? I am jealous of you! You chose Israel. You made aliyah. You got to do what Abraham our forefather did!”
The comment made a big impression on me. Choosing Israel creates a level of connection and appreciation for the land that is much more difficult for native Israelis to tap into.
Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlovich, the founder of the Jewish day school system in the United States in the first half of the 20th century, once compared Jews in America to the polar bear at the Bronx Zoo. Everything appears just right: the bear has its snow, its ice, its water, and everything else it needs. However there is one caveat: if you zoom out, you will notice the polar bear is actually in the middle of The Bronx, far from its natural habitat. Rabbi Mendlovich explained that the Jewish people seem like they are at home in North America (and elsewhere in the Diaspora). The community has its synagogues, Jewish day schools, Jewish Community Centers, kosher restaurants and even exclusive sports leagues that make accommodations for those who observe the Sabbath. Everything appears just right. But Judaism anywhere in the diaspora is far from the natural habitat for Jews, like the polar bears at the Bronx Zoo. They are far from Israel – far from our “home.”
I must note that most people who move to Israel don’t feel the polar bear analogy while living in the Diaspora. And that’s precisely Rabbi Mendlovich’s point. The polar bear feels totally at home. But in reality it’s not home. The same with Jews outside of Israel.
But now that we live in Israel, and understand how it feels to live “at home,” we can fully appreciate the analogy. And we can connect so deeply to the words of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of then-Palestine who wrote:
“Come to the Land of Israel and see the glory of the Desired Land, the beauty of the Carmel and the Sharon, the splendor of its beautiful skies, the glory of its crisp, pure and temperate air, which prevails even in the winter months. Come and delight in the Desirable Land; rejoice in the beautiful and delightful Land of the Living, whose air is a breath of life for our souls. How beautiful and pleasant she is!
Come to the land of Israel; come and see, and your heart will rejoice and your bones will flourish like grass. Come and see how our beloved and precious nation rejuvenates like an eagle, how it begins to stretch its aching bones, shattered during its bitter period of wandering and exile…Come and delight in memories that are better than good wine, memories that enrich the soul and broaden the mind, memories of kings and officers, warriors and prophets, memories of majesty and strength, greatness and glory. Come to the Land of Israel; here you will see the essence of it all…The time has come for Jewish revival in the Land of Israel.”
We similarly connect to the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “Jews have lived in almost every country under the sun. In four thousand years, only in Israel have they been a free, self-governing people. Only in Israel are they able, if they so choose, to construct an agriculture, a medical system, an economic infrastructure in the spirit of Torah and its concern for freedom, justice and the sanctity of life. Only in Israel can Jews speak the Hebrew of the Bible as the language of everyday speech. Only there can they live Jewish time within a calendar structured according to the rhythms of the Jewish year. Only in Israel can Jews live Judaism in anything other than an edited edition. In Israel, and only there, Jews can walk where the prophets walked, climb the mountains Abraham climbed, lift their eyes to the hills that David saw, and continue the story their ancestors began.”
As we complete the week in which we in Israel celebrated Aliyah Day, celebrating the millions of Jews from around the globe who have come home, and as we prepare to read the story of the first-ever aliyah by Abraham our forefather in this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, I hope that Jews throughout the world will give some thought to the words of Hannah Senesh, who immigrated to Israel from Hungary and was executed after she parachuted into Yugoslavia to help rescue Jews about to be deported to Auschwitz, which we who live in Israel truly feel:
“There is one place in the world to which you do not escape, nor do you immigrate, you come home – the Land of Israel.”