For Jews, grappling with the physical and spiritual presence of Israel is not optional. Why is this relationship crucial? Israel is part of an unbreakable, interdependent triad that includes God and Torah. All Jews are the Children of Israel. We are united as the offspring of Jacob/Israel, whose children formed the twelve tribes, the progenitors of our extended family. Furthermore, we are all connected with Eretz Yisrael, the geographic entity of the Land of Israel. This tiny country is not just another global travel destination for Jews; most feel a palpable sense of holiness and an awareness they are “home.”
I feel exuberance in every footstep as I walk Israel on my annual trips. I am energized and focused, and I have felt this on every trip starting with my Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall. It’s an indescribable feeling of oneness with People and place. It’s not uncommon for seemingly casual trips to the Promised Land to result in radical transformation for unsuspecting Jewish tourists. This phenomenon underlies the efficacy of programs like Birthright, Gap Year and Aish HaTorah.
Holy Land History
Avraham’s initial journey to the Promised Land starts with elements of surprise, challenge and mystery. The first commandment he receives is “Lech L’cha…” or “go for/to yourself to a land that I will show you.” Within that initial call to action is the requirement of trust, coupled with a reassurance that all will go well. This simple lesson can inspire every Jewish journey—we go forth into the unknown with faith God is by our side. Furthermore, every journey we take is a revelation both of the external world and our own personal topography. Lech L’cha is paradox of opposites. This alliterative seesaw requires that Avraham go out (lech) while coming back to himself (l’cha). The Chidushei HaRim (Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, 1799-1866) states that all Jews share Avraham’s commandment: we thrive within this virtuous cycle of spreading our wings in the world, brimming with light, then retreating back to ourselves until our energy is restored.
Soon after reaching the land, further tests challenge the first Jewish couple. Famine strikes, requiring that Avraham seek refuge in Egypt, Sarah is kidnapped and then Avraham is told that his progeny will serve as slaves in a strange land. Yitzchak, who is forbidden by God to leave Israel under any circumstances, must struggle with the locals at every turn. Avraham’s grandson Yaakov acquires the name Israel at the breaking point of his wrestling match with an angel. Retaining the Land of Milk and Honey requires optimism, diligence and faith in the face of adversity. These are the crucial ingredients for any meaningful conquest. Our patriarchs and matriarchs ably transmitted the tenacity required for possession of this spiritual terrain.
The last chapter of the Torah ends with a cliffhanger—the aquisition of Israel is still in question. Our redeemer Moshe dies on the border and the Israelites look to his successor Yehoshua (Joshua) to engage in the conquest of the Land. One must delve into the Torah’s sequel, known as Nevi’im, or the prophetic writings, to get the full picture of our journey. From Yeshoshua’s invasion (1272 BCE) until the Babylonian exile (422 BCE), Jewish history appears like a grand sine wave, with the apex of peace, d’veykus (connection with God) and invincibility leading to a nadir of self-indulgence, decadence and defeat and then back again. We possess the Land, but much like our turbulent wanderings in the desert, we vacillate between dutiful service to indifference and dissension, repeatedly testing God’s patience until destruction ensues. Settling this holy space is conditional. Each time around this hopefully finite cycle, the Children of Israel gain insight into what it might take to stay on top, but then sadly, the process begins yet again.
With the devastating invasion of the Romans and destruction of the Second Temple (63 BCE), it appears the jig is up. The Torah’s prophecies of the Jew’s utter despair, remaining few in number and serving a protracted sentence wandering the nations, is tragically fulfilled. It seems all is lost; our mission has failed and we are now orphans of history without a homeland or hope. However, we receive certain guarantees in this ultimate exile in which we are still entrenched. We are assured God will be with us, the Torah will always be accessible and at some distant time we will come home. The ember of hope sustains us as we leave our nest to spread our message to all the nations. Finally, after two thousand years of remarkable influence in every corner of the globe, we return to our homeland with great signs and wonders.
Even in the Diaspora, Jews remain focused on Israel. Every meal, every prayer service—we dwell on the Land. The quest of aliyah (emigration to Israel) is the persistent theme of each of our festive occasions. The Shabbat liturgy repeatedly mentions the importance of remembering our origin story, namely, the formation of our nation in Egypt and subsequent journey toward Israel. We’re still in transit! One might ask why we are anchored to this resource-restricted real estate in the hostile Middle-East. Why are the nations surrounding Israel taking up arms in every generation? What do they want from us? What do we want for ourselves?
When searching for Israel on a globe, it becomes immediately apparent that it is truly miniscule and vulnerable. As there isn’t sufficient space on the world map to indicate the name of the country, “Israel” floats in the Mediterranean with an arrow pointing to a small, shapeless chip of paint. This geographic perspective also clarifies the logic behind God’s choice of a homeland for God’s treasured nation. If the goal of the Jewish People is to merely survive intact, we could have been stashed away in the Amazon. But if our mission is to influence the world with the veracity of ethical monotheism, it makes sense to locate our capital at the crossroads of civilization. Indeed, Israel is directly in the trade route of both North to South and East to West movement between Eurasia and Africa. Israel’s centrality is not only geopolitical, it is geological: before the Suez Canal was dug, a raindrop falling in the Israeli hills would eventually flow to either the Pacific or the Atlantic Ocean.
There is also logic to God choosing a land without abundant natural resources. With no land-based oil reserves, limited mining opportunities and an inadequate water supply, the residents are forced to innovate and thereby apply those innovations to all areas of life, the very engine of the “start-up nation.” Whereas the Nile was an ever-flowing body of water for the boastful Pharaohs, the settlers of Israel could never rely on grandiose self-satisfaction. The trickle that is the Jordan River left us perpetually dependent on God’s compassion in the form of rain to survive. We must pray; we must beseech; we must connect. This beneficent dependence is the crux of the fundamental spiritual message we broadcast while dwelling at the nexus of humanity.
The Dalai Lama studied the resolve of the Jewish people as a primer for surviving exile. He learned that our holidays center on the relationship with Israel and witnessed us facing Jerusalem whenever we pray. As a result of the destruction of our Holy Temple, we leave a part of a new house incomplete; we symbolically break a glass and sing the psalm “Im Eshkacheich Yerushalayim” (If I forget thee, Jerusalem) at a wedding. Every Tisha B’av, we sit on the floor in shabby clothes crying fresh tears for our vanquished kingdom. As Napoleon famously said, “A nation that cries for its Temple for two thousand years surely will see it rebuilt.” Upon learning about our customs, the Dalai Lama stated, “This is what I call the Jewish secret—to keep your tradition. In every important aspect of human life, something is there to remind you: we have to return, to take responsibility.”
Fighting for the Future
To travel to the Promised Land today is to personally invest in the cosmic miracle of our homecoming. I implore my audiences around the world to make this the year they venture on the same steps of our forefathers and four mothers. We take ownership of the land not by talking about it but by walking about it. In my concerts, I emphasize the unprecedented feat of Israel’s successful absorption of the various waves of immigrants from around the globe. We are all Dancing in Jerusalem! Today, the majority of the world’s Jews live in Israel—amazing! Even if one can’t make the trip, it’s possible to advocate for Israel. As it says regarding the Jewish People (B’reishit 12:3): “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Jew and gentile alike can be part of the winning team by taking a stand for the Holy Land.
Our troubled Mideast neighbors are coming to the table not because they have a sudden love of Jews but because they are witnessing the birth of an economic powerhouse with resources to share. Israel’s $387 billion economy is larger than the sum of all its Arab neighbors. Israel has more listings on NASDAQ than high tech rivals Japan, Korea and India combined. Our seventy-year-old homeland has more technology companies and venture capital funds than any country other than the US. Remember the 11th commandment, “Thou Shalt Go to College?” A quarter of Israelis have university degrees, a statistic only exceeded by the US and Holland. Israel has the highest rate of scientists and technicians in the workforce in the world. More scientific papers, more new books published, more home computers and more female entrepreneurs per capita. Israel boasts a higher average income than our former landlord, the UK. The entire world takes for granted the daily use of Israel’s spectacular advances in hi-tech, medicine, biotech, physics and chemistry. Jews hold 22% of Nobel Prizes. Israeli innovations in agriculture, alternative energy and desalinization are rays of hope on this ever-crowded, ever-hungry, warming planet.
Unfortunately, Jews are still wandering the desert: the desert of ignorance and brutality. We witness the denigration of our Land even while we readily share its assets and sow the seeds of loving-kindness, justice and charity. There are over 400 million Arabs in twenty-two Arab states versus the six million in the one Jewish state. The United Nations has issued over five-hundred condemnations of Israel and none for Hamas or Hezbollah. The Arabs enjoying the most freedom in the Middle East live in Israel’s flourishing democracy. Yes, Israel’s government must be called to task for shortcomings but the overwhelming sound from Diaspora sidelines should be enthusiastic cheering. Who else is going to root for us?
The forces of evil in the form of Islamic fundamentalism, anti-Semitism, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, Holocaust denial and terror are no match for the vast power of the Jewish spirit. We are engaged in a millennia-old program of world redemption, influencing society in a patient, loving manner while attempting to maintain our unique identity. When we are plugged into our source, our Joy of Judaism renders us untouchable. The trials of each generation are one and the same, largely because they are eternal: to cling to our Land, to hold on to the dream of freedom, to keep the faith and keep our focus, to teach, touch and entertain, to find laughter amidst tears and in times of defeat, pick ourselves up and strive once again. This is the mission of the Jewish People for the benefit of all humankind, the true gift of the Promised Land.
Sam Glaser is a performer, composer, producer and author in Los Angeles. His 25 bestselling Jewish CDs include: The Songs We Sing, The Promise, Hineni, A Day in the Life, Across the River and Kol Bamidbar. He scores for film and TV in his Glaser Musicworks recording studio and concertizes and teaches in over 50 cities each year. He was named one of the top ten American Jewish artists by Moment magazine, has sung The Star Spangled Banner at Dodger Stadium and Staples Center and has won John Lennon and Parent’s Choice awards. His comprehensive overview of spiritual living, The Joy of Judaism is a current bestseller on Amazon. Visit him online at www.samglaser.com.