"Any Jew who makes aliyah from the United States is certainly not doing so because of anti-Semitism. We come to be connected to this land. We come to be connected to this enterprise of building a Jewish country."
Israel is a miracle.
I’m not talking about the oranges and the silicon chips. Just the fact that this country exists at all, as a Jewish country, is a miracle.
What has happened in Israel is utterly unheard of. A people exiled from their land for 2,000 years coming home and reviving their dead language. And building a modern high-tech country out of what was once a colonial backwater. Unique on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin.
What other nation has survived exile? The Tibetans are struggling with a similar problem – they are trying to figure out how they keep the unique culture of Tibetan Buddhism alive while living in exile from their home. Not surprisingly, the Dalai Lama has met with Jewish leaders to try and find out our secret. The Jews succeeded in keeping their culture and religion alive through 2,000 years of exile; how did we do it?
The answer is the persistence of vision.
The rabbis never gave up on the vision of the Jewish people in the land of Israel. They built reminder after reminder into our prayers, into our rituals, into our expressions. “L’shana haba’ah bi'yrushalayim,” “Next year in Jerusalem!” we cry out at the end of our seder meal every Passover.
When the Temple was destroyed 1,937 years ago the rabbis had to adapt. Interestingly, the early Christians also had to adapt – they were equally attached to the rituals of the Temple. At this crucial juncture, Judaism went one way and Christianity another. The Christians decided that the physical was not important – all that mattered was the spirit. The importance of the physical Jerusalem was, for Christians, replaced by the idea of the “spiritual Jerusalem,” a place of spiritual peace and harmony set free by belief in Jesus. Jews went the opposite direction. The rabbis focused on ways to keep the memory of the physical Jerusalem, the memory of the specialness of being at home on our land, a part of our cultural memory and legacy.
For a long time though that vision remained latent. Jews were content to remember without being called to action. To remember and faithfully wait for God to say it was time to come home. That is until Theodor Herzl came along. Herzl gave the Jewish vision a nudge in a new direction.
Instead of waiting for God to say it’s time, Herzl had the audacity to suggest we should make it happen. Enough of the waiting already!
At first Herzl’s vision and the vision of the rabbis did not seem to connect. Herzl was secular – his vision was not based on fulfilling 2,000 years of religious longing. His vision was that Jews should have a place to live free from anti-Semitism—and he believed that could only happen in a country of our own. At first the religious community rejected Herzl’s ideas – after all, to try and take matters into our own hands to create a state seems to be an action meaning we no longer have faith in God. We no longer believe God will bring us home when He is ready.
It didn’t take too long for the rabbis – or at least most of the rabbis – to come around. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel (at least in modern times) was the first real religious Zionist. Kook melded the dreams of the rabbis with the dream of Herzl. He married a mystical connection to the land to a practical desire to settle the land.
The fact that I am now living in Israel is in a way a response to Rabbi Kook’s vision.
Any Jew who makes aliyah from the United States is certainly not doing so because of anti-Semitism. We come to be connected to this land. We come to be connected to this enterprise of building a Jewish country. We come out of religious motivations and we come out of communal motivations. Unlike Jews coming from places like the former Soviet Union, we don’t come because we are fleeing persecution, and we don’t come because the financial opportunities are so much better here. We come because it’s amazing to be here. I was sitting in my living a few days ago reading the parsha – the story of Jacob’s ladder – and reading the commentary that the place where Jacob slept was the Temple Mount. And I was able to look out my window and see the Temple Mount. I still find that incredibly cool.
It’s sad how many Israelis themselves are losing sight of this incredible miracle. It makes me wonder about the continued staying power, the continued persistence, of the vision for a Jewish state. I indulged myself a little today by buying a second hand mountain bike. What do I need a mountain bike for? Fifteen minutes away from my home in Jerusalem I can ride a mountain bike on dirt roads through forests planted with money donated by American Jews in their little blue JNF boxes. Beautiful forests in the hills of Judea. But the roads are pretty bumpy, and when you get to be my age you appreciate the comfort of a dual suspension bike.
But I digress. The point of the story is that I was chatting with the owner of the store while one of his workers was fixing up my bike. He spoke great English, having lived in America for a year. When I told him I made aliyah a few months ago, his reaction was one of surprise: “Oh, people are still doing that?”
To be fair, a far more common response is “baruch haba,” welcome, “let me know what I can do to help,” people seem genuinely glad to see Americans making aliyah. I think it’s because when an American makes aliyah it reinforces for them that there is something special about living here. So many Israelis seem to want to move to America, it’s refreshing for many of them to be reminded that there are Jews in America who want to move to Israel.
What I plan to reflect on in the coming months in this blog are my experiences as a new immigrant to Israel, and how the reality of Israel matches my dreams of Israel. One of the reasons I’m here is because I believe that the modern state of Israel is the most important thing to happen to the Jewish people in the last 2,000 years. As Arnie Eisen, the Chancellor of JTS said, “Israel is too important to sit by and let other people blow it.”
The philosopher Camus said the ultimate philosophical question is suicide. I would say that for the serious Jew, the ultimate philosophical question is aliyah. If you believe all the stuff you say in your prayers, why aren’t you here? :-)