פרשת שלח-לך – Parashat Shlah Lekha
"An exceedingly good land"
Rabbi Yechiel Wasserman
Next week the Zionist General Council, with delegates from 34 countries across the globe, will convene in Jerusalem. For three days its members will discuss topics related to Zionism and the future of the Jewish People. Among them are: Jewish-Zionist education in the Diaspora, Zionist hagshama [fulfillment], developing young leadership and the connection between Diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel. The main theme of the conference is Zionism in Perpetual Renewal.
In this week's Sedra we will be reading about the leaders of the Bnei Israel being sent by Moshe to spy out the land. Upon their return, they have some unsavory news and paint a dismal picture of the situation in the Land of Canaan, all leading up to the conclusion that:
לֹא נוּכַל לַעֲלוֹת כִּי חָזָק הוּא מִמֶּנּוּ – we cannot go up, it is stronger than us. When the People hear this, they burst into tears, and then Yehoshua Bin Nun and Kalev Ben Yefuneh declare:
טוֹבָה הָאָרֶץ מְאֹד מְאֹד – it is an exceedingly good land. They encourage the People, saying:
אִם חָפֵץ בָּנוּ ה' וְהֵבִיא אֹתָנוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת וּנְתָנָהּ לָנוּ – if Hashem delights in us, then he will bring us into this land, and give it to us. And of that incident Hazal, our Rabbis have said: "You have cried over noting and I will give you a reason to cry for generations to come".
The Zionist Movement was established in Europe against the backdrop of several historical processes that matured in the late 19th century in Europe and among the Jewish People. The Franco-Jewish officer, Dreyfus', trial was the event that motivated Binyamin Ze'ev Herzl to write his essay Altneuland, and to hold the first Zionist Congress in Basel, at the end of which its participants accepted the Basel Plan which stated, inter alia, that "Zionism aspires to obtain for the Jewish People a safe haven in the Land of Israel". And, indeed, fifty years later, with the help of the Almighty Redeemer, the State of Israel was established, and many Jews immigrated there – the vision of the third Shivat Zion [Return to Zion] began to consolidate.
In their vision, the Jewish prophets saw the Jewish People returning to its homeland from every corner of the world, but the reality, 64 years after Israel was established, is very different. Half of the Jewish People still lives outside Israel, the majority of which in North America, and has no inclination to move. Those Jews have set up well-established communities, with synagogues and schools, community and religious services, and hundreds of Jewish communities live in those places and view them as the center of their lives. Most of the Diaspora Jewry does not consider itself, in this day and age, to be living in exile. They live wherever they want, of their own free will, and do not feel forced or inferior, since, unlike the past, they are able to immigrate to Israel from anywhere at any time. Moreover, they can maintain their Jewish identity publicly anywhere, and abide by a fully Jewish lifestyle. Many also do not regard the State of Israel as the core of Jewish existence.
In terms of Diaspora Jewry and its connection with the State of Israel – the status of the latter has diminished somewhat, and it is no longer as central as it once was in the former's lives. It seems that a "New York and Jerusalem" trend is emerging, and there are several reasons for that, some objective and others subjective. The decline in the status of Israel is manifested in various areas, such as education, where the amount of time dedicated to studying subjects associated with Israel is dropping, and focuses mainly on holidays and special events. Hebrew has also lost much of its glory. As a language it is learned in very few places, Jews speak their local languages, and even Jewish studies are often conducted in the students' mother tongue – few and far between are the schools that teach Hebrew in Hebrew. In addition, unfortunately, many believe that we are currently in a post-Zionist era.
Standing at the crossroads as we do today, we face the challenge of declaring: טוֹבָה הָאָרֶץ מְאֹד מְאֹד – it is an exceedingly good land. It is our duty to strengthen the centrality of the State of Israel in the life of Diaspora Jewry, and nurture the relationship with Israel in three areas: through experience and emotion, where identification with the State of Israel must be nurtured through events, activities and experiences that bring Jews closer to Israel; through cognitive means, deepening knowledge about Israel from all aspects – history, geography, society, security and economics; and most importantly, through values, by raising their awareness of the State of Israel's role as the Jewish People's eternal hub and, at the same time, of the significance of having a national home for the Jewish people and the position it must fill.
We must clarify that the fundamental Zionist principle is that the Land if Israel was the hope and dream of the Jewish People wherever it was throughout the generations. The State of Israel is not simply one more possible place of residence for Jews, thousands of years of history and tradition cannot be overlooked – the State of Israel is the center of Jewish and spiritual life. Throughout its existence, Israel is torn between great moments and terrible times. We must position it at the heart of the lives of Diaspora Jews and help it continue to establish itself and develop while declaring in every corner of the earth: טוֹבָה הָאָרֶץ מְאֹד מְאֹד – it is an exceedingly good land.
Rabbi Yehiel Wasserman is a member of the World Zionist Organization and head of the Center for Religious Affairs in the Diaspora