The Love of Israel
“For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper. When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you.” (Deuteronomy 8:7–10)
I cannot read these verses from Parashat Ekev dispassionately this year. Not only is the prose of the Torah magnificently beautiful (as it is in much of Deuteronomy), but I have recently returned from a two week visit to Israel, and have personally witnessed almost all the bounties mentioned in these verses. My husband, 2–year old son, brother (a first–time visitor) and I walked through the lushness of Tel Dan in the north, and couldn’t help but be struck by the abundant flow of cool, clear water – even in the middle of July, and even at a time when Israel is suffering a major water shortage. In the dry, Negev desert, we observed the deep gorges which swell with water during the winter season. We saw countless date palm trees (the source of biblical “honey”), banana trees and olive trees in different parts of the country. We observed the green figs growing on the fig trees, and the vines being readied for the growth of grapes. We saw the fields which had been harvested for wheat, and we floated in the mineral rich Dead Sea. Living in a time where exaggeration and hyperbole run rampant, it was wonderful to see that the bountiful promises of the Torah about the Land of Israel are as true today as they were thousands of years ago.
And it was also a reminder that Israel is not only that which is portrayed on CNN and the nightly news. You won’t see pictures of the lush calmness of Tel Dan on CNN, nor of the majestic stillness of Masada on your local news channel. You won’t be shown the thousands of people on the beach in Tel–Aviv on Shabbat afternoon, nor the myriads of people going off to work in their stores, restaurants, offices and building sites during the week. Being in Israel (again) reminded me that despite whatever “situation” is going on (and there have been difficult situations going on in most of my ten or so previous visits), much of daily life goes on in Israel, and it is a vibrant, pulsating life, on a land which is deeply soaked in history and natural beauty.
One might ask me why I chose to go to Israel at this time, and to bring my young son and my brother? After all, many people had cancelled their trips because of the “situation”. My first answer would probably be “I went to Israel dafka – specifically because times are difficult there, and tourism is suffering terribly and morale is low.” I have dear friends in Israel whose children are as young and as precious as mine, and they are living with this situation on a daily basis. Could I not afford two weeks of sharing with them their concerns? I claim to be part of the same people; I claim to have a historical and sibling–like tie to the Jewish nation. In some sense I asked myself: How can I not go at this time?
But underlying this sense of connection to my “brothers and sisters” in Israel is a great love for the country which began to be developed long ago. It started with Hebrew school classes about Israel and with songs singing her beauty and her specialness. It was developed further in youth group activities, and became deeper and richer as I began my studies of Jewish history and literature in rabbinical school. Living there for a year taught me what it felt like to live in a Jewish country, which ran on the Jewish calendar, and where even the garbage cans were marked in Hebrew. It gave me a sense of just what a miracle it was that Israel had been reborn, and how vital it was for the psyche of Jews all over the world.
I am certainly not the first to feel this love of the Land; it has been a long tradition among the Jewish people. The Talmud in Tractate Ketubot (112a) tells us: “When Rabbi Zera went up to the Land of Israel and could not find a ferry wherein to cross [a certain river] he grasped a rope bridge and crossed. Thereupon a certain Sadducee sneered at him: ‘Hasty people, that put your mouths before your ears [because Israel said “we will do” before they said “we will hear” in Exodus 24:7), you are still, as ever, clinging to your hastiness.’ ‘The spot’, the former replied, ‘which Moses and Aaron were not worthy [of entering], who could assure me that I should be worthy [of entering]? Rabbi Abba used to kiss the cliffs of Akko [in his love for Israel]. Rabbi Hanina used to repair its roads. Rabbi Ammi and Rabbi Assi used to rise [from their seats to move] from the sun to the shade and from the shade to the sun [in order to obviate any fault finding with the weather of Israel– Rashi]. Rabbi Hiyya ben Gamda rolled himself in its dust, for it is said in Scripture (Psalms 102:15) “For Your servants take pleasure in her stones, and love her dust.”
Many hundreds of generations of Jews have loved Israel and expressed that love in many ways – by living there in dangerous times, by visiting from very long distances, by writing about her, by teaching about her beauty and her deep value, by sending philanthropic contributions, and by choosing to live their everyday lives in her hills and valleys. I heartily endorse visiting Israel now, even with the risks involved. But whatever we choose to do, I pray that Parashat Ekev will be a reminder to us – not only of the beauty of physical Israel – but of her deep value to us, of the necessity of her being the home of the Jewish people, and of the blessing that God has given us in her existence and her thriving.
Rabbi Melissa Crespy