In these past weeks, Israel has been on our hearts and minds. In the face of the never ending conflict, and of the depression of seeing our neighbors seeking out to harm us with every mean possible, it’s hard not to feel despair and hopelessness.
Conflict has rattled our country since it was created 66 years ago, but who’s counting?
How do we lift our minds and our vision to retain hope?
Several years ago, I returned to Israel to live there for the year, while in rabbinical school. It was also at a time of conflict – this time in Gaza. In the fall I took a trip driving through the Jordan valley that stretches from the Dead Sea to the Kinneret, the sea of Galilee. It is a beautiful desert valley with high cliffs on each side. I’d been in that valley numerous times, but I remember that this once I had a powerful experience. Suddenly it became thoroughly clear to me that this was the land of the prophets.
I could see the caves where I imagined that they lived but more than that I could feel that this land was the ancient land of Israel, where prophets had walked, where the Temples had stood, where for 1000 years Jews had lived out a religious and spiritual mission that was chronicled in our Tannakh, Bible.
For that time, I didn’t even see the checkpoints and think about the troubles.
My experience is nothing unusual, which is an amazing fact. There are thousands who arrive in the country, who visit there, who live there, and share in that experience.
Two hundred years ago, when the country itself was a dusty backwater of the Ottoman Empire, Avraham Dov of Avritch, a Chassidic leader wrote about his first experiences:
“I came expecting to find paradise. I went up to Jerusalem looking for streets paved with precious jewels and hills made of gold. But all I saw were ordinary hills made of stone and a dusty city. I became disappointed and forlorn and wondered if I had made a mistake to come. Then years later, I began to see things with different eyes, and realized that hills of Jerusalem really are golden, if only we have the eyes to see.”
When we look at the land of Israel we can see the troubles and the difficulties, we can even see the successes and the achievements, but we can also see the golden hills if we but have the eyes to see them.
It is nothing new, it is the same task that we have always faced. It began with the first Jew, Abraham who in his first revelation from God in our parashah is told, Go forth from your land, from the place of your birth, from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. Abraham struggles to find his place in the land and see its qualities. He flees to Egypt after a famine. But he too then eventually learns to see, and his eyes are opened next parashah in the binding of Isaac, to see the heart of the land, the place where he is asked to sacrifice his son, the place that becomes the location of our ancient Temple.
As the Torah recounts our people are exiled down into Egypt but the dream of their land of milk and honey keeps them alive and yearning. In the desert they do not have the eyes to see the land, thinking they can never conquer it, and they are destined to spend 40 years until their vision widens and their gaze opens. Moses himself can only gaze at the land from atop Mount Nevo. But from that mountain, the midrash describes how he takes in and experiences the entire land, in its breadth and width.
A land that the Torah calls ochelet yoshveihah, that eats its inhabitants.
Through the ages, the centuries and millennia, our poets and sages spoke of their deep yearning for this land. Far away Zion. That animated their hearts and minds. That kindled their hopes.
That is because we have always believed in a higher Israel and a lower Israel. A lower Israel that is part of this world and its never ending tumult. That is in one of the most conflicted corners of the world.
And a higher Israel, that never loses its peacefulness. That lies in the heavens. That is a place that our hearts and minds are attuned to, wherever we are.
What is unique is that these are not completely separate. The higher Israel is not a Shangri la. It encroaches into the lower Israel. We catch its glimpses when we can, when we let it in.
The lower Israel is a vibrant hub of high tech, with beaches and deserts, one of the most lively and dynamic countries in the world. In the lower Israel we can feel proud to be in a country where people speak Hebrew and follow the Jewish calendar. Where you can hear ads on the radio for matzah on Pesach. Where everybody has names that sound like your religious school classmates. Where the ancient history comes alive visiting the sites around the country. Where we can feel energized by the atmosphere of the young and dynamic society.
But it is the higher Israel that feeds it its vitality. The higher Israel that most people cannot put into words but is a feeling. The feeling of the old Israel they fell in love with during the kibbutz times. The experience we sometimes have when we hear the words and melody of the national anthem and feel the yearning of our ancestors for 2000 years. In the old song and cultures that seem to capture a spirit that is so close to our hearts, In the words of the song ein li eretz acheret, I have no other land.
I once was at a Shabbat dinner table in Jerusalem. We were singing all of our Shabbat songs. Chassidic melodies, the old tunes. A friend of mine there was a secular Israeli singer so I asked her to sing a song. She sang some of the old kibbutz songs. There was such a powerful feeling to it, a freshness and inspiring quality that made our songs feel old and lifeless for a moment.
This is the higher Israel that sometimes opens itself to us when we visit the Kotel, the western wall, or set foot on it for the first time. That Israelis, even secular, feel in the old culture they grew up in.
But how do we open our eyes to see the golden hills of Jerusalem and Israel? How do we turn our souls and minds to the higher Israel?
One way is to travel the land. For a few weeks, better for longer. On a side note – we are planning a congregational trip in the next year.
When Abraham arrives in Canaan, that becomes the land of Israel. God commands him: “Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it.”
God tells him that he needs to walk the land, that he needs to feel the country in his bones, that he needs his to let his soul submerge in its landThat he needs to walk the breath and length of it. Something that Israelis do continually, on holidays and weekends. Coming to know every nook and cranny of their beautiful land.
But most of us can’t go do this. We don’t live there. We have a few weeks of vacation a yearWe’re not walkers.
So much of our tradition is set up for us to open our eyes to the higher Israel, (because the higher Israel is not limited to a place, though it is in the land of Israel that both come together. The Higher Israel is inside all of us. Almost every service and prayer that we have references Israel, that quality and place. That feeling. It is part of what we try to do in our synagogues, bring the feeling of the Higher Israel.
Rebbe Nachman teaches that we are always walking to Israel, wherever we are. The higher Israel is in our own hearts. And that Israel cannot be so easily swayed.
(To Bat Mitzvah) Danielle – it is the work of your generation to open the eyes of other Jews and of our brothers and sisters of other faiths to the golden hills of Jerusalem and Israel. To let them know that beyond all of the conflict and troubles, and even beyond the high-tech wizadry and the beaches, there is something far more powerful and enrichening. That is beyond politics. That is linked to the land but transcends it. As someone one with Israeli family, It will be part of your life to help carry the love of Israel – ahavat israel – to others.
I bless you that even in these difficult times to see the golden hills, the higher Israel peeks through. That you remember, that we can all remember, that like your grandparents we’ve all been through many journeys, some easier and some more difficult, but that we always gotten through them, and we will get through these ones too. Because in the end, at the deepest level, all of our journeys take us Eretz yisrael.