(From a talk I gave in June, 2002 when everyone thought we were crazy to go to Israel)
This week’s parsha, Parshat Pinchas, tells the story of the Daughters of Tzelefchod – five women from the generation that wandered in the desert – who had a profound love for the Land of Israel. Their father Tzelefchod died in the desert without sons. The story of the Daughters of Tzelefchod takes place when the time came to distribute parcels in the Land of Israel to each family. The women in this story so loved the Land of Israel that they insisted they be given a portion of the Land as their inheritance, despite the fact that there were no men in their family. They said:
"Our father has died in the desert.. And he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be removed (literally, be lessened) from the midst of his family because he has no sons". Give us (women) a possession together with the brothers of our father." (Numbers 27:3,4).
It’s far from coincidental that this story appears in this week’s parsha, as we prepare for our departure to Israel. After all, is there a page of T’Nach, of our Bible, that doesn’t mention the Land and its significance?
When I was a very young girl, my father, alav hashalom, once remarked, “If the United States was ever at war with Israel, I would go and fight for Israel.” It’s peculiar that I should remember that. It was offered without explanation, and I was too young at the time to understand its significance. In fact, this was the solitary comment about Israel that I recall ever hearing expressed in my childhood home.
I was not exactly raised with an abiding love for the Land of Milk and Honey. Or with any significant knowledge of Judaism for that matter. The place in me where a Jew ought to have existed was null and void. But I was driven by the desire to fill my empty space. And, with siyata d’shamaya, with help from Above, I eventually came to understand the significance of being a Jew so that I could live as one.
When I first started meeting Jewish people who had robust amounts of Jewish consciousness, I heard over and over again about the love of Jews for the Land of Israel. How much they looked forward to their next visit! How hard it had been to leave! How homesick they were, for the land that was not their home.
I heard it.
But I didn’t get it.
After the Rabbi and I were married, we went to Israel for my first visit. Although many Jews who visit Israel rush to the Kotel, the Western Wall, as soon as possible, I spent several days trying to avoid going there. I had heard so many dramatic stories of Jews encountering the Kotel. But I was apprehensive and afraid I wouldn’t feel anything.
Here’s what actually happened. At first, I was stunned by the assault of women charity collectors at the Kotel. Nobody had warned me, and I wasn’t prepared. So before I could even get to the Kotel, I had to wade through a phalanx of women calling to me, reaching their hands out at me, demanding of me. The barrage disturbed me, but I was even more bothered by my unpreparedness to give charity properly.
As I walked closer to the Wall, there was no open spot, but I noticed a little side room up a few steps, and I made my way in there. Seated at the entrance was a woman, engrossed in her recitation of Tehillim, but aware enough of her surroundings to shake a charity can each time someone walked in.
More than really praying, I spent my time holding a book of Tehillim distractedly. I reminded myself over and over where I was. My body was actually at the Kotel. I was standing at the remnant of the Holy Temple. I was an American Jew and I was standing before the Kotel itself. I experienced a surreal sense of wonder.
By the time I met my husband on the plaza, I was crying. I couldn’t stop crying for nearly an hour. I had heard the Kotel referred to as the Wailing Wall. I always thought that was because people stood before it and wailed from distress. Now I knew another meaning. Because the Kotel, working its magic in my Jewish soul, had just brought me to tears.
Just a recognition of the raw spiritual capacity that is accessible only in Israel.
On a later trip, we had the great privilege of getting to Hevron, to the Ma’arit HaMachpelah, to the Cave of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs. To enter the building that has been erected on top of the cave, we had to pass through Israeli security, even back in 1998. We entered through metal detectors, from bright sunlight to semi-darkness, until our eyes adjusted to the natural light streaming in from tiny windows.
At one of the windows was a man. A rag of a man. A penitent. In shredded clothing. Bending and straightening. Bending and straightening. Shukling. Rapidly. And crying out, from an unimaginable depth within. Heart-rending. I understood nothing of what he said. Some might have mistaken him for a madman. I, who was standing in the holiest Land on Earth, in one of her four holiest cities, in one of the holiest places in one of the holiest cities, I chose to see sanctity. Again, I saw the raw spiritual capacity that is accessible only in Israel.
Even given these powerful experiences, I happily returned to Baltimore from each of our trips to Israel. Nice place to visit… but Baltimore is our home. So much so that last summer, we toured all the local Jewish cemeteries, looking for the place we most wanted to be buried. You see, we expected to die in Baltimore, because we saw Baltimore as our home.
As recently as last summer, I was what you might call a theoretical Zionist. I loved and supported Israel, but only in a distant, impersonal sense. From my home in Baltimore.
Three things happened since last summer that changed my relationship to the Land of Israel and that impacted our decision to travel there to look for an apartment in which to invest. The first was September 11th. The second was going to work for the University of Haifa, and the third was something I heard at a lecture last year.
On September 11th, something dramatic shifted in my worldview. On that day, I began to see my life in the context of Jewish history.
There is a lengthy litany of the years and the lands from which Jews have been expelled over the course of Jewish history. After the crusades, expulsions of entire Jewish communities became commonplace. In 1290, all the Jews were expelled from England. In 1306, Jews were expelled from France. In 1492, Jews were expelled from Spain. Dozens of sporadic expulsions of entire Jewish communities in Europe continued into the 19th century.
I was born in America, after the Holocaust. On September 11th, my lifelong presumption of safety in America was immediately and irrevocably shattered. I abruptly came to see the United States, where my parents, and the two generations that followed them, were born and have been living, for what it really is.
A host country.
Don’t believe me? A few historical facts may help you see things more clearly. The first Jews came to America in 1654, but Jewish men couldn’t vote in Maryland until 172 years later. In 1692, the Church of England was the official religion in Maryland. And until less than 150 years ago, public office could only be held by those able to take the oath “upon the true faith of a Christian”.
As great as America has been to Jews, and it has been, it’s hard to escape the fact that we live in a Christian country. Two months of every year, we are overwhelmed with preparations for Christmas. A friend of ours who made aliyah last year said that in Israel, the holiday soda bottles say Chag Sameach, not Merry Christmas. Here, Christmas and Easter are Federal holidays. In America, Christians get their holidays off automatically. Who among us, with the possible exception of those who work in Jewish institutions, hasn’t had to deal with the necessity of negotiating time off to celebrate our Jewish holidays?
Make no mistake. America, for all its love for religious tolerance, is hosting the Jews who live in her borders. This country is not ours.
And it never will be.
Right now, Jews live in relative safety and security in America. But for how long will that be the case? As great as this country is, don’t allow yourself to get so comfortable that you can’t imagine America vomiting out its Jews. Remember the lesson of history. It’s happened in every other country where Jews have ever lived. Our sense of security in America is deceptive. It’s a mistake to rely on it.
Addressing the Jewish Agency last Sunday, June 23, Prime Minister Sharon said, “Whatever happens here [in Israel] will influence the fate of the Jews all around the world. If Israel, Heaven forbid, becomes weakened, don't expect even for a minute that you will be able to live the lives that you are living now. It will disappear in the blink of an eye. Your responsibility is therefore no less than ours… Because it is now not only our fate, but also your fate that hangs in the balance."
It’s a mistake to walk around believing that what’s happening in Israel doesn’t threaten us as American Jews. The more precarious things become in Israel, the more precarious our security as American Jews will become. It’s scary to think about it. But it’s even scarier to be oblivious.
After September 11th, I asked myself, “What does this event mean to me?” “Is this a foreshadowing?” “Is this horrific event supposed to wake me from a coma of apathy? ”
I have surely been awakened from my coma and my eyes are wide open.
A second event that turned my heart toward Israel was accepting a position with an Israeli university. I used to be the most apolitical, unaware person imaginable. I’m not kidding. My strategy for keeping up with current events was that if it was big enough news, someone would tell me about it.
That all changed when I went to work for the University of Haifa. As a function of my job responsibilities, I now must know what’s going on in Israel. In fact, responding to parents about terrorist events in Israel is part of my job. So it’s not just news anymore. It’s my job. Events in Israel, and world events that impact on Israel, hold my attention now in a way they never did before. I’ve gone from being fundamentally oblivious to being relatively well informed about current events in Israel.
All this thinking about Israel and praying for her transformed something inside me. I don’t believe in a political solution. I believe that only a Divine solution will bring lasting peace. And so now I wait for Moshiach, for our Messiah, with ever-increasing eagerness.
And in the meantime? I was just there in November, but I knew I just HAD TO get to Israel again soon. I could feel it in me, like a gnawing.
I don’t mean to suggest that deciding to go was a no-brainer. We postponed and revised our plans several times. But neither was it the toughest decision a Jew ever had to make. In the years preceding the Holocaust, Jews made gut-wrenchingly painful decisions. Some saw what was coming. Others insisted that it wasn’t that bad or that it would certainly get better. Some got out, or got their children out, in time. And some didn’t. So many Jews in that generation, so many Jews in history, have been called upon to make tough decisions. The most I’ve ever been called upon to sacrifice, as a Jew, was baby shrimp with cashews in hoisin-flavored sauce. In comparison to deciding whether to send my children on Kindertransport and risk never seeing them again, making the decision to go to Israel was a piece of cake.
Are we scared to go? Well, yes… and no. Yes, because Jews are getting blown up in Israel on a regular basis. And no, because we have emunah, we have faith. We know that Hashem’s protection is portable. We pray for emunah strong enough to travel in spite of our fear, and, if necessary, G-d forbid, to live with the harm that could come.
And we believe that going to Israel right now, even for a relatively short trip, is something every American Jewish family should be considering. In a message encouraging American Jews to support Israel, Sandra Sokol, the President of AMIT, remembers and paraphrases Mordechai’s words to Esther in Megillat Esther : Do not imagine that you will escape in your affluence from among all the Jews; because if you remain silent at this time, relief and rescue will arise for Israel elsewhere and you and your father’s household will perish. And who knows, if it was not for a time like this that you were so elevated.
Maybe we can’t all live there yet. But we surely can look for ways to support Israel from here. An important purpose of our upcoming trip is to find an apartment to buy. We plan to invest in Israeli real estate as a way of supporting the Israeli economy. And in this way, we hope that we, and our friends and family, will be strengthened to visit Israel more frequently.
When visiting Baltimore last summer, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, Israel said, “If Israel is your Disneyland, then only come when the sun is shining. But if Israel is your Motherland, then come now because your mother needs you.”
We Jews have had a good run in America. But our motherland is threatened. It’s time to put our bodies where our hearts and souls are.
And that’s why we’re going.