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Loving the Land of Israel

May 9, 2009 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

The spiritual power of God's special place.

I have a confession to make: I'm in love with the Land of Israel. After nearly 18 years living here, through two intifadas, two Gulf Wars, the ups and downs (mostly downs) of Israel's turbulent economy, and a two-and-a-half-year wave of terror which fills me with dread and heartbreak, my ardor for Israel has not abated.

Why do I love Israel? Because I have been to half the world's holy sites. I have meditated in Varanasi, immersed in the sacred headwaters of the Ganges, visited the Vatican, circumambulated the Buddhist stupa in Sarnath, bathed in the waters of Lourdes, trekked to the shrine of the Weeping Madonna in ten feet of snow in the French Alps, and visited remote ashrams in the Himalayas. I felt a sense of exaltation in all of these places.

Only in Israel do I feel the palpable presence of God when I'm looking for a parking space.

But only in Israel do I feel the palpable presence of God when I'm looking for a parking space, when I'm cooking dinner, when I'm hanging laundry, when I'm caught in a traffic jam, when I'm wondering how we'll pay the phone bill.

This should come as no surprise. God explicitly promised in the Torah that He would have a constant, 24/7 connection with the Land of Israel and those who dwell here: "A land that the Lord your God scrutinizes constantly; the eyes of the Lord your God are on it from the beginning of the year until the end of the year." (Deut. 11:12)

Divine Supervision

Most of my friends here in Jerusalem have myriads of stories about how the constant, direct Divine intervention (called in Hebrew hashgacha pratit) reveals itself in their lives. To share just a couple of my own:

When my husband (a musician), and I made aliyah, the law was that new immigrants were entitled to bring in three "lifts" tax-free. This meant that we could ship ourselves major appliances and furnishings from America without having to pay the usual 100% customs—an opportunity too good to pass up. For our third and final lift we bought a microwave, a Maytag dryer, a self-cleaning oven, and everything else we thought we might need for the rest of our lives. When, back in Israel, we calculated the cost of all we had bought plus the shipping charge and insurance, we were $2100 short.

I prayed to God to cover the shortfall. After all, we had made the purchases for the sake of our life in Israel.

A few days later, an envelope came in the mail from the American Federation of Musicians, Local 47, to which my husband had formerly belonged. The computer printout informed him that reruns from "Face the Music," a TV show he had worked on some ten years before, had been sold to the Christian Broadcasting Network. Enclosed was a check for $2100.

Another story: In Israeli apartments, space is always at a premium. Therefore when we moved into our apartment 14 years ago, I considered myself fortunate that I found two clothes hampers which, in terms of size and shape, exactly fit into the narrow passage between my bedroom and the bathroom where the washing machine is located. After many years of use, one of the two plastic hampers cracked, until it was barely holding together. Its twin was still in perfect condition.

One day I looked at the broken hamper and said to myself: "It's not befitting tifferet Yerushalayim [the splendor of Jerusalem] to have broken stuff in our apartment." But where was I to buy a replacement to match the good hamper? Certainly they weren't making the same hampers any more. Even the store where I had bought the hampers had gone out of business. And what was my chance of finding two new hampers to fit the narrow space?

The next day, a pruning project in my courtyard garden left me with a carton of debris to dispose of. Where I live in the Old City of Jerusalem, we put our garbage in closed garbage rooms, one for every several families. I had not been to our garbage room for many weeks, because my husband takes out the garbage. When I opened the door to the garbage room to dump my carton of prunings, I couldn't believe my eyes. Sitting there was a hamper identical to mine, in mint condition.

Do I mean to say that the Almighty God of heaven and earth involves Himself in my finances and my hampers? Absolutely yes! That is the quality of the Land of Israel: Total engagement. Constant, immediate, detailed Divine supervision. Unrelenting intimacy with the Infinite.

No wonder it's so difficult to live here.

Go To Your True Self

God loves the Land of Israel more than the most fervent Zionist. How do I know? He says so in His Book. Over and over again. No Government of Israel Ministry of Tourism brochure extols Israel as much as the Torah. According to the Torah, Israel isn't simply a great place to visit – or live, but a piece of earth inextricably bound up with the soul of the Jewish people.

God's very first pronouncement to the first Jew, Abraham, is a command to move to Israel. "Go from your land, from your birthplace, from your father's house, to the land that I will show you."[Gen. 12:1]

Going to Israel entails moving towards one's truest, deepest self.

The Hebrew word for "go" – lech – is followed by the word lecha, meaning "to yourself." The classical Biblical commentator Or HaChaim asserts that going to the Land of Israel entails moving towards one's self, one's truest, deepest self.

The covenant which God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob promised two things to their descendents: the eternality of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.

During God's first revelation to Moses, at the burning bush, He declares that He is aware of the pain of the Children of Israel in their Egyptian bondage. Then God reveals to Moses His plan of redemption: "I have come down to rescue them from the hand of Egypt and to bring them up from that land to a good and expansive land, to a land flowing with milk and honey... " [Ex. 3:8]

The Exodus was not only from a state of slavery to a state of freedom, but from a place called Egypt to a place which would later be called the Land of Israel. Coming to Israel was an integral part of the Redemption. A people who had entered into a special relationship with God and who had witnessed open miracles and who had been given the Torah could reside only in this particular location, the Land of Israel.

Throughout the Torah, Israel is referred to as an "eretz rechava," meaning a land that is spacious or expansive. This is almost amusing, because Israel is a tiny land, about the size of the state of New Jersey. Even in ancient Mesopotamia, Israel was a sliver of land mass surrounded by large empires. Our rabbis tell us that rechava is not meant as a geographical description, but rather as a spiritual description. Israel is "expansive" because it expands the person who lives there.

Only in the Land of Israel

Judaism is the only religion in the world connected to a specific country. Other religions have sacred sites, rivers, and springs, but Judaism maintains that every inch of Israel within the Biblical borders (does not include Eilat and most of the Negev) is holy.

This has immense practical ramifications for the practice of Judaism. For instance, all the agricultural mitzvot (the commandments to tithe produce, let the land lie fallow every seven years, etc.) apply only in the land of Israel. As Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller is fond of saying: "A tomato which grows in the Land of Israel is holier than the manna which fell in the desert." Why? Because mitzvot apply to that tomato. And mitzvot are a Jew's direct way to bond with God.

In bestowing many of the mitzvot of the Torah, God begins by saying, "When you come into the land... " Nachmanides, the great 13th century sage, claimed that the mitzvot of the Torah could be properly fulfilled only in the Land of Israel. Performing mitzvot outside the Land, he wrote, was merely for the sake of keeping in practice, so that when the Jewish people return to the Land, they will know what to do.

The Kuzari describes God's plan to cultivate the Jewish people as a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" as akin to planting a vineyard. A vineyard needs four things: vines, land, sun, and rain. The Kuzari explains that the vines are the Jewish people, the land is the Land of Israel, the sun is Divine Providence (hasgacha pratit), and the rain is the Torah. Clearly, if one plants French vines in the Napa valley, they will yield different grapes. Just so, the Jewish people anywhere outside of Israel cannot fulfill its Divine purpose and potential.

The very soil of Israel possesses a certain spiritual vitality. Many Jews from the Diaspora feel a soul-awakening when they come to Israel, or to Jerusalem, or to the Western Wall. The Wall, which sits at the base of the Temple Mount and is the remaining vestige of the Second Temple, has not a single spiritual trapping. No frescos, no incense, no music, no awesome architecture. Yet the Shechina, the Presence of God, is so tangible there that few fail to feel it.

God's Special Place

Imagine a lover taking his beloved to his "special place." Carrying a basket packed with wine and bread, as they walk along he regales her with descriptions of his secret trysting place. "It's so beautiful, so quiet, so remote, like another world. You'll love it."

Finally they reach the spot, an isolated clearing in the forest. She takes one look and sneers, "This? This is your special place? There's nothing here! There's not even a bench to sit on! Not even a picnic table! Do you expect me to sit on the ground and get my skirt dirty? And there are insects crawling on the grass. I hate insects!"

If the beloved rejects the lover's special place, what are the prospects for their relationship?

The Torah recounts how in the second year after the Exodus, the Israelites arrived at the borders of the Promised Land. Ten of the twelve spies sent to reconnoiter the Land gave a negative report, and the people refused "to make aliyah." The sages say that this sin, the rejection of the Land of Israel, was in some ways more grievous than the sin of worshipping the Golden Calf. After the incident of the Golden Calf, Moses went back to the summit of Mt. Sinai and pleaded for Divine forgiveness, which was granted. However, we have never been forgiven for the sin of rejecting the Land of Israel.

If the beloved rejects the lover's special place, what are the prospects for their relationship?

So Much More Than Nationalism

One way to reject Israel is to refuse to live here. There is another, more pernicious way to reject God's special place: to treat it as a piece of real estate like any other.

Imagine that the lover brings his beloved to his special place of rendezvous. She looks at it and exclaims: "It's beautiful! We can turn it into a real estate development. We could probably divide it into a dozen plots, 50 by 60 each."

Israel is not just another piece of real estate.

The Land of Israel is not about nationalism. The goal of "making Israel a country like all other countries" violates its very essence. Imagine the city planners of Florence deciding to do away with the priceless works of art throughout the city in order to make Florence "a city like all other cities." The priceless treasure of Israel is its unique Jewish identity, its spiritual power, its holiness.

The Land of Israel is not about having a refuge from anti-Semitism. That goal has backfired. Israel is the only country in the world today where many Jews are being killed because they are Jews.

The Land of Israel is not about having a place where Jews are in charge. Yes, Israel has a Jewish President, a Jewish Prime Minister, Jewish legislators, mayors, and bureaucrats. It also has Jewish criminals and Jewish drug addicts.

The Land of Israel is the place that God has designated for His rendezvous with the Jewish people.

How can we spurn this opportunity?

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