I’m no Thomas Friedman: The State of Israel vs. The Land of Israel

By Rabbi Eli Freedman, sermon delivered Yom Kippur Morning 2011

I’m not Thomas Friedman.  Yes, we have the same last name, although he spells it wrong, but that is the end of the similarities.  Why do I say this?  Because Pulitzer Prize winning, New York Times “Foreign Affairs” Correspondent Thomas Friedman can tell you about the political situation in Israel better than I ever could.  So, what can I tell you about Israel that Thomas Friedman can’t?

I can tell you about what it feels like to see the sunrise over Mt. Masada.  I can tell you about the sights and smells from the shuk in Jerusalem.  I can tell you about walking in the footsteps of Abraham, Deborah the Judge and King David.  I can tell you about my love for the Land of Israel.

Let’s engage in an intellectual exercise.  Let us try to separate in our minds the Land of Israel vs. State of Israel (Eretz Yisrael vs. Medinat Yisrael).  The Land of Israel is the biblical home of our ancestors, the place that we turn to in our prayers, the country that gave us the hypnotic music of HaDag Nachash, and the culinary prowess of Chef Moshe Basson.  The Land of Israel is Ahad Ha’am’s Cultural Zionism, the idea that Israel can be the spiritual center for all of Jewish life in the world.  The Land of Israel is the Land that I love unconditionally.

The State of Israel is AIPAC and JStreet, the Knesset, the Green Line, and the current conflict in the Middle East; political pundits each offering their own solution to centuries old problems; roadmaps, Camp David and international sanctions.  The State of Israel is a government of which I am not sure how I feel sometimes…

Now, I understand that in real life, we can no more separate the Land of Israel and the State of Israel than we can separate our heads from our bodies, but I believe by engaging in this exercise we learn something powerful about how we deal with the complex relationship that is our connection to Israel as a Diaspora community.  Yom Kippur is a time for inward reflection, a time to think about how we related to the world around.  Let’s take some time this year to think about how we engage with the Land of Israel.

In the summer of 2007, while getting ready to spend a year in Israel, I felt fairly ambivalent about my upcoming adventure.  I remember thinking to myself, “It will be fun to go to Israel, spend time learning about another culture.”  But I really could have been going to Italy, China or any other country for that matter – there was nothing special in my mind that separated Israel – this was just another year abroad in a foreign country.

This ambivalence to Israel is fairly consistent with many Reform Jews from my generation and earlier.  Unlike today at our Mercaz Limud and Confirmation Academy, I did not grow up with Israel as a part of my Jewish education.  Synagogue trips to Israel were few and far between and Israel was not a strong piece of my youth group life either.

Historically speaking this is no surprise.  Reform Judaism deemphasized the Jewish connection to Israel early on for quite practical, political reasons.  In the late 18th/early 19th century, during the revolutions of Europe, the humanism of the Enlightenment, and the rise of nationalism, Reform Judaism took shape.  In 1789, Napoleon convened a group of Jewish leaders in West Phalia called the Sanhedrin.

At this gathering, he asked the Jewish leaders of his empire, “Are you Jews or are you Frenchmen?”  For the first time in European history, Jews were no longer relegated to a subclass status and were no longer a nation unto themselves.  For the first time in history, Jews were asked to be a part of the emerging nations of Europe.

This rise in nationalism and new level of acceptance in society lead to the removal of Israel from Reform Jewish language.  How can you say you are a true German, Frenchman, American, if you pray towards Jerusalem, if you constantly speak about the restoration of Israel in your prayers, if you pray that one day all Jews will go back to the land of our ancestors.  Faced with skepticism of having a dual allegiance, many Jews chose their country of birth over Israel.

Only in recent years, with major events like the publishing of the new Reform prayer book, “Mishkan T’fillah,” do we see Israel making its way back into our religion and our prayers.   In the prayer, Yotzeir Or (a prayer we say on Shabbat morning celebrating the creation of light) an important line was reintroduced, “Or hadash a tzion tair – Shine a new light unto Zion.”  We have an Israeli flag, alongside our American flag on the bima.  We are taking our high school students to Israel in December on an amazing 10-day adventure.  We have adult education sessions where we bring in speakers with a varied view of the current political situation in Israel.  As a congregation and a movement, we are reengaging with Israel.

So what was it that turned an average American Reform Jew with no connection to the Land of Israel into someone who could not possible imagine being a Jew, let alone a Rabbi, and not have lived in Israel, engaged with the country and its people and eventual come to love the Land?

I took a Biblical Hebrew class while living in Israel for the year.  In the class, we not only learned Biblical Hebrew syntax and grammar but also learned to read ancient Hebrew script, which looks quite different to the font that is in your prayer book.  I initially thought this endeavor to be quite useless, not really understanding when in life, I would use ancient Hebrew script.

One day, our professor said we were taking a trip.  We walked about 20 minutes from Hebrew Union College on King David Street, around the old city over to ir david, the City of David, and entered Hezekiah’s Tunnel.  In the book of Kings, we learn about the great King Hezekiah; the 14th king of Judah whose reigned from 715 to 686 BCE.  He was most famous for fending off an invasion by the Assyrians that ultimately destroyed the Northern Kingdom.

We read in the Bible (2 Kings 20):

And when Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib was coming, and that he was purposed to fight against Jerusalem, he took counsel with his princes and his mighty men to stop the waters of the fountains which were outside the city, and they did help him.  They said, ‘Why should the kings of Assyria come, and find much water?’  This same Hezekiah also stopped the upper watercourse of Gihon, and brought it straight down to the west side of the City of David.”

We were standing in that very tunnel that Hezekiah had dug over 2500 years ago to divert water from outside the walls of Jerusalem, so that his people could withstand the Assyrian siege.  Walking down the slightly inclined floor, damp with tiny puddles, we came to the center of the tunnel where there was an inscription written in ancient Hebrew:

…and this is the story of the tunnel…

the axes were against each other and while three cubits were left to cut…

the voice of a man… called to his counterpart,

for there was crack in the rock, on the right…

and on the day of the tunnel (being finished) the stonecutters struck

each man towards his counterpart,

ax against ax

and flowed water from the source to the pool…

We were suddenly transported back 2500 hundred years to the time of King Hezekiah.  We could imagine the two separate teams of diggers from either ends, working furiously to complete the tunnel before Sennacherib’s army arrived.  And that moment, when the two parties met, at first just a distant voice, then the sound of axe against axe, and the water began flowing, we imagine the men embracing one another, relieved to have completed their holy task.  This is the Land of Israel, where our history comes alive.

We can connect to the Land of Israel in more modern mediums as well.  If you’ve ever seen the Adam Sandler movie, Don’t Mess with the Zohan, you may be familiar with the band, HaDag Nachash.  Their name which literally means Snake Fish, is a Hebrew spoonerism of the phrase Nachag Chadash, a new driver.  Through mixing hip hop and rock, western and eastern music, HaDag Nachash bring to light some of the most important issues in Israel today.  One song that particularly touches upon what it means to be in Israel is, Henei Ani Ba, Here I Come.  The song tells the tale of the dichotomy between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv:

Jerusalem, a city of explosions
walking the street feels like the ingathering of the exiles
a thousand cultures, everyone has a brother and 9 sisters
Arabs in order, ultraorthodox in the yeshiva
and all are receiving God here – at a frequency
from day to day Tel Aviv sparkled more
friends left or got closer to the creator of the heavens
gray, boring, there’s no sea
thoughts about leaving
three years it took me to get to the decision
I pack my belongings into the suitcase
from the village to the city in the direction of descending

I went in the direction of the shore

and now that I’m in Tel Aviv finally
I mix in with the scenery all is fresh and it’s good

my eyes got burnt
after two years of Sodom and Gomorra
I don’t recognize myself in the mirror
I know, I mix, I fuse, I embrace with
all the owners of the clubs
Now that I’m in, I know that it doesn’t sparkle
how much noise, how much soot,

I had paradise in my hands
thoughts about leaving
three years it took me to get the decision
I pack my belongings into the suitcase
from the city to the village in the direction of ascending

According to HaDag Nachash and many Israelis, Jerusalem is a city of holiness, mystery, and ancientness, while Tel Aviv is a modern European beach town that parties all night.  The Land of Israel is an amazing country because it is simultaneously, the umphalos of the world, while still being one of the world leaders in new technology.  In the book, Startup Nation, authors Dan Senor and Saul Singer describe how Israel is leading the way in microchip technology, electric cars and so much more.  With the highest number of startups per capita of any nation in the world and massive venture capital investment, Israel is one of the world’s entrepreneurship hubs.  This is the Land of Israel, where you can pray at the 2500 year old Western Wall and one hour later be on the beach in one of the most modern Mediterranean cities.

Food can also tell us a lot about a culture, a people and their history.  One of the top restaurants in Jerusalem is Chef Moshe Basson’s Eucalyptus.  For culinary inspiration Basson looks to the Bible, the Mishnah and the Talmud.   For salad greens he heads into the fields around Jerusalem or the hills of the Galilee. For some of his supplies, he seeks out a cadre of village women who bring fresh mushrooms, herbs and eggs to sell at the city walls where they come to pray.

Eucalyptus is a kosher meat restaurant so for dessert, Basson makes one of the most delicious puns I’ve ever eaten.  The Land of Israel is known as the Land of Milk and Honey, in Hebrew, Halav (milk) and Dvash (honey).  As no dairy products are served at Eucalyptus, the signature dessert is Halva and Dvash, a delicious combination of homemade sesame paste and local Jerusalem honey.  This is the Land of Israel, the sweet taste of milk and honey.

On a hot Wednesday morning in April, I remember walking into my Israel seminar class and being posed with an interesting task.  In our Israel seminar class each week we learned about a different aspect of Israeli history, cultural and politics; often taking day trips around the country and meeting with thought leaders, politicians and artists.  This week, however, we were split into groups and given a quite peculiar task.  Our professor explained that he wanted each group to go out to various neighborhoods in Jerusalem and knock on a random door and ask for a glass of water.  What?!  Can you imagine walking around your own neighborhood and stopping at a random door and asking for a glass of water.

We approached the first house and gentle knocked.  An old Yemenite woman came to the door.  In broken Hebrew we asked if we could please have a glass of water.  She immediately and rather briskly ushered us in to her home.  The cool of her stone home was a refreshing break from the hot spring day.  She brought all three of us glasses of water and we sat in her living room.  We then explained that we were doing an assignment for school and for the next hour or so we had the most amazing conversation.  She told us about flying to Israel from Yemen on “Operation Magic Carpet.”  She told us about growing up in Nachla’ot, the neighborhood near the shuk, with winding alleyways and narrow cobblestone streets.  She showed us pictures of her family and told us about her grandchildren.

When we returned to class to debrief our missions, our professor explained, especially 30 years ago before bottled water, this was not a strange thing to do in Israel.  We are talking about a country that is over 50% desert.  The hospitality of desert culture is still alive in Israel.  Since the times of Abraham and Sarah, the notion of hospitality as a sacred act has been a part of the Land of Israel.  In Genesis 18 we read:

Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.  He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by.  Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree.  Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.”

From our nomadic desert roots until today, the Land of Israel is a place where the genuine hospitality of Abraham and Sarah still exists.

The food, the music, the language, the prayers, the people – this is the Land of Israel.  And this is the Israel that Ahad Ha’am, the founder of Cultural Zionism imagined.  Born Asher Ginsberg, he took the name Ahad Ha’am, literally meaning, “one of the people.”  With his vision of a Jewish “spiritual center” in Israel he confronted Theodor Herzl. Unlike Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, Ha’am strived for “a Jewish state and not merely a state of Jews.”

Ahad Ha’am’s idea was to emphasize the importance of reviving Hebrew and Jewish culture both in Israel and throughout the Diaspora.  Herzl did not have much use for Hebrew, and many wanted German to be the language of the Jewish state. Ahad Ha’am played an important role in the revival of the Hebrew language and Jewish culture, and in cementing a link between the proposed Jewish state and Hebrew culture.  Ha’am believed that the Diaspora could and should still exist but Israel could be the spiritual heart of the Diaspora pumping Jewish culture and spirituality throughout the world.

Mark Twain once wrote, “…the true patriotism, the only rational patriotism, is loyalty to the Nation ALL the time, loyalty to the Government when it deserves it.”  Twain uses the words Nation and Government; I use the words Land and State.  Just as I am proud to be an American but sometimes critical of our government when I do not agree with what they are doing, I will always love Israel but am critical of their government when I do not agree with what they are doing.  Built right into the very word Israel is the Hebrew root, sarah – to struggle.  To love Israel is to love the Land and to struggle with the State.  Anat Hoffman, head of the Israeli Religious Action Center, says that she loves Israel by suing her.  We all have different opinions of the current government in Israel and the most important opinion is one of interest and not apathy.  It is so easy in today’s 24 news cycle to become barraged by political pundits and to turn completely shut off but engagement with Israel can be a truly spiritual act.

As a congregation, we have been thinking a lot in recent months about profound moments; moments whether in our control or not, we found a sense of holiness, of sacredness.  Moments that have changed our perception of the world and changed our life’s path.

The anecdotes that I relayed to you today were all profound moments in my life where I believe God was present.  These profound moments are what have shaped my love for the Land of Israel.

This New Year, we should all engage with Israel – read the New York Times and Thomas Friedman, but also visit the Land, taste the food, meet the people, experience the culture.  We are all entitled to our own opinions on the current political situation in Israel.  But no matter how you feel about the State, I hope that you connect with the Land.  If you have not already, I hope you are able to have a profound connection to the Israel that I have come to love and find a place in your own heart for the Land of Israel.