On Land, Peoplehood, and Redemption

I can hear my homeland calling me

Come back to me now[1]

Where are we going?

                Sadly, we have had that answer ever since we were a husband and wife iconoclast movement. אברהם אבינו, the idol smashing[2] counterculture activist we trace our whole movement/religion/people to, was already told the destination – “the Land which I will Show you[3]” – the one that is going to take four exiles of darkness, terror, fright, and despair to arrive at[4]. And a simple reading of Torah as a book, instead of pseudo-religious instructions, shows it’s all about the land. Take the famous Rashi everyone uses to encourage kids that their purpose of life is to learn Torah in Kollel all their life – אם בחקתי תלכוwhich Rashi says means שתהיו עמלים בתורה.[5] Read the rest of the Parsha – it’s all about agriculture! The rains will come, the land will be fruitful, etc. And if you don’t listen to the Torah, you will be expelled from the Land. Look at what the אבות are promised – they are never told their descendants are going to get the Torah, only that they will get the Land. ספר דברים is all about כי תבוא[6], and כי יביאך ה’ אלה-ים אל הארץ אשר אתה בא שמה[7], and כי תוליד בנים ובני בנים ונושנתם בארץ השחתם ועשיתם פסל תמונת כל ועשיתם הרע בעיני יהוה אלהיך להכעיסו… העידתי בכם היום את השמים ואת הארץ כי אבד תאבדון מהר מעל הארץ אשר אתם עברים את הירדן שמה לרשתה לא תאריכן ימים עליה כי השמד תשמדון[8]…the point is the land, peoplehood.[9]

                It is precisely because we have recently gotten rid of the attachment to the Land that we have become an Amish-like religion adrift off its own moorings[10]. For it was never intended to be a religion. It was always about the people. The genius of Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai was that he figured out a way to institutionalize a peoplehood to survive galut – his request for יבנה וחכמיה was not the “talmid toiroh kineged kulom” the clueless and foolish think it is. It was his understanding that this is what would be needed to make sure the Jews didn’t go the way of the Circassians, Galatians, Thracians, Cimmerians, Avars, Phyrigians, Akkadians, Goths, Khazars, Carthaginians, Minoans, Aztecs, or any other disappeared people[11]. And in this, he was brilliant – what better way to establish a timeless movement than by “religifying” a nation about to enter a painful and indeterminate Exile[12]?

                This was not without its dangers. There is a hypothesis to explain anti-Semitism. It says that every nation has a Messianic worldview that places themselves in the center of the universe, with their being a light unto the nations, etc. And they hate any competing worldview (obviously). As long as the competition is the “other”, they can deal with it (a war here, some satire there…you can get by). But when that worldview’s proponents live in your street, use your busses to get to work, make your money, and vote in your elections, yet claim that it is they who are the redeeming force in the world, you are going to want to destroy them – they threaten your claims![13]

Now, have you noticed that anti-Semitism no longer exists? It has been replaced with anti-Zionism. You want to stand in middle of Wall Street, or Broadway, or Main Street in Des Moines in טלית and תפילין and try to make a minyan? No one cares[14]. But try wearing a blue Star of David, and you are going to get stares, comments, and worse. Because religion is old hat – it’s just multicultural, you know? We eat pork and beans, and you eat matza ball soup. But we are the same, we are Americans. We share the ideals and beliefs of America the Beautiful being the bastion of Freedom and Democracy, the greatest nation on Earth, and the world’s example of life as it is meant to be lived. The minute you make a stand, say you have a different belief in what it means to be a human being (that gasp! may involve things like asserting your identity as tied to particulars, such as a land, instead of universals, like “peace”), you are not one of them – and you need to be neutralized, and defeated. And the עומות הולם know this well – the Messianic vision of the Jews is bound up in the nation state of Israel, the people called Yisrael. It is no accident that the more a faction of Orthodox Judaism leaves out the Land of Israel of its belief system, the more out of whack it seems to be? The more they begin to resemble fundamentalist Christians[15], or worse?

                This is not to say that the current state of affairs in Israel is the way it is meant to be.  I don’t think anyone thinks that the State of Israel as it exists is the final manifestation of the Divine Plan (though some people who have a need to be inspired can delude themselves into believing this is so). But it is an amazing step in the road, one that heralds our flowering from thousands of years of Exile, and an important milestone in our maturing into the …עם סגולה מכל העמים אשר על פני האדמה”.[16] We are no longer just a force in world development operating behind the scenes, and no longer just a moral/philosophical movement. We are a people, acting in expression of that peoplehood on all levels, with a national and international identity. And it is beautiful to see the flowering of thousands of years of exile into the beginnings of a redemption. Not a full one, but the beginnings of one.

That vision of the utopian nation state of Yisrael is best described by ספר דברים itself. דברים can be seen as a kind of constitution – it delineates every aspect of the government structure (king[17], court system[18], religious roles[19], and more) as well as the raison d’ etre of the state[20]. It is a state devoted to choosing Life[21], to the discovery and pursuit of Truth – so much so that we will put to death (!) anyone with an ad hoc belief system that detracts from it[22], a state devoted to living with the values of “אסיפה-which-is-תשובה”[23]. Our dream is a life of איש תחת גפנו ותחת תאנתו[24], of People in their Place, building lives and Life one person at a time.

It is precisely because the current state of affairs in Israel is so far removed from the utopian vision that we have had two thousand years to create in our dreams and psyche[25] that the current generation is so torn about embracing this challenge of rebuilding Eretz Yisrael as the culmination of our yearnings. Instead, Israel becomes a cute and kitschy “never again” theme park where we can all embark on a self-discovery adventure in our late teens and early twenties. We of course politically support this country, and revel in its successes, and visit whenever we can, but it never crosses the line to being something about our very worldview. Hilariously, it is those who pray religiously three times a day of rebuilding Jerusalem[26] and for the arrival of the Messiah that often do not feel any connection at all to the events, and enterprise, that are part of its construction[27], instead thinking that the mission facing Yisrael today is some sort of final test regarding internet access, cell phones, pornography, or black hats; all we have to do is hunker down tight and wait for the magic spaceships to take us to Heaven and away from this world. Or back to early 1900s Europe…

It is this crossroads, perhaps, that will define the way of Judaism going forward. There have been other issues and other crossroads, but for the first time there is now an issue which is universal – the Reform Jew, the Chasid, the homosexual Jew, the yeshiva guy, the Rabbi, the Rabbanit/”Rabbah”, the black hat, the seminary girl, they all have the same issue facing them right now – what to make of this upstart country, what it stands for, and what to do about it. Those burning questions are the front lines right now – and how we answer them will determine what Home is going to be.

The truth is, politically, this is the very debate that they are having in Israel – what kind of Home do we want? A democratic state? A place where hospitals potentially endanger people’s lives because of worries that perhaps שבת is worth more? A place where gay people live together openly? A place where every seven years we leave the whole land fallow? A place where we can murder our neighbors? A place where we cannot defend ourselves from the attacks of others? A place where the electricity company doesn’t work on שבת, leaving everyone in the dark? A place where we give those who want to destroy us a seat in our government? A place where we can kill civilians in a war and not care? A place where Torah is rule of the Land? A place where religion is spit on? Do we keep the holy sites for other world religions running, or destroy the idolatrous places? A place where a notion of a Temple is outdated and inflammatory? Is our claim to the land based on TaNaCH? Ancestry? The United Nations? Do we even have a right to this land at all? What does it mean to be Jewish? Who is a better model for our youth – Rav Kanievsky or Ben Gurion? Small wonder that the only consensus in Israel is that there will never be one (unless you count the part where they all agree you should live there, except the ones who tell you they want to leave as soon as they can, of course).

I have the pleasure and blessing to make my family’s home in Israel. Before we chose to uproot ourselves from the warm confines of Jewish Brooklyn and take the plunge, my family came on a “pilot trip”. I came with a blank mind – no biases, no preconceived notions, nothing – just a desire to be here[28]. I wanted to immerse myself in the Land, to experience it from the point of pure Experience.

The Land is inhabited by a fractured People – complete with those who are not the People at all living among them. There are Jews who think that Mosaic law is an outdated and archaic “Mickey Mouse” philosophy living in the same buildings as those who think that Israel the country is a violation of the Divine Will. African migrants roam the streets, passing the Ethiopians claiming to be from the lost Tribes, who themselves are talking to the Russian immigrants who are grandchildren of Jewish grandfathers and no more. Women soldiers sit on the same buses that the “Burqa women” ride, one holding their gun and the other their children (orספרי תהילים  or shopping bags). Taxi drivers gently chide (if not outright verbally assault) tourists to move to Israel, while thousands of Israelis leave for the greener pastures of New York and Florida. Buildings in the “West Bank” are demolished to placate the Leftist peaceniks who claim the land was once owned by an Arab, while IDF helicopters and artillery pieces flatten Arab buildings in Gaza being used as rocket launching pads. The secular cashiers in the department stores wish people a “שבת שלום” while some (ostensibly) religious merchants look for the first “frier” they can take to the bank. What a crazy country, one where you cannot possibly find a representative sample size for anything – each individual is completely unique in their own right.

Some of the inhabitants there look to the past, sitting in the shadows of ancient places espousing philosophies and dreams of re-establishing the days of ancient yore. Some look to the future, indifferent to the archaeological sites around them in favor of the high rises and luxury apartments that arrive with more successful start-ups being sold to wealthy American investors. Some think the answers are to be found in the primeval books of wisdom, while others dismiss these books as antiquated and antediluvian remnants of a not-yet-Enlightened people.

We drove through Jerusalem, parking our car in the parking lot of the brand new Mamila mall and apartment complex and walking to the כותל – a trip of about a kilometer, and spanning a few thousand years. We traveled to טבריה and prayed at the קברים of the Rambam, Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai, the Shelah, and some other Tannaim and Amoraim, which were around the corner from a gleaming modern shopping center. We visited Ein Gedi, which was an old world manufacturing center of balsam, and today is a beautiful nature reserve where one can walk the ground where Shaul chased David[29]. I listened to the haftarah of Shimshon (Parshas Naso) literally בין צערה ואשתאול[30], in an air conditioned shul in modern day Ramat Bet Shemesh. But before all of this, I went to a beach in Ashdod.

Sitting next to us on the beach were three young teenagers, probably playing hooky from school. They were fooling around, smoking, going from the water to tan in the sun and back again. The boys tried to remove the girl’s top, stealing feels of her budding chest to her outright shame (and annoyance). I looked at them and felt this overwhelming, odd sense of revulsion and disdain – THIS is the goal of G-d’s promise to Avraham?? This little lowlife, lower-class, G-dless and soulless secular Beach Boys dream of sun surf and young “love”? And then, upon arriving back “home” in Ramat Beit Shemesh and seeing the teenaged children of Anglo Olim hanging out in the park, smoking, drinking, hurting from rejection and feeling hopelessly placeless, adrift in a country they do not know what to make of nor able to fit into, I had the same feeling, and the same incredulity. These confused and identity-less teens were the culmination of G-d’s הבטחות to Avraham? THIS IS WHAT WE ARE INTENDED TO BE?!? It was a feeling that was to remain on the outskirts of my mind the entire time I was in the country, whether I was in the Tel Aviv mall, Old City of Jerusalem, suburbs of Haifa, at a yahrtzeit seuda in Beer Sheva, or on the מרפסת of my gracious grandparents-in-law in Ramat Bet Shemesh, overlooking the broken and divided city of Bet Shemesh and its suburbs.

And yet…..

There is a certain shadowy sense of the Land wrapping itself around you, a magnetic draw it pulls you in with – for those who are not in tune with their inner worlds, they can mistake it for “only in Israel” stories and a love affair with shwarma; but it is a sense of belonging, of rootedness, of being a part of what is a part of you[31]. For it is still a Land that seduces its Lovers, calling out to them in gentle whispering breezes and caressing them in wisps of visions of a future they know uniquely to be Yisrael’s, as well as their own; these dreams can be intoxicating[32], and they can be crushing[33], but they are also real. And there is no price for authenticity.

While traveling the Land, the question running through my mind was, should today’s times be written as a sefer of Tanach, what would it look like?

Then I saw ספר שופטים, and immediately did a double take. Right down to conquering the land and not driving out the inhabitants, resplendent in the battles and the people just not getting the messages given to them, the problem being summed up as בימים ההם אין מלך בישראל, איש הישר בעיניו יעשה[34]…it is as true today as it was then. Only today the idols are democracy, humanism, and liberal philosophies, instead of the Great Fish and the Lord of the Flies ([35]דגון and בעל זבוב[36]).

Just as people today question living in Israel, from socio-economic grounds as well as religious ones, I would venture to say that people in those times questioned themselves as well[37]. The confusion and contempt, the disbelief that this is the beginning of something completely different[38], the very first flowering of a thirteen petaled Rose that has lain dormant for hundreds of years, is not new. We wondered then, as we do now, what it means to be a Jew – we went from the days of Moshe and the clarity he brought, to Yehoshua and his tenacity in defending and promoting the ברית we have with haShem, to….nothing. A local leader here and there, but mostly a vacuum in which we stumbled around and wondered what we were supposed to do, and who we were supposed to be. Just as today. The parallels are frightening in their implications…

I had a slight epiphany one night, sipping a beer on that porch in Ramat Beit Shemesh (beer is an epiphany inducing beverage, after all).

All the people in Israel are searching for their version of Heaven, in the place they think is closest to it[39].

For some, heaven is the socialist ideal in this world. For others, it is a “vibrant democracy in the Middle East.” For still others, it is a place where you can do many mitzvos like מעשר, and ערלה, so that they may earn a bigger share in the World to Come. Some think it is a theocracy built on (their interpretations of) halacha, with bonus points that allow them to claim ownership of their area and forbid those who do not comply to their standards and ideas[40]. All of them are trying to build Heaven – here, in this Land.

Contrast that with the religious Heaven you were taught…the one that had no room for Earth, because there was nothing sacred about Zhidikov, Vilna, or even Boro Park[41].

Why do people think Heaven is more important than Earth? The same theological flaws people point out regarding the “second coming” are also true of saying that the real game is being played on a field different than the one the players are in – or in simpler English, saying that your reality is not the one that you live in is psychotic!

Do people not see the Torah never bothers to mention Heaven or Hell? Why do people leave the world behind in their minds for flights of fancy? Each week brings another quote ripped out of context that supports a worldview centered on staying cloistered in a virtual ghetto of our making, with reality walled off and our gaze directed up at the Heaven/Reality we’ve created for ourselves. We ask ourselves deep questions about the internet and music, about why the vibrancy is gone and the kids no longer care, while the masses slowly slip away to the abyss of the West[42].

Perhaps this focus on what is beyond this world, on a reality that has not yet arrived, is inbred from thousands of years of persecution; all we had was a World to Come, as the present world was hell on earth…

But now, just perhaps, we HAVE something in this world – the prophecies have come true, in far more Real and True ways than the superficial readings of them would admit. There indeed is the callings and voices of the young, the old, the groom and bride, in the streets of Jerusalem. Yisrael is no longer just a concept expressed in synagogues and dusty books pored over by teenagers and long bearded adults. Now the name Yisrael is a people, a nation, with shopping malls and skyscrapers, schools and a lottery, beaches and restaurants, crime rates and stock markets, and more shuls, yeshivos, and interest in what it means to be a Jew than ever before[43].

The Jew as he who lives as the consummate “other”[44], suffering quietly in a corner of a community that is not and never will be his, is perhaps outdated…and perhaps, even more true than ever before; one who lives as a ben Yisrael probably feels most alienated, the most “Ivri”, the most as an “other” in Israel/Yisrael itself, waiting for Klal Yisrael to shake off the dust, arise, and bloom into the People it can, and will, Be.

[1] Moshav Band, “Come Back”, Days.

[2] Literally – “iconoclast” means “idol-smashing”.

[3] בראשית יב:א

[4] בראשית טו:יב

[5] דברים כו:ג

[6] דברים כו:א

[7] דברים ז:א

[8] דברים ד:כה – כו. This is my favorite parasha in all of Torah.

[9] I encourage the reader to look at דברים ל:א-ו which spells this out in black and white.

[10] Karl Sharro brilliantly pointed out that the farther away geographically a people gets from their religious birthplace, the more insane they become.

[11] The Hebrews/Jews have survived for over 3000 years as a people. The following is a list of SOME of the civilizations/empires/nation states that have collapsed over the same time period. (This list may have some overlap.)

1. Thracians 2. Edomites 3. Philistines 4. Jebusites 5. Ammonites 6. Midianites

7. Amorites 8. Amalakites 9. Babylonians 10. Ancient Egyptians 11. Romans 12. Ionian and Doric Greeks 13. Phoenicians/Carthage 14. Myceneans 15. Celts 16. Ancient Britons 17. Gauls 18. Belgie 19. Cimmerians 20. Lydians 21. Medes 22. Persians – Archamenid, Sassanians and Safavids 23. Mongols 24. Ghazanians 25. Chole 26. Ghana 27. Mali 28. Songhai 29. Aksum 30. Kush 31. Ancient Libyans 32. Islamic Umayyads, Fatimids, Abbasids, Seljuk and Ottoman Turks 33. Crusader Kingdoms 34. Avars 35. Austro-Hungarian Empire 36. Vikings 37. Punt 38. Hellenic Greeks 39. Mamlukes 40. Saracens 41. Holy Roman Empire 42. Burgundians 43. Italian City States 44. Zhou, Three Kingdoms, Han, Qin, Sung, Tang, Yuan, Ming, Manchu dynasties of China 45. Soviet Union 46. The Third Reich  47. European Colonial States 48. Goths – Ostro and Visi 49. Olmecs 50. Toltecs 51. Nazca 52. Inca 53. Aztec 54. Mayan 55. Mohaica 56. Chavin 57. Chimu 58. Moguls 59. Byzantines 60. Phyrigians 61. Macedonians 62. Dacians

63. Illyrians 64. Wends  65. Trojans 66. Indo-Dravidians 67. Huns 68. Teutons 69. Old Zimbabweans 70. San 71. Sheba 72. Saxon Kingdoms 73. Normans 74. Korean Three Kingdoms 75. Vietnamese Annam 76. Cossack Kingdoms 77. Tamerlane’s Empire 78. Etruscans 79. Griqua Territories 80. Old Hindu Kingdoms 81. Spanish Kingdoms of Navarre, Leon, Castille, Aragon, Granada 82. Prussia – Hegel’s ideal state 83. Arab Pagan Kingdoms 84. Lombards 85. Sikkim 86. Champa

[12] And for all of you about to yell “but the mitzvis are mitzvis!” I point you to Rashi, among other Rishonim, who says all of Torah in chutz la’aretz is only m’drabbanan, for chinuch, so that when you enter into Eretz Yisrael you will know how to keep the ברית.

[13] Whether this is all there is to anti-Semitism or not is debatable. But it is certainly a part of it.

[14] My father was amazed how there is a fully functioning minyan every night during the seventh inning stretch at Yankee Stadium – and none of the participants are ashamed to be Jewish (they flaunt it in their mode of dress, as opposed to his generation that was taught to hide it), and none of the non-Jews at the stadium gives them a hard time, or seem to care at all.

[15] Who themselves are some of the world’s most virulent “Zionists”, though for selfish reasons – they believe that there can be no “Second Coming” till all Jews are in Israel once more.

[16] דברים יד:ב

[17] דברים יז:יד

[18] דברים טז:יח

[19] דברים יח:א

[20] דברים ו:כ-כג

[21] דברים ל:טו-כ

[22] דברים יז:ה

[23] דברים ל:א-יד

[24] מיכה ד:ד

[25] No doubt the source of much of that saudade we keep touching on.

[26] While ignoring the ludicrous expansion of Yerushalayim from the walls, and the next hilltop over, to a city of almost a million people.

[27] It is here I would like to sound out a word of caution to the Zionist-minded gentlemen who have messianically and prematurely announced the coming of the Messiah in 1948. This is not the first time since the חורבן that we have possessed the Land. Nor is it the first time we have elected a government, either. (And please, do not deign to call the current government a מלכות, or make up ridiculous Torah about it having the דין of one.) Bar Kochba ran a government (and was even called Mashiach by Rabbi Akiva), and according to many even began rebuilding a בית המקדש. He failed. We were thrown out again. There is no full ironclad guarantee that ANYTHING will work – the promises and threats in דברים are very real; the Land has a Way to Live. Those who do not are made to leave.

כי תוליד בנים ובני בנים ונושנתם בארץ והשחתם ועשיתם פסל תמונת כל ועשיתם הרע בעיני יהוה אלהיך להכעיסו. העידתי בכם היום את השמים ואת הארץ כי אבד תאבדון מהר מעל הארץ אשר אתם עברים את הירדן שמה לרשתה לא תאריכן ימים עליה כי השמד תשמדון. הפיץ יהוה אתכם בעמים ונשארתם מתי    מספר בגוים אשר ינהג יהוה אתכם שמה… (דברים ד:כה-כז)

 …אם לא תשמר לעשות את כל דברי התורה הזאת הכתבים בספר הזה ליראה את השם הנכבד והנורא הזה את יהוה אלהיך. הפלא יהוה את מכתך ואת מכות זרעך מכות גדלת ונאמנות וחלים רעים ונאמנים. והשיב בך את כל מדוה מצרים אשר יגרת מפניהם ודבקו בך. גם כל חלי וכל מכה אשר לא כתוב בספר התורה הזאת יעלם יהוה עליך עד השמדך. ונשארתם במתי מעט תחת אשר הייתם ככוכבי השמים לרב כי לא שמעת בקול יהוה אלהיך. היה כאשר שש יהוה עליכם להיטיב אתכם ולהרבות אתכם כן ישיש יהוה עליכם להאביד אתכם ולהשמיד אתכם ונסחתם מעל האדמה אשר אתה בא שמה לרשתה. והפיצך יהוה בכל העמים מקצה )ארץ ועד קצה הארץ ועבדת שם אלהים אחרים אשר לא ידעת אתה ואבתיך עץ ואבן… (דברים כח:נח-סד)

There are no guarantees – but there are hopes, and promises of assistance and relationship and Bris; we can make it work, provided that this is what we are trying to do! But to simply congratulate ourselves over our newfound political hegemony and think that this is all there is supposed to be, is asinine, dangerous, and foolish. אין הדבר תלוי אלה בי – the matter rests in our hands for us to complete.

[28] It has been pointed out that people making Aliyah feel the need to justify their move – after much introspection, I fear I have no reasons, nor justifications. Other than the sentiments in this chapter.

[29] The famous story of David cutting the corner off of Shaul’s garment took place in one of he caves in the area.

[30] Where Shimshon grew up and lived.

[31] There is a famous story that recently, a British diplomat was taken up in a helicopter to see the land from above. He saw the green Eretz Yisrael, and the barren “West Bank”, and muttered, “Damn selfish Jews, they want to keep all the best parts for themselves.” Of course, he could not know how the land only blooms for its people – the same symbiotic relationship I am describing – and that it was all a wasteland before we returned.

[32] Hence the myriad of quasi-Messianic lovers of the Land who live as a teenager in love does, with an immature infatuation.

[33] As anyone who has made Aliyah can tell you, the realization that you are both, at once, “living the dream” (Thanks, NBN Marketing Department!), and adrift in a country and culture that is not, and will never be, yours….is crushing.

[34]  שופטים כא:כה

[35] שמואל א ה:ב

[36] מלכים ב א:ב

[37] אלימלך and נעמי left for monetary reasons, for example.

[38] Thanks, Monty Python’s Flying Circus!

[39] As an aside, I think this is wonderful pshat in the גמרא which says that Jerusalem/the Old City is closest to the entrance to Heaven – and Hell…(Gei Ben Hinnom, the valley from where Hell gets its name, is right outside the Old City – and today it is ironically, and hilariously, a lush green park. They may have paved Paradise to put up a parking lot, but they’ve also turned hell into a beautiful nature spot.)

[40] You thought I was talking about Meah Shearim, but that applies to Dati Leumi yishuvim as well, no?

[41] Despite many, many people’s insistences to the contrary.

[42] טהום – זו אדום… מדרש רבה בראשית א:ב

[43] Less of a clue, arguably, but more of an interest.

[44] This “otherness” – is it what a Jew is, or merely a product of his inability to figure it out?

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