In 1897, Theodore Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. Though he defined himself as a secular Jew to whom Judaism was just an afterthought he gave form to a 2000 year old dream: the longing of the Jewish people to return home to the land of Israel.
At the beginning of the early modern Zionist enterprise, one of the proposed sites for a Jewish State was a very large tract of land called Grant’s island, in upstate New York, near Niagara falls. This idea, to create a ‘Jewish territory,’ autonomously managed by the Jewish people, was actually considered by a Congressional sub-committee, but the early Zionists, despite their secular leanings, voted down all of these proposals in favor of the land of Israel.
A number of years ago, the summer-camp where I was teaching visited Grant’s island on the way to Niagara Falls. My daughter, recounting the experience later, said, only half-jokingly, “Abba, we should have taken it!”
Think about it. The State of Israel in Grant’s island, New York. Nestled in the mountains between America and Canada, imagine how much easier it would have been. There certainly would have been no water shortage and no reserve duty either! Yet, despite all of our differences and different opinions, the Jewish people completely rejected the notion of a Jewish home anywhere else but in the land of Israel. Why?
This week’s portion, Va’Etchanan, challenges us with this very question, over three thousand years ago — “Va’Etchanan El Hashem” (And I beseeched G-d”) (Devarim3: 23)
Moshe makes his last request, and begs G-d to allow him to enter the land. And G-d, in one of the most tragic moments in the Torah, refuses.
Why does the Torah need to share this with us? And why did Moshe so yearn to enter the land of Israel? And why do I need to know that Moshe wanted to enter the land?
In fact, why do we need to be in the land of Israel at all? The Jewish people had already conquered the kingdoms east of the Jordan River and could have lived just fine, without ever crossing the Jordan River. In fact, the land was apparently so lush and fertile, that two tribes (Re’uven and Gad) wanted to stay there and worked out a deal with Moshe to remain in the ‘Ever Ha’Yarden,’ the other side of the Jordan River, building their cities and homes outside of the land of Israel! The ‘Ever Ha’Yarden,’ it seems, was the Grant Island of Moshe’s generation. So, what is this need to live specifically in the land of Israel?
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In 1948, when we built the State of Israel out of the ashes of Auschwitz and Treblinka, we were a people with a mission. We had no choice. There was simply nowhere else to go. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were wallowing in the DP camps all over Europe, in horrible conditions, and nobody wanted us.
The doors of England, the United States, and Canada remained largely closed to Jewish immigration. Most of Europe was a Jewish cemetery, and there was clearly no future for the Jews in those places. And Israel, then mandated by the British as ‘Palestine,’ was impossible to get in to, under the severe limitations of the notorious White Paper, which since 1939, had limited Jewish immigration into Palestine to 15,000 Jews a year.
So we had to have a State; a place Jews would always be able to go, where their rights would be guaranteed, so that when the next pogrom came, there would, at least in one place, be an open door. And we succeeded, because we had no choice.
Today, Jews have plenty of choices. We can live almost anywhere in the world. Today, a Jew can even go to Germany. We can live fulfilled Jewish lives in Teaneck or Boca Raton, London, Los Angeles, or Woodmere. So why do we need a Jewish State?
Clearly, Moshe’s desire and the Jewish (G-d’s) decision to cross over the Jordan and enter the land of Israel, was not because the Jewish people had no choice. They had plenty of choice, as we mentioned above. They could all have stayed very happily on the lands east of the Jordan River, having conquered the kingdoms of Balak, Sichon and Og, without ever having to go to war against the seven Canaanite nations.
Perhaps Moshe is sharing his yearning to demonstrate that there is something more, so much more, to living in the land of Israel.
In fact, moving to Israel because one has no choice is like getting married to someone because you think there is nobody else. And while a person could certainly make a good marriage out of such a challenging beginning, it certainly isn’t the ideal.
So what is this need to be in the land of Israel?
Each of us relates to and is inspired by different places. Sometimes you walk into a room or a house, and it just feels right. And sometimes, you get this feeling that you are in a place that just isn’t ‘right’ for you. It is good to trust those instincts, because that is your soul talking to you. And you cannot fully accomplish all the things you could do in this world, if you are in a place you were not meant to be in.
Just as this is true for a person, it is true for a people. Each nation has its place. And only in that place, can that nation ever become all it was meant to be. The French were meant to be in France, just as the Irish were meant to be in Ireland. The beautiful, haunting music of the Celts would never have come to be, if the Irish were living in Arizona. They were meant to be in Ireland. That is why each land produces many different things that flow from the love relationship that develops between a people and its land.
We, too, have a home; a land that is where we are meant to be; a land that has been waiting for us to come home for two thousand years. And we, the Jewish people, can never become all that we are meant to be, and the world will never receive all that it is meant to gain from the Jewish people, unless we are in the land of Israel. Trying to figure out why that is, by analyzing history or finding logical alternatives, is as futile as trying to convince a person you have found another woman who is logically a much better choice for him. You can’t argue with love.
There was a time when a chance to walk down the narrow alleys of the old city of Jerusalem and see the Kotel, would have filled our hearts with joy and wonder. Not so long ago, the idea of standing on top of the Golan Heights, the Bashan of the Bible, looking down on the Sea of Galilee with Tiberias and Tsfat across the bay, would have seemed nothing short of incredible.
And yet today so many Jews have never even visited Israel! Maybe we haven’t yet become the nation we are meant to be, and so we haven’t earned living in this land in peace. But one thing is certain: We would not have a State of Israel if Jews weren’t willing to go there. And we will lose it just as certainly, if Jews stop going there.
Which would mean we would lose who we really are — because when we come home to the place we were born as a people, we discover a part of ourselves.
A version of this column appeared in 2012.