How in the world can I convey to you the depth and breadth of emotions that I experienced over this past week in Israel?
At every intense moment, and there were plenty, I thought to myself, I wish you could be here so you could experience this yourself. Because there’s no way I could express with mere words what I felt so deeply in my heart. I wish we could have all been there experiencing it together.
Some of the experiences were cute, like the first time I tried paying for a taxi and my credit card wasn’t working. The taxi driver, being a fellow Jew, even though he didn’t know me for a hole in the wall, shrugged his shoulders. “Ain baaya. No problem.” And he let me go… It would have been nice to smile to one another and say, “Only in Israel.”
But there was so much more than just cute. What I really wanted you to experience were moments like Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and civilian victims of terror, at the cemetery in Gush Etzion. Gush Etzion was formally founded in 1943. But in 1948, during the War of Independence, one village in the Gush, Kfar Etzion, surrendered to the Arab army, and subsequently 127 Jewish inhabitants of the village were massacred. In 1967, the Jewish People reclaimed that land. But those 127 loom large over this community. It’s a community that was built on their blood. So you could just imagine what emotions are at their cemetery on Yom Hazikaron.
And as I’m standing there at the cemetery, I meet Hillel Fuld, the brother of Ari Fuld, Hy’d. Ari was a well-known pro-Israel activist who after being stabbed by an Arab terrorist, chased the terrorist, and shot the terrorist just one second before he attempted to stab someone else. Ari succumbed to his wounds. His brother, Hillel has continued in the ways of his brother with a larger-than-life love of the Jewish People and the State of Israel. To stand next to that beacon of strength… I wish you were there to feel it.
And then I look up and see Rabbi Dee and his daughters, and I just start crying, how could you not? A man who just a few weeks ago, had two daughters and his wife taken from him by an Arab terrorist. I watch as he walks over to the Fuld family, to give them hugs, to offer them words of comfort… I wish you were there to cry with me at such strength, at such Ahavas Yisrael, such love for a fellow Jew.
It was a beautiful ceremony, with soldiers, and poems, and tefillos. And then, almost on cue, all the young men and women spread out around the cemetery, visiting different graves, and they started singing. Softly at first, and then louder and louder. Acheinu kol beis Yisroel, songs of brotherhood. Esa einai, songs of devotion. And finally, the ultimate song of faith, Ani Ma’amin, I believe in Mashiach, I believe in the resurrection of the dead. To hear and feel those sentiments coming from those not-so-innocent voices of young adults and teens who know first-hand what loss is… I wish you were there to experience what faith in G-d sounds like, feels like, tastes like. It was so tangible.
And then, that evening to stand shoulder to shoulder with five thousand people, mostly Americans who had made Aliyah, and to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut together at a Tefilah organized by the Orthodox Union. Someone once suggested to me that celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut in America is like celebrating a birthday party without the birthday girl. It’s a nice analogy, but after celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut in Israel, I realize it doesn’t do justice. Yom Ha’atzmaut is not a birthday, it’s a wedding. It’s a wedding of a 2000-year-old bride who finally gets married.
I don’t even know why they put out chairs. Ten minutes into Hallel, the whole place was on their feet, dancing together – not just the teenagers, the adults! dancing with abandon. And singing together, Hodu laShem ki tov! Thank you, Hashem for you are good! You gave us this land! The land that we had yearned for, cried for, died for. You kept Your promise. Thank you!… I wish you were there to experience true chibas ha’aretz, authentic love of the land. Because nothing I could say or do can give you a sense of what you have experienced at that moment.
I wish you were there with me to meet the people of Israel. You have to be a romantic to live in Israel. The country is so small, but every person is larger than life. Our lives here are so predictable. In Israel, every person, on some level, is living a great drama. And that’s true for the people behind the counter to the people in high-tech, but it’s especially for the leaders of the country. I am not talking about political leaders. I wish you were there with me to meet Natan Sharansky, a man who inspired and inspires all of us to never give up hope. I wish you were there with me to meet the Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Dovid Lau, the great poseik, Rav Asher Weiss, and the endless number of scholars who saturate the land with fully-immersive Torah study, with holiness. I wish you were there with me to meet Racheli Fraenkel, the mother of one of “the three boys” who was brutally murdered. During those times while we all prayed for the safety of those boys and ever since she has become a matriarch, Mama Rochel, is a beacon of life and light, of Torah scholarship and Jewish leadership. I was so moved to speak to her, I couldn’t talk. I just stood there, mumbled some words, while she patiently smiled… I wish you were there with me to stand next to greatness, to grasp the sparks of inspiration these people give off.
You see what I mean? How can I convey those experiences to you with words? You had to be there. Better yet, you have to be there. Our Jewish lives are so poor compared to the richness of Judaism in the Holy Land. And yes, there are reasons not to make Aliyah, good reasons! But we need to visit as often as we can. We need to dream of Israel and all it represents as often we can. We need to know that we may have beautiful houses here, but we are not home. I wish you were there. I wish we could all be there, to taste it, to feel it, to live it.
But there is one thing I am happy you were not there to see. As I am sure you know, Israel is in the midst of a crisis. The judicial reform, a proposal by the current Israeli government to curb some of the powers of the Israeli Supreme Court has set off a firestorm. And as I quickly learned, it’s no longer about judicial reform. There has always been some low-burning tension, a divide between the religious and secular elements of Israel, but that divide is quickly turning into an abyss… I am happy you were not there to hear from leading intellectuals, Chareidi and secular, who think this may be the beginning of the end. I am happy you were not there to watch as a politician on a panel to discuss judicial reform encouraged hecklers to disrupt his political opponent instead of engaging in dialogue. I am happy you were not there to see and hear the deafening roar of protestors trying to intimidate politicians and observers like me from having any form of meaningful conversations. I am happy you were not there to listen to American leaders of Jewry share how disconnected they feel from Israel due to the judicial reform and by extension how disenfranchised they feel from Judaism. I am happy you were not there to see their despair. I wiped away more tears at those discussions than anywhere else on this highly emotional trip.
I couldn’t help but think of all the Gemaras that speak about the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple; Hatred. Sinas chinam. Had the Jewish People united against the Romans, Jewish history would have looked very different. But as Josephus relates, instead, they divided themselves into factions. By the time they were done fighting one another, the Romans walked in and finished us off.
I couldn’t help but think of American history. The American Civil War broke out how many years after independence? 78 years later. To be around for 75 years is not that long. That’s a frightening thought… I am glad you did not have the experience of shuddering like I did.
At the end of Acharei Mos, Hashem tells us to act morally in the land of Israel, “lest the land vomit you out, V’lo saki ha’aretz es’chem.” Vomit is a harsh word to use to describe exile. The Torah could have written, you’ll be kicked out of the land. What imagery is G-d trying to convey by describing our exile from the land of Israel as the land throwing up?
Rashi asks us to imagine a prince, who his whole life only ate the greatest of delicacies. He had refined taste, a sophisticated palate, and because of that, a sensitive stomach (something all the Ashkenazim in this room can easily relate to). One day he eats something disgusting. A regular person, you and me, okay, we’ll manage. But the prince with his refined sensibilities, his stomach couldn’t handle it. And so, he threw up.
That’s what it means that the land will vomit us out if we do not act appropriately. It’s G-d’s way of conveying that the land of Israel is holy, it is kadosh. Holy things are sensitive, they are fragile and they need to be handled with care.
As proud as we are in the accomplishments of the State of Israel, and there is a lot to be proud of, we cannot take any of it for granted. It is holy and being holy, it is fragile.
To assume that since we made it this far, there is nothing stopping us. To say, as so many politicians said these past few days, that we are confident in the future of Israel is the height of hubris. 2000 years ago, the Jews in the land of Israel were confident. The Gemara records that while the Romans were massacring one half of a city, the other half was partying, arrogantly oblivious to the impending doom. Look how far that confidence got them. In a few months, I am sure I am going to receive the question I receive every year, “Why are we still mourning the Temple? Why do we still describe Jerusalem as destroyed?” Yes, Jerusalem today is magnificent. But it’s holy, and precisely because it’s so holy, it could so easily crumble.
What I took out of my trip to Israel, more than anything else, is the need to live with a heightened sense of kedusha, of holiness. What all the people I met in Israel shared in common – that taxi driver, the Fuld family, Rabbi Leo Dee, the teens singing in the Gush Etzion cemetery, the men and women dancing on Yom Ha’atzmaut, the Racheli Fraenkels, what they all have in common is that they live with a deep awareness of the fragility of it all. They have a delicacy and urgency to their being. They’ve learned the hard way to not take life for granted, and so they live every moment to the fullest. They do not assume that tomorrow will be better; they make it better. Precisely because of the fragility of life they live such rich and meaningful lives. That’s what holiness demands of us; to step it up, to not allow inertia to move us forward; holiness needs to be handled with care.
Eretz Yisrael is kadosh; we cannot take her for granted. We need to do everything in our ability to bring peace and understanding among its people and among all the Jewish people, and that starts here. And we need to pray today more than ever for the true and full return to Zion.
But the land of Israel is not the only thing that is holy. So are we. Kedoshim tih’yu. We have a mandate to recognize the holiness that exists within. We can live crude and coarse lives, where every day spills right into the next, and before we know it, it’s over. Or we could choose to live like those holy Israelis, with a deep recognition of the fragility of life, awakening ourselves to the sensitivity of our sleeping souls, to live on fire – just like they do b’eretz hakodesh, in the holy land.
May we merit to see the true rebuilding of the land of Israel, and may we live our lives, wherever we find ourselves, with the sensitivity, care, and passion that our inner holiness demands.