Recently we have seen a renewal of Aliyah to Eretz Israel from several parts of the world. The desire to do Aliyah is a result of various reasons and contexts, but whatever reason brings a Jewish family or person to emigrate to Israel it is absolutely astonishing that they do so, even while Israel is going through a period of harsh struggle. The desire to do Aliyah keeps on.
In the parashah that we read last Sabbath in our synagogues, we read:
“And you will take possession of the land, and dwell in it, because I have given this land to you to ensure that you possess it” (BeMidbar 33, 53)
This brings us to one of the great tensions in Judaism and in Jewish history: the religious sense of the land of Israel. Its centrality is clear. Countless times the Tanakh tells us of the promise and the journey to the Land. Our story begins with Abraham and Sarah traveling to Canaan. From Shemot to Devarim we read of the journey of the people led by Moses to this land. The Tanakh ends with the authorization granted by King Coresh of Persia to the Israelites exiled in Babel to return to Eretz Israel.
The paradox is that we have spent more time in exile then in Eretz Israel!
There is a tension between, on the one hand, between Jewish monotheism (must understand haShem) as non-territorial where the universal G-d that transcends matter can be served and revered everywhere, and, on the other hand, the impossibility to live fully as a Jew outside of Israel. Otherwise, the Jews would not have received the order to go Eretz Israel in the first place, or even to return there later.
Why the incorporeal G-d, G-d that has no place, should be found in particular in that place? Can we experience G-d outside of Eretz Israel? If the answer is a simple “yes”, there would be no incentive to return to Eretz Israel. If the answer is a simply “No”, there would be no reason to continue to live as Jews outside of Eretz Israel, thus one of the great tensions of Jewish existence.
But what then is so special about Israel? The mystics have tried to give different answers to this question, but in general I am not kin to a certain type of mysticism… so is there a way to explain this without mysticism?
The Torah is not just a code of laws for an individual to attain perfection. The Torah is the basis for the creation of a society, a nation, a culture that is just and righteous.
The Torah is exactly the opposite of Gnosticism and other philosophies that deny the world and consider religion as “the ascent of the soul toward the ethereal realm of the spirit,” which unfortunately sometimes has infiltrated even in certain Jewish mystic circles. Rather, the goal of the Jews is to create a society that has the Divine Presence in their midst. The peculiarity of Eretz Israel is that it is the only place in the world where Jews have been able to create a society based on Torah.
But we still haven’t answered the question as to why exactly that geographical perimeter had to be Eretz Israel! Is it because Israel has always been a strategic place where three continents meet, Europe, Africa and Asia? That place which lacks the fertile lands of the Nile delta, or the crescent between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, or the oil of Saudi Arabia. So it could not be the basis of an empire, but its position has always been coveted by empires and thus politically vulnerable. This is an area that is also ecologically vulnerable, because its water resources depend on rainfall which is unpredictable in this region of the world. Thus its’ existence as a viable country has never been obvious and Israelis have always lived with this existence as if it were a miracle.
Being geographically and demographically small, Israel has always depended on its’ people’s labor. This will, depends on the level of morale and sense of mission of the people. Therefore, the prophets knew that without social justice and divine vocation, the people would suffer again.
History teaches us that the project to build a society under divine sovereignty in such a vulnerable territory is the most risky of any high-risk strategy, but despite this, for centuries and even now again, we know that it is a risk worth taking .
*Eliezer Di Martino is the Chief Rabbi of Trieste