Israel – Despite Everything
The period of the counting of the Omer was once a celebration and appreciation of the bounty of the land of Israel. To a great degree that aspect has been forgotten, along with an appreciation for the land itself. I am taking this opportunity to try to help correct the problem. The State of Israel has many detractors and critics, both from outside and inside. Sometimes, all the politics, criticism and social issues make us forget the significance of the land of Israel and the significance of having over six million Jews living in the land of Israel. Two Jewish states existed in Israel, the first lasting for 840 years, the second for 420 years. Even during the long exile that followed the Roman destruction of the Temple a continuous Jewish presence was maintained in Israel. The land was invaded by Arabs, Crusaders, Saracens, Mongols, Mamluks, Ottomans and the British, but through it all Jews not only remained there but produced monumental works of learning and liturgy. Rabbi Judah the Prince wrote the Mishnah in northern Israel in 200 CE and the Jerusalem Talmud was edited there in 350 CE. Rabbi Joseph Karo wrote the Code of Jewish Law in Safed in the 16th Century, and the song, Lechah Dodi, was composed by Rabbi Shlomoh Alkabetz, student of the great Kabbalist of Safed, Rabbi Yitzchak Luriah (AriZal) in the 16th Century.
During this period many Jews immigrated to Israel from other lands. The great scholar Nachmanides came from Spain and established a synagogue in Jerusalem in the 13th Century. In the time of Ottoman rule, groups of Hassidim came to Israel on the instruction of their leaders in Europe. The Gaon of Vilna sent many students to settle in Israel, and in the late 19th Century, the Zionist movement brought thousands of people to Israel to establish agricultural settlements and industry there. The attachment of the Jews to their land throughout over 1900 years of exile culminated in the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, now home to over six million Jews. Jews of the 21st century take for granted the presence of Jewish communities in Israel. From a historical point of view, however, the return of a people to their land after nineteen centuries of exile, the establishment of an independent Jewish state, and the ingathering of Jews from virtually every country in the world are miraculous and unprecedented events in history.
Land of the Spirit
The land is not only distinguished by its history, but also by its intrinsic, spiritual qualities. Most prophets either lived in Israel or prophesied about it. Jewish philosophers consider prophecy to be a product of the Land. Based on the principle that the structure and nature of the physical world reflects the underlying spiritual nature of reality, Rabbi Yehudah Halevi explains that the spiritual capacity to produce prophecy is similar to the physical capacity to grow crops. Different regions have the capacity to grow certain crops better than other places. So too, different areas have different spiritual influences and potentials. Israel has the capacity to cultivate prophecy, connection to God and intense spirituality more than any other place in the world. It is not a coincidence that many religions feel a special connection to Israel, that the bulk of the Bible was written in Israel and that the Psalms, which form the basis of prayer for literally hundreds of millions of people around the world, were written in Israel.
Of the 613 commandments of the Bible, 343 are directly dependent on the Land of Israel — that is, fully 56% of Jewish law is, in some way, contingent upon being in Israel. Even those commandments that are not directly dependent upon the land have a different and deeper spiritual dimension when performed in Israel.
The Shechinah Is Here
The Hebrew word Shechinah means “Divine Presence.” Although in reality, God permeates all of time and space equally, we are not able to perceive His presence equally in all times and all places. There are moments when God allows us more of a glimpse of the Divine Presence — at sunset towards the end of the Day of Atonement, for instance. There are also places where God allows us a greater degree of perception, such as Israel. The Torah calls Jerusalem the “Gates of Heaven” and our Sages point out that even after the destruction of the Temple, the Divine Presence has never left the Western Wall.
Tens of thousands of Jews from all over the world, representing every level of religiosity, and of knowledge, visit the Western Wall every year. The Western Wall, (the Kotel) is the westernmost retaining wall of the Temple Mount, and dates from the Second Temple era. Many Jews who visit have no knowledge of the Temple at all, many know little or nothing about Judaism or Jewish history. And yet, the Wall draws them like a magnet and often elicits from them deep spiritual feelings. For many people, a visit to the Wall has changed their lives by prompting them to investigate their Judaism. We believe that much of this remarkable energy is due to the fact that the “Shechinah never left the Western Wall.”
The Torah describes Israel as,
“A land that the Lord, your God, seeks out; the eyes of the Lord, your God, are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to year’s end.”
The degree to which Divine Providence is manifest in Israel is much greater than anywhere else in the world.
A striking example of this special Providence is described in the prophecies of exile and redemption. The Torah predicted that the Jews would be exiled from Israel and that during that time the land would be desolate —
“I will make the land desolate; and your enemies who dwell upon it will be desolate. And you, I will scatter among the nations…”
This ominous prediction is actually a blessing in disguise. God guarantees to the Jewish people that while they are in exile the land will not accept other inhabitants and will remain barren and desolate until their return. During the period of the first two Jewish commonwealths, the Land of Israel was renowned for its produce, was heavily forested and supported a large population. It was a land described by the Torah as “flowing with milk and honey,” a “land with streams of water, of springs and underground water coming forth in valley and mountain; A land of wheat, barley, grapes, figs, and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and date-honey.”
Contrast these descriptions with what eyewitnesses wrote about the land when the Jews where in exile. When Nachmanides immigrated to Israel in the 13th Century he wrote the following letter describing the desolation of Jerusalem:
”What shall I tell you about the land? There are so many forsaken places, and the desolation is great. It comes down to this: the more sacred the place, the more it has suffered – Jerusalem is most desolate, Judea more so than the Galilee. Yet in all its desolation it is an exceedingly good land.”
When Mark Twain visited Israel 600 years later, the landscape was just as bleak:
” …[a] desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds — a silent mournful expanse…A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action….We never saw a human being on the whole route….There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere… No landscape exists that is more tiresome to the eye than that which bounds the approaches to Jerusalem…Jerusalem is mournful, dreary and lifeless. I would not desire to live here. It is a hopeless, dreary, heartbroken land…Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes.”
Today Israel has flowered once again — it exports tulips to Holland, has a thriving, internationally acclaimed wine industry, and produces an incredible variety of fruits, from tropical pineapples, mangos and bananas to cold-climate fruits such as apples and pears. In the Jerusalem forest all the species that flourished in Biblical times, grow wild. Israel’s children have started to come home and the land is welcoming them. As Ezekiel wrote some 2,500 years ago,
“But you, O mountains of Israel, shall give forth your branch and bear your fruit for My people Israel, for they are soon to come.”