The Talmud in Tractate Chulin says something quite astonishing. It states that “pagans outside of Israel are not really pagans, they are just following the customs of their ancestors.” In other words, authentic idolatry only exists in Israel! Now that is an astounding statement, because it appears that Israel, the holy land, the land of prophecy, the land where all the commandments apply, the land where all the prophets lived, where we pilgrimage to the Temple, Jerusalem, the place which is the gateway, the bridge between this world and the world to come, I mean, the sha’ar hashomayim, the gates of heaven etc. How could the Sages say that?
And there is another very interesting statement which is actually found in a Rabbinic commentary, the Midrash, on the Song of Songs on the verse that says: ‘I washed my feet, how can I get them dirty again?’ The Midrash understands that this statement refers to the reluctance of the Jews exiled to Babylon after the destruction of the first Temple, to return to Israel.
At the time of the building of the second Temple, Ezra and Nechemia invited the Jews of Babylon to come to Israel to join in rebuilding the Temple, Jerusalem and the Land of Israel. Most Jews didn’t come back. Only a small minority of Jews came back to the land of Israel. What was the excuse of the Jews who didn’t come? Their excuse was that “we washed our feet, how can we get them dirty.” AS the Midrash puts it, “We have washed our feet of idol worship and sin. If we go back to Israel we are scared that we will get dirty again, and return to idolatry because Israel will draw us to it.”
One of the great Kabbalists, Rabbi Yeshaya Halevi Horowitz of Frankfurt-on-Maine, explains that the land of Israel is an intensifier, it is like a magnifying lens. The nature of Israel is that it intensifies and deepens anything spiritual. So if you are inspired, and turning towards G-d, Israel will intensify that feeling, magnify that inspiration and deepen that connection. It will make you more passionate and your inspiration more real and more meaningful. Unfortunately it also will intensify the negative, and magnify evil passions. The land of Israel doesn’t tolerate inertia. It doesn’t like people who are doing things “just because.”
Israel obligates its inhabitants to think. They must think about rain and water, about security and, ultimately about existence. In other lands to you can take everything for granted and just coast along. Israel pushes you to evaluate, reevaluate and be passionate about your beliefs. It is a land opposed to stagnation and apathy. Saul Bellow, in one of his books, I think it is called, To Jerusalem and back. He says that Israel is a country where everything is pretty much normal. He says, you can take everything for granted except for one thing. What is that? Existence. You can’t take your existence for granted. And the truth is, that is true nowadays because of the Arab hatred for us but it was true for centuries, we couldn’t take existence for granted because we have to continually look toward heaven and pray to G-d for rain.
Just before the prophecies about exile, G-d says to the Jewish people that noshantem ba’aretz – you will become old in the land. Noshantem ba’aretz – you will become old. Interesting, because the Hebrew word noshantem doesn’t mean old, as in an old man, it means old as in an old pair of shoes. You know in English, we talk about old and new, young and old. So the word old, is the opposite of the word new if you are talking about an object. You don’t talk about an old man and a new man, an old woman and a new woman. You talk about an old man and a young man, an old woman and a young woman. In Hebrew, the word for an old person is zaken and the word for young is tza’ir. When the Torah uses the term noshantem – you will become old in the land, the terminology it uses is not the old which is the opposite of young but old which is the opposite of new. And the criticism of the Jewish people in this verse is that we didn’t have a feeling renewal or newness. We were wearing out and getting old and taking things for granted. One of the most important components of living in Israel is to not take anything for granted.
We just celebrated the sixty-ninth anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel. One of the lessons we should learn, especially for those of us who were born after Israel was established, and have grown up with the State, is to not take it for granted. We can get on a plane, go to Israel, pray at the Western Wall, take tours all over the land, have excellent kosher wine and food, study Torah there and visit the largest Jewish community in the world. All of the above are things that the vast majority of Jews for most of our history were not able to do at all. The State of Israel is something that we cannot take for granted. This is something that we are obligated to thank G-d for continuously.
Israel is a place that intensifies – not just for those living there – but also for all those living at a time when Israel is so accessible. Israel obligates us to be passionate, to be intense, to be appreciative and not to operate by inertia.