Taking Israel for Granted
The Talmud in Tractate Chulin says something quite astonishing. It states that “idolaters outside of Israel are not really idolaters, they are just following the customs of their ancestors.” In other words, authentic idolatry only exists in Israel! Now that is a shocking statement, because it appears that Israel, the holy land, the land of prophecy, the land where all the commandments apply, the land where almost all the prophets lived, where we make pilgrimage to the Temple and Jerusalem, the place which is the gateway, the bridge between this world and the world to come, sha’ar hashomayim, the gates of heaven, that is the place of idolatry?? How could the Sages say that?
One of the great Kabbalists, Rabbi Yeshaya Halevi Horowitz of Frankfurt-on-Maine, explains that the land of Israel is an intensifier, 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 his book, To Jerusalem and Back, that Israel is a country where everything is completely normal, except for one thing. In Israel, you cannot take your existence for granted. That is true nowadays because of the Arab hatred for us, but it was true for all of history, we could not take existence for granted because we have to continually look toward heaven and pray to G-d for rain, peace, prosperity and security.
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 “old man,” it means “old” as in an “old pair of shoes.” 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. This implies that the criticism of the Jewish people in this verse is that we didn’t have a feeling of 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 seventieth 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 existence of 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.