Barely a day passes without the Land being in the headlines. And barely a day passes without you and I looking at the small print to find out what's happening.
Two questions: Why does a small country with so little apparent economic influence or strategic importance dominate the news? And why are all Jews, religious and secular, so interested in events there?
The fact that Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, features in the news so frequently is symptomatic of its prominent role in the process of change that is shaping the future. And the involvement and concern we feel for the Land indicates its deep connection with the core of our being. None of our people are casual about their relationship with the Land. Even when Israel is in no direct danger, the connection is alive, and any discussion about the political situation there is likely to be stormy.1
About 15 years ago, one of my friends was sent to awaken an awareness of Judaism in Russia. This was during the Brezhnev era, when such activities had to be carried out in secret, avoiding the ever-present eyes of government agents.
He met many Jews who had applied for exit visas to Eretz Yisrael, but whose requests were denied. From the time they made their application, opportunities to advance professionally were denied them, and often they would lose their jobs entirely. Nevertheless, with a tenacity that befits the children of "a stiff-necked people," they applied again and again.
My friend asked one of these refuseniks how long he had been waiting to go to Eretz Yisrael.
"For 2,000 years," the man answered.
The most important dimension of the story is its epilogue. Last winter, I met the man in Eretz Yisrael. His wish, and that of hundreds of thousands of his brethren, has finally been granted. He has settled into one of the suburbs of Jerusalem, and is learning Hebrew.
This is a unique period in history. Dreams that are 2,000 years old are being consummated. And this is merely a foretaste of things to come.
There is no way that anyone can view the return of the Jewish people to Eretz Yisrael, and the spreading of Jewish settlement throughout the Land, without feeling the imminence of Redemption.
Let's not fool ourselves. The Redemption is not yet a fact, and Jews in Eretz Yisrael have constant reminders that they too remain in Exile, the Intifada and the Scuds being only the latest. But that is only one dimension, and a secondary one. The fact that after 2,000 years, there are millions of Jews in Eretz Yisrael, that the deserts are blossoming and ancient cities are being rebuilt, that children laugh in the streets of Jerusalem, is a miracle made possible only because the time for Redemption is near.
Just how the present day should be described is a matter for debate: Should this ongoing miracle be called an intimation of the Redemption, a glance from afar, or should another term be used? The man in the street, both in Eretz Yisrael and in the Diaspora, has little interest in such abstractions. He knows about the travails the Jews endured journeying from nation to nation throughout the Exile, and feels that for our people as a whole, this stage is over; the Jews have returned to their homeland.
Why? It is not because the Land possesses a nice climate (though it does), nor because our people have created an exciting society there since their return (though they have). We care because Eretz Yisrael is part of our spiritual heritage. It is the home of our fathers' fathers' fathers, and of our children's children's children. Our Rabbis2 tell us that every Jew possesses a portion in Eretz Yisrael -- an actual piece of land.
And Eretz Yisrael possesses a portion of every Jew; a piece of our heart and soul.
On the other hand, within the present conditions, despite the connection we share with Eretz Yisrael, most Jews are not moving there just yet. Indeed, the majority of those who have made aliyah to Eretz Yisrael have come out of need, not out of desire. We are happy, or at the very least, familiar, with our present-day circumstances and do not want to exchange them for a new frame of reference that we fear will be too challenging.
This is one of the reasons the Reform movement originally struck out all references to Eretz Yisrael and the Redemption from its prayer book. They were concerned only with the here and now.
But after the Second World War, and to a greater extent after 1948, such an approach was no longer possible and the books were altered. Today, whether or not he makes aliyah, every Jew now realizes that what happens in Eretz Yisrael is happening to him.
And a lot has been happening. The sheer volume of news is staggering. The fact that the attention of the world is focused on Eretz Yisrael is not coincidental. Eretz Yisrael is intended to be the center of world attention.
The other nations, and perhaps many Israelis, may not be aware of the real reason. But time and again, the world is forced to notice that what takes place in Eretz Yisrael influences the whole planet.
The events occurring in Eretz Yisrael are not always pleasant. This is because we are still in Exile. For Exile is not merely a geographic condition.3 Quite the contrary, the fundamental characteristic of Exile is the blurred vision of the truth which it induces. The truth is not hidden entirely, but the way in which it is manifest requires substantial decoding.
Unraveling the messages of Exile and understanding their intent hastens the coming of the time when decoding will no longer be necessary. Our awareness of what Eretz Yisrael means will speed the coming of the time when "a great congregation will return there";4 Jews from all over the world will stream to Eretz Yisrael, celebrating the Redemption.
1. Appreciating the existence of such a connection within all of our fellow Jews will facilitate the process of communication between the different factions of the Jewish community. No group has a monopoly on genuine concern for Eretz Yisrael. A Jewish radical who supports the PLO does so because Eretz Yisrael is important to him and this is his way of expressing his concern. When members of different factions appreciate that they share a kinship, they can share views more readily. When such an approach is adopted, even though a consensus is not reached, the differences that remain will be between brothers.
2. There are halachic authorities (e.g., Responsa of Rabbeinu Meir ben Baruch, Responsa 536, Otzar HaGeonim, Kiddushin, sec. 146) which state that every Jew possesses four square cubits in Eretz Yisrael. Moreover, on the basis of this concept, these authorities apply certain principles of Jewish business law that are relevant only when a person owns real estate.
3. For this reason, even Jews living in Eretz Yisrael recite "Because of our sins, we are exiled from our land..." (Festival musaf liturgy, Siddur Tehillat HaShem, p. 258) and other prayers reflecting our desire to return from exile.
4. Jeremiah 31:8. See Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Melachim 11:4, 12:1,5, which explains that in the Era of the Redemption, all Jews will return to Eretz Yisrael and live there in freedom, peace, and prosperity.
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