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September 1, 2015 | 17th Elul 5775

The real Israel II

Galilee Diary #193
August 8, 2004
Marc Rosenstein

The Hasidic rebbe, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, made a brief and tumultuous visit to Israel from the Ukraine, just at the time of Napoleon’s invasion in 1799; indeed, Rabbi Nachman decided to leave for home right in the middle of the siege of Acco, and due to lack of a common language, ended up setting sail on a Turkish warship. Somehow he escaped the adventure by the skin of his teeth. I think his comments after his trip are relevant to us:

…There is no visible difference between the land of Israel and any other land, though this is not to say that it is the same as any other, and even so the land of Israel is very, very holy, and happy is he who is able to tread even four cubits upon its soil… And the land of Israel is truly different and utterly distinct from every other land in every respect… Yet even so in the material sense the eye of man can distinguish no difference between the land of Israel and any other land; only he who has achieved faith in its holiness can discern a slight difference.

It has been documented that for many modern Jews, especially teenagers and college students, a visit to Israel – even a ten-day “Birthright” trip – can serve as a trigger for participants to seek to explore, deepen, and intensify their Jewish identities. The close-up encounter with the attempt to build a society that is permeated with Jewish culture, the sense of connectedness to historical roots, the hints of romantic authenticity that still can be found here – resonate for many visitors, so that they relate to their own Jewishness differently after their return.

However, Rabbi Nachman’s caveat is important: if you don’t start out with a belief that there is something holy about Israel, that you as a Jew have a special relationship to it, then it looks an awful lot like Istanbul, with its somewhat weird mix of European and middle eastern culture. This may be a holy land, but we have more than our share of child abuse, gangland murders, trafficking in women, pollution, rude drivers, drug addiction, etc. etc. Not to mention a climate that is often pretty uncomfortable. To a visitor with no predisposition to relate to Israel beyond its everyday reality, there are better vacation spots. But that’s just the point: Jews have always come with such a predisposition, based on a whole bank of preformed impressions from the Bible, from rabbinic literature, from holiday liturgy and customs. If you come with no such background, there is the danger that what you find will simply put you off – without prior belief, there is no magic. Today, many Jews indeed come with little or no cultural baggage, and are left with a relationship based only on thrills, prestige, or victimhood (“solidarity” – “all the world wants the Jews dead”). This is a relationship that remains one-dimensional, and has little real carry-over meaning in day-to-day Jewish life in the Diaspora.

If on the other hand you come with a detailed mythical Israel in mind, there is the danger that the dissonance between myth and reality will be even more alienating, and you will be left with a shattered myth and an unattractive reality. However, it seems to me that this dissonance is exactly where the significance of Israel lies: the earthly, real Israel is our desperate and inspiring attempt to do what Don Quixote couldn’t do in Spain: to turn the dissonance between ideal and real into harmony; to take the images of our past utopia and use them as blueprints for building a real utopia. Modern Israel represents the opportunity to build a society and a state based on Jewish culture and Jewish values, and no one is going to build it for us. If it troubles us that the land of milk and honey stinks with pollution and echoes with the cries of the poor, that the grand moral structure of Jewish law has been distorted by small-minded leaders jockeying for political power – that is not a cause for disillusionment, but a challenge to be addressed. But if we don’t know enough to be troubled by the dissonance, then it’s not a holy land for us. Our connection to this place ultimately is based on our connection to a complex mixture of belief, history, culture, and values that make up our tradition. Educating ourselves and our children in this tradition is the only way we can ground and guarantee our and their connection to Israel.

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