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October 4, 2015 | 21st Tishrei 5776

Crossing the Border

January 11, 2004
Marc Rosenstein

Last week I flew from Toronto to New York, and when I handed my passport and customs form to the immigration officer, a big beefy guy with a blond crewcut, he asked, "I see you're an American citizen. Why do you live in Israel?" My mouth dropped. I couldn't even begin to answer, and was moved to smile as I contemplated the impossibility of explaining to him what I can hardly explain to myself – and briefly, yet. My smile did not cut it, and while I was searching for something to say, he continued, "You don't like it in the United States?" "No, that's not it, I do like the United States, it's just…" By then he had stamped my passport and handed it back to me without expression. What was he thinking? Does he ask this often? What answers does he get?

I guess I could have quoted him this midrash, from Sifrei, Re'eh:

It happened that Rabbi Judah ben Baterah and Rabbi Matyah ben Charash and Rabbi Chaninah ben Achi and Rabbi Joshua ben Yonatan were traveling abroad… When they remembered the land of Israel, they lifted up their eyes and their tears flowed, and they tore their clothes, and read this verse: "…When you have occupied [the land] and settled in it, take care to observe all the laws and rules that I have set before you this day." [Deuteronomy 11:31-32]. And they returned home, and said: "Dwelling in the land of Israel outweighs all of the commandments in the Torah."

Why do I live in Israel? Because no matter how emancipated we are in Chicago, no matter how rich a Jewish life we live in Toronto, no matter what wonderful traditions of social involvement we maintain in the North American Diaspora, it is still the next best thing to being there – there in the Promised Land, there in the only place where all the laws and rules are relevant. Note that the four rabbis in the midrash did not weep because they had been exiled, because they were persecuted or rootless. They were only on a business trip or maybe even a vacation cruise. They wept when they realized how much of the Torah they were setting aside by absenting themselves from Eretz Yisrael. In voluntarily leaving the land, even temporarily, they were abandoning dozens of "mitzvah opportunities."

Of course, the first thing that comes to mind when we think of "land-dependent mitzvot" is the whole complex of laws surrounding the Temple and the sacrifices. However, even in the absence of the Temple and sovereignty, there are many mitzvot that are only relevant within the borders of Eretz Yisrael: primarily agricultural laws such as tithing, and the sabbatical year. Traditionally, that's the understanding of what the rabbis were crying over.

For me, the midrash can also be understood in a less literal way. As a Jew in America, I am responsible for my own behavior as a Jew, for my own mitzvot, within a larger context that sees that responsibility as my own individual concern. As a Jew in a Jewish state, I am responsible for the behavior of the whole state according to Jewish values, within a larger context that sees the state as representing Judaism and the Jewish people – hence, the image of the state sanctifies – or profanes – God's name, whether we like it or not. Why were those four rabbis crying on their vacation? it's those of us who live here, with this unbearable responsibility, who should be crying.


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