Judaism: Mattot-Masei Lead Us Home
Rabbi Lazer GurkowRabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.
What Is It?
What is it with the Jews and Israel? Take me for example; my family hasn’t lived in Israel for centuries. In fact I have no idea how far back I need to trace my family history back to Israel. I’ve lived in North America all my life, but when I land in Israel my first thought is, I’m home… It’s so nice to be home.
I can see where my Canadian neighbors would lose patience with me. Canada gives me a comfortable home, pays for my healthcare (happily collects my taxes…) and protects me with its security services, yet when I go to Israel, from whom I receive none of the above, I feel at home.
My parents recently sold my childhood home. I have sentimental feelings for that house and will point it out to my children when and if I drive past, but I won’t call it home. I’ll tell them it used to be my home. Yet, my grandparents, parents and I haven’t lived in Israel for generations and Israel is my home.
No country in the world commands similar sentiment.
Take an Irish man out of Ireland and within three generations his grandchildren will be oblivious to his homeland. The same is true for the French and Ukrainians. I know this for a fact because my parents were born in the Ukraine and I have no Ukrainian sentiment. But Israel, that’s my home. What is it about Israel that draws millions of Jews though they have never set foot there their entire life?
Out of Country
ironically, the answer lays in the fact that the Jewish nation wasn’t born in its land, but on a small mountain in the Sinai desert. Israel lived its first forty years outside of its land and thrived as a people. In fact they were driven from their land twice, once by Babylon in 420 BCE and again by Rome in 69 CE. In all, most Jews spent more time outside of Israel than in it.
In contradistinction to every other nation, Jews don’t need a land to be a People. The French nation is a product of its land. Living in that climate, geography and topography drives people to behave in a particular fashion that forms the culture of France. Take away France and there can be no French. Italians were born into nationhood by virtue of Italy. The same is true of the British, Germans, Irish and Russians. They all depend on their land to form their nation.
The deepest sentiment of nationhood is patriotism, which is a desire to protect a land. Without a land to protect there is no patriotism. I know people will rush to say that patriotism is as much a fight for ideals, culture and a way of life, as it is for land, but the fact is that nations don’t die to defend ideas. They die to defend a land. With a land, they have a way of life they would die to protect. Without a land to give home and permanence to their way of life there is nothing to fight for. The old timers, who remember the land from their youth, might continue to raise the flag, but the next generation will regard the old flag with indifference. This is precisely why one can take an Irish family out of Ireland and expect its Irish roots to fade in two or three generations.
Nations and Religions
Jews are different because Jews are not just a nation, they are also a religion. The difference between nations and religions is that nations die to defend lands, religions fight to defend ideas. Ideas are to faith, what country is to nation; sacred ground. This is why religions aren’t land based. They can thrive anywhere.
Judaism wasn’t born in Israel because Judaism, as a religion, isn’t rooted in its land. It is a sacred set of ideas, for which Jews are perfectly willing to die and which can survive anywhere. But unlike other religions, Judaism also has a land on which it thrives. It is a religion and a nation. Its nationhood is unique in the family of nations because it wasn’t founded on its land. It is founded on its religion and it is the religion that gave the nation its land.
G-d took our ancestors out of Egypt and not only promised them a land, but demarcated its boundaries. He gave Moses specific landmarks and drew up a map of its borders.# Jews don’t belong to Israel; Israel belongs to the Jews. The French belong to France, because France defines the French. Israel, the land, doesn’t define Israel, the nation. The nation was defined by G-d and then given its land.
The land is a feature of the religion. G-d gave Israel to the Jews because the Holy Land is most conducive to a Holy People. A nation that must rise above petty distractions and dedicate its children to eternal values and a Divine mandate requires a land that supports its commitment. The rarified atmosphere of the Holy Land makes it easier to be devout.
I pray as a Jew, study as a Jew, believe as a Jew and practice as a Jew without restriction, but I am not in a land designed by G-d for Judaism.
Our sages taught that it is easier to understand the Torah when it is studied in Israel. Many of the commandments apply only in Israel. Living in Israel is conducive to faith in G-d. Israel fits the Jewish mandate like a hand to a glove. Israel isn’t home to Jews because they lived there in the past. Jews regard Israel as home because, more than anywhere else, Israel is where Judaism comes alive. Judaism lives in Israel and visiting the home of their religion makes even Diaspora Jews feel at home.
Home Sweet Home
I was born in the United States and live in Canada. As a citizen I feel great loyalty to the countries of my birth and residence. I am grateful to these countries for my home and for the freedoms in which I live. I pay my taxes happily and perform my civic duties proudly. As a citizen, I am perfectly at home.
But I am more than a citizen. At essence, deep in the root of my heart, I am a member of my faith and my religious home is in Israel. I am fortunate to live in a country that grants us religious freedom, but even my religion is a foreign transplant here. I pray as a Jew, study as a Jew, believe as a Jew and practice as a Jew without restriction, but I am not in a land designed by G-d for Judaism.
In Israel I am religiously at home. Everything falls into place. The land itself is holy. Its spirit resonates with mine, its rhythms match my own and its history is my-story. I thrive Jewishly in Israel because the very air I breathe there is Jewish. G-d granted it to my ancestors so they would practice Judaism there and when He did, He made it conducive to Judaism.
Jewish practice is natural in Israel. Jewish observance is normal in Israel and that makes it home.