This week, I had the opportunity to show visitors some of the beauties and wonders of the Holy Land. It gave me a chance to relive the magic of experiencing the Land for the first time and to be blown away by its immeasurable holiness and value to the Jewish Nation. Wherever we went, be it museums, archeological sites, settlements, the tombs of our Forefathers, Yad Vashem, the Dead Sea, or walking the streets of Jerusalem, the experience is 1000% Jewish. Everything is Jewish here: the mountains, the stones of the buildings, the trees, the sky, the towns, the shopping centers, the air you breathe, the overpowering, all-encompassing holiness permeates everything with such a profound saturation, that even the things that you wouldn’t think of being holy or Jewish, like Madison Avenue style billboards or Arab neighborhoods, are dwarfed in the transcendental Jewishness of the Land and have no lasting impact, nor are able to blemish the towering holiness of Eretz Yisrael.
In contrast, whenever they spoke about America, I had a terrible feeling of coldness, recalling the utter gentileness of the United States. There, everything is gentile. The streets are gentile, the faces are gentile, the mountains are gentile, the air isn’t air, the language is gentile, the signs are gentile, the stores are gentile, the historic monuments are gentile, the culture is gentile, gentile, gentile, gentile, gentile.
I don’t know how Jews can live there. Someone who is assimilated and estranged from his roots, I can understand that he doesn’t feel the emptiness and strangeness of living in an unholy foreign land. But for a Jew who cares about being a Jew, and who cares about Judaism, I can’t understand how he can live in a gentile land. If he was born there and doesn’t know anything else, then that’s what he used to – he thinks that’s all there is. But for a Jew who has experienced Israel, I don’t understand how he can tolerate living anywhere else. Why would anyone want to live in a gentile land amongst the gentiles when he or she can live in the Jewish Land? Even for people who complain that Israeli society is secular, it is still the Holy Land. The holiness pervades everything, making it a million times holier and more Jewish than anywhere else in the world. How can an Orthodox Jew live in a foreign land? Of his own will and choice? I don’t understand.
The truth is that not everyone feels things so deeply. Even in the days of the Exodus, four-fifths of the Jews didn’t want to leave Egypt and died in the plague of darkness. And in the wilderness, the Spies cooled the hearts of the people and dissuaded them from journeying on to the Land, a national disaster that haunts us until today. Even in the time of Ezra, when the exiled Jews were allowed to return to Israel and build the Temple, the majority remained in Babylon, unwilling to give up their mansions and businesses, as the “Kuzari” makes clear (Kuzari, 2:24).
After re-experiencing Israel this week, more than ever, I thank G-d that I’m here. I thank G-d that He opened my eyes and allowed me to see the difference. I thank G-d that He gave me a new heart to feel the difference. I thank G-d that he led me to enlightened teachers who could make me understand that Torah was much more than keeping kashrut and Shabbat.
After saying goodbye to the visitors at the airport, I once again got down on my knees and kissed the ground that G-d gave to our Forefathers. How thankful I was that I wasn’t boarding an airplane and flying away from the Land. How could somebody? How was it possible? Truthfully, I don’t understand.