Are you planning a vacation? Let’s say you have enough money to go to Israel, but for the same price you can get an extra few days in Honolulu or San Juan. Where should you choose?
Of course, if you are a Jew living in Israel, you don’t have this question at all. It is halakhically forbidden to leave the Land of Israel simply to go on a pleasure jaunt overseas (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 531:4). This is because the Land of Israel is holy, and the rest of the world is not. Leaving Israel adversely affects a Jew’s holiness and blemishes his worship of G-d. This is what King David meant when he said, “For they have driven me out this day from being joined to the inheritance of the L-rd, saying, Go and serve other gods” (Shmuel 1, 26:19). Certainly, King David wouldn’t engage in idol worship, but as the Talmud explains, “Any Jew who lives outside the Land of Israel is like someone who has no G-d” (Ketubot 110b).
A Jew is only allowed to leave the Land of Israel to do a mitzvah, although Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch said that G-d would like us to see His wonders on earth.. He can go to the Diaspora to visit family, find a wife, or go on a business trip to make a livelihood, but to remain there is forbidden. Once he has accomplished his mitzvah, he must return to Israel. If his doctor tells him to go to Switzerland for some rest and quiet, that too is OK, and some authorities permit short visits to the gravesites of holy Tzaddikim.
But what about the strange breed of Jew who lives outside of the Land to begin with, like a fish out of water? Let’s say that due to the Roman conquest of ancient Israel, and the subsequent expulsion of the Jews, he was born in America. If he goes on a vacation to Paris or Hong Kong, he isn’t affecting his level of holiness, because his surroundings are impure to begin with wherever he is.
According to Jewish Law, the Diaspora possesses the spiritual status of a grave. Some graves are known for their hot dogs, while others have the aromas of expensive perfumes. Some graves are surrounded by beautiful beaches, while others have buildings that reach up to the sky. But a grave is a grave whether it is in New York or France. Whether a Jew visits Broadway or Bangkok, it doesn’t make a difference. A land filled with idol worship is spiritually polluting whether the idol is worshipped in English or Thai.
Sure, the vacationing Jew may have a grand time at the museums and theaters. And if he is religious and takes off his yarmulke for a few days, well, what’s the big sin in that? He can always wear a baseball cap to hide the fact that he’s Jewish.
However, if a Jew from America decides to vacation in Israel, then he is doing a mitzvah. Every four steps that he takes, he earns a place in the World to Come. In contrast, a Jew can walk all across the Outback in Australia, and all we will get is sore feet. Plus by spending his vacation money in Israel, the American Jew is helping the Jewish People resettle the Land. In boosting the economy of Israel by paying for hotel rooms and renting cars, he is playing an active part in Redemption.
The Israel Tourist Ministry reports that for every 100,000 tourists coming to visit Israel, the country gains 9 million dollars and 4,500 permanent places of employment. That’s nothing to scoff at.
One of the questions a Jew is asked by the Celestial Court when he gets to Heaven is “Did you look forward to the Redemption?” By having spent a vacation in Israel, he can answer, yes, he took a part in the rebuilding of the Jewish People in their Land. Chances are that he will also pray in a few minyans in Israel, go to the Kotel, and learn some Torah on his sightseeing trips. Each of these things infuses a Jew in Israel with a dose of spiritual adrenaline and fills the world with light. And there is a good chance that he will have a great time here too. Maybe even a better time than if he had decided to vacation in Honolulu. Because chances are that for the first time in his life he will feel like a genuine Jew, and not like a stranger in someone else’s land.
If he is crazy for beaches, well we have beaches too. And if he loves golf, there is even a golf course in the country. True, the cuisine may be more elegant in other places, but at least in Israel there is a pretty good chance that it’s kosher. And as far as Jewish kids go, after a vacation in Israel, they usually say that they had the best time of their lives. All in all, Israel can be pretty cool.
Surveys reveal that only about 15% of Diaspora Jews have visited Israel. To me, that’s embarrassing. How can it be that G-d gave us back our homeland and so many Jews don’t come? You can say it is hard to move to a country far away, but what’s the big deal about coming for a visit? It certainly isn’t because of the money. Snorkeling in the Caribbean and enjoying a gondola ride along stinking canals costs about the same. If you sneak into the closets of Jews in America and pull out their suitcases, you are sure to find baggage tickets still attached to the handles, with airport stops in Puerto Rico and Venice. If Jews can visit Florence and the Vatican, why not Jerusalem?
Regarding the claim that visiting Israel is dangerous. This simply isn’t true. Over a million tourists come to Israel each year. Over the last ten years, maybe a handful of them were the victims of terrorist killings. Statistically, there is more danger for a tourist in the mountains of South America, the highways of France, and the bars of Bangkok.
So when you are checking out your vacation options, be brave, be Jewish, and make the Holy Land number one on your list