A Promised Mental Landscape

Read HERE or below (without notes and formatting) my recent devar torah on Lekh Lekha, delivered at Congregation Sons of Israel of Amsterdam, NY.

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As the 6th day creeped into the 7th day, God turned to the Angels and said, “Today I am going to create a land named ‘Canaan.’ Canaan will be a very special place. One day I will lead a righteous man named Abraham into this land. Abraham will be the grandfather of a man named ‘Israel.’ The descendants of Israel will inherit this land that I will have promised to their righteous ancestors.

“This land Canaan will be full of beautiful mountains that reach the Heavens, of cool sand beneath the hot desert sun, of forests running wild amidst the arid air, of diverse animals of all shapes and sizes, and of calm beaches where the Children of Israel can look out into the  horizon and find that exact point where Heaven and Earth meet.

“The children of Israel will be learned. They will be prosperous. And they will be a holy light unto the other nations of the Earth.”

The Angels turned to the Kadosh Barukh Hu—the Holy Blessed One—and asked, “God, is it truly fair and just to grant such perfection beyond imagination to this one people in this one land? Are you not being too generous to the Children of Israel?”

Hearing these words, God was surprised. “You call this ‘generous?’” asked God. “Wait ‘til you see what happens when they try to talk with the neighbors.”

Politics in Israel are wild—internal politics, external politics; religious politics, secular politics. Driving in Israel is hectic. Bureaucracy in Israel is tough to deal with. Learning a new language is challenging. Leaving behind a family in one country, or even taking your family aong to a new country can be a very hard feat.

There are a million and a half reasons why we are here today in Amsterdam, NY, and not in Israel. Yet, I, as an American and as a Jew—in no particular order—struggle with living in Exile. Can I truly be a complete Jew if I live outside the Promised Land? Moreover, today—when we are blessed with Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel—how could I live a complete Jewish life outside the country that is now the obvious home to the largest number of Jews anywhere in the world?

Now in his 70s, acclaimed Israeli author A. B. Yehoshua, winner of the 1995 Israel Prize for Hebrew Literature, has been known to declare—regarding those of us in the USA or anywhere outside the State of Israel—Diaspora Jews are only “partially Jewish,” for Jews outside the Jewish land are only “playing with Judaism.”

Last year, when I was living in Israel, I went on a trip to visit an outpost—a Jewish village in the West Bank. Unlike the settlements of the West Bank, outposts are, by definition, rendered illegal by the Israeli government, and this particular outpost a target for demolition by the Israeli government. That being said, it was undeniable that the people living in the outpost were serious about their Jewishness. One man, a bald, bare-headed engineer and mechanic, who had spent a lot of his 20s living as an Israeli in England, told us American rabbinical students sitting before him: Judaism can only take place in the Land of Israel. To him, anything a rabbi ever says outside the Land of Israel is not Judaism; it is merely the invention of a rabbi, compensating for the loss of not living in Israel. In his eyes, Rabbinic law tries to make up for what Jews could not experience when not living in the Promised Land. Whereas a more Biblical Judaism would have us tithing our crops in the Land of Israel, or resting from our agricultural activities every seven years in the Land of Israel, the Jews of the Diaspora instead developed nuanced laws about what is kosher and what Shabbat looks like. Those were mitzvot we could take with us anywhere. We can keep kosher and keep Shabbat in or outside Israel. But mitzvot like tithing, the Sabbatical year, sacrifices, or going to Jerusalem for Festivals are all mitzvot that can only happen when we’re in the Promised Land.

Now, you may have once heard, “Everything in life is location, location, location.”

The Jewish response to this should really be, “Some things in life are location, location, location. Others aren’t.”

In fact, we’ll see today in Parashat Lekh Lekha—our Torah reading—that God promises to Abraham and his descendants a very special location, location, location. Of course, this is the Land of Canaan. Abraham is promised the Promised Land. But the 18th Century Chasidic teacher Rabbi Ya’akov Yosef of Polnoye was troubled by a verse I want us to read together. If you open up your Hertz chummashThe Pentateuch and Haftorahs edited by J. H. Hertz— to page 59; we’re looking at Genesis Chapter 17, Verse 8:

וְנָֽתַתִּ֣י לְ֠ךָ֠ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ֙ אַֽחֲרֶ֜יךָ אֵ֣ת ׀ אֶ֣רֶץ מְגֻרֶ֗יךָ

I will give to you and to your offspring the land in which you live:

אֵ֚ת כָּל־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן לַֽאֲחֻזַּ֖ת עוֹלָ֑ם

All of the Land of Canaan as an eternal possession;

וְהָיִ֥יתִי לָהֶ֖ם לֵֽא-לֹהִֽים:

And I shall be to them a God.

This verse was read by many rabbis to imply a conditional statement: If you live in this land which I give to you, then I can be a present God in your life. And those rabbis interpreted this to imply the opposite as well: If Jews don’t live in the land of Canaan, then God will not be present for them.

In a similar vein, Rabbi Ya’akov Yosef of Polnoye cites an early Rabbinic teaching found in the Babylonian Talmud:

כל הַדָּר בארץ ישראל

Anyone who lives in the Land of Israel

דומה כְּמִי שֶׁיֵּשׁ לוֹ א-לֽוֹהַּ;

Would appear like someone who has a God,

וכל הַדָּר בחוץ לארץ

But anyone who lives outside the Land of Israel

דומה כְּמִי שֶׁאֵין לוֹ א-לֽוֹהַּ;

Would appear like someone who has no God.

Now, Rabbi Ya’akov Yosef of Polnoye was not from Israel. He was from the Ukraine. Yet, he was a man of God, and he appeared that way to everyone who saw him. Rabbi Ya’akov Yosef of Polnoye was bothered by the hurtful paradox presented in a rabbinic teaching like this—that no matter how pious he was, for having never even been to Israel, he was likened to a man without God. And he was rightfully hurt by this.

But, this rabbi was not without hope. He recalls a teaching of the Ba’al Shem Tov—his teacher, and the founder of Chasidic thinking. The Ba’al Shem Tov says that we should compare that earleir teaching to another Rabbinic teaching from around the same time period.

The rabbis ask what the difference is between the followers of our forefather Abraham and the followers of the Moabite sorceror Balaam, who sought to curse the people Israel. The rabbis’ answer goes like this: If one is truly following Abraham’s ways, then this is a person who finds regular time for engaging with Torah and serving God throughout the day—and this person is called “דָּר בְּאֶֽרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל” (“dar be’eretz yisra’el,” “one who lives in the Land of Israel”). Alternatively, if one ignores opportunities for Torah and for prayer, this is “דָּר בְּחוּץ לָאָֽרֶץ” (“dar behutz la’aretz,” “one who lives outside the Land”), and this person would appear not to have a God. This Landless, Godless ignorer of wisdom and prayer is a follower of Balaam.

So, Rabbi Ya’akov of Polnoye says it’s okay to be from Amsterdam, NY; and it’s okay to be from Polnoye in the Ukraine. The Promised Land is a mental space in which we must dwell. God promised us these enriching opportunities to connect with our tradition and to connect with our people, to connect with each other, to connect with prayer, with Torah and with God.

Of course, the Land of Israel—that physical country along the Mediterranean—is a holy space. But location does not matter here. It’s what we do with our time. Do we frequent Torah, or do we ignore it? Do we make time to talk to God, or do we leave no time for prayer? Do we give ourselves time to dwell in a headspace that is sacred, or do we fill our minds with nothing holy?

Abraham was told by God to leave the land of his birth, the headspace in which he grew up. And he was promised not only the Land of Israel, but a Yiddische Kopf, an alert Jewish brain.

For Jews, some things are location, location, location. But everything else in life—even the Land of Israel—is not location, location, location.

It’s time, time, time.

It’s connection, connection, connection.

It’s Torah, Torah, Torah.

It’s contemplation, contemplation, contemplation.

And that’s how to get to Israel.

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