Some thoughts about Israel after our recent congregational trip, expressed in my Shabbat sermon from 7/1/17 –
Just back from Israel – the Beth El trip – and to travel to Israel today is to both step back into the past, and also to look forward into the future. The past – both ancient and recent – is everywhere in Israel. In the north we stood in an excavated synagogue from the year 350 the CE, knowing that 1700 years ago Jews came together in that space to recite the words of the Shema, to listen to the reading of the Torah, to celebrate the festivals and Shabbat. On the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem we saw the remains of burnt out tanks and transport vehicles. They have been rusting in the hot sun since the War of Independence in 1948, still pock marked with the bullet holes of Arab guns trying to prevent the Jews from bringing supplies to their brothers and sisters in Israel’s most sacred city.
In the Israel Museum in Jerusalem we traveled back 4000 years as we looked at artifacts from the early Canaanite settlements in the land, and saw an Israelite altar that was in use 2000 years ago. But we also saw the Ayalon bullet factory from the mid 40s, where young Jews from the early days of the Yishuv ingeniously hid an entire bullet factory underneath a laundry mat, less than a half a mile from a major British post. These Jews – 19, 20, 21 years old – risked their lives every day to manufacture the ammunition that would enable the first Jewish soldiers in the modern era to defend their homeland. The entrance to the underground factory is located underneath a movable laundry machine, and to climb down into it is to have an immediate sense of the unique blend of genius, courage, and hutzpah that defines Israel to this very day.
But Israel does not feel in any way like an ancient or outdated place. In fact, just the opposite. The vibrant energy of Tel Aviv, with its sky scrapers and beach front bars and cafes is palpable and feels entirely fresh and modern. If you have any doubts they are put to rest as you drive north along the Mediterranean coast, and see the huge buildings with names like Intel and Microsoft on them. This is Israel’s version of Silicon Valley, and inside those buildings Israeli scientists and engineers are creating and perfecting technology that will make the entire world a better place for all. As we drove we saw the foundation of the new mag lev train track that is supposed to open in 2019. It will enable people to travel from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv in 15 minutes time. Imagine that! You will literally be able to live in Tel Aviv and work in Jerusalem, or vice versa.
Imagine that! From the shore of the Mediterranean to the hills of Jerusalem in 15 minutes. For our ancestors in ancient times that would have been a trek of many days, possibly even weeks. They would have made that journey multiple times a year, particularly for the 3 pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. After a long, hot, and difficult journey they would have arrived in Jerusalem with a deep sense of gratitude, hope, and faith.
Today the way we reach Jerusalem has entirely changed. Whether on a maglev train, or a bus, or arriving from some foreign land on a great plane filled with people, we can get from point A to point B in ways our ancestors never could have imagined. But for all of our technology, for all of the wonders of the modern world, the human heart is still the same. And I suspect the emotions we feel as modern travelers when we come around a bend and see the city of Jerusalem – the city of gold – laid out before us – how that touches our soul, how that feels in our heart – is very much the same way it felt to our ancestors thousands of years ago. The gratitude. The sense of God’s presence. The connection to the history of our people. Those things have not changed for the pilgrim – they are as strong as they have ever been.
This morning’s Torah portion ends with the Israelites camped across the Jordon River, within sight of the ancient city of Jericho. For the rest of the Torah, through the last chapters of Numbers and all of Deuteronomy, they will remain in that place, looking across the river – westward – toward the land they have been promised by God. Jericho lies before them as both a challenge and an incentive – a challenge in that they know it must be conquered before the land is theirs, and an incentive because they see that great cities can be built in this new land they are about to enter.
It was just a little more than a week ago that we drove by Jericho, winding our way down through the hills that lead from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. We were on our way to Masada, the legendary ancient fortress of Jewish heroism, in the south. As we passed Jericho and turned to the right, the Jordon River was in front of us, and across it the very place where the Torah tells us Moses bade the Israelites make camp.
It is a strange thing to think about, but Moses never left that camp. He stayed there, with the Israelites, until the very end of his life when God told him to ascend Mt Nebo, where he had one last view of a Promised Land he knew he would never enter. He had spent his entire life working towards a goal that only others would realize. The people would cross over, a Jewish homeland would be established, a Jewish monarchy would come into being, Jewish sovereignty would be lived and breathed for generations, but Moses saw none of it.
Or did he? There is a well known midrashic legend that God gave Moses a parting gift, just before his death. When God took him to the top of the mountain where he breathed his last God showed him not only the Promised Land, not only the physical space, the hills and mountains and vineyards and orchards and valleys, but also the future of that land. The great triumphs, the building of the Temple, the establishment of an Israelite nation, as well as the tragedies, the destruction of the Temple, the exile of the people.
Thinking about that legend, I wonder if Moses knew that one day I would be blessed to enter that land, that I would one hot day be riding in a bus, with a group of tired and yet excited and fulfilled Baltimoreans, many of them experiencing Israel for the very first time. Did he know then that some 3500 years after he stood at the far side of the Jordon, looking towards this land, that the land of Israel would still be the heart and soul of the Jewish people? Whether he knew or not, whether the legend is true or not, I don’t know. But I do know this – if Moses, in his vision, saw today’s Israel, he would have been deeply grateful and proud.