‘To the End of the Land’ is the English language title of David Grossman’s 2008 best selling novel about Israel, family, love, war, hate, fear, loss, and the sacred quality of land. This book is no beach read. Weighing in at close to 700 pages, it asks the reader to wrestle with dark and difficult themes and challenging questions, and it does not offer easy answers or happy endings. Having just finished the book last night, I find its narrative and even more so its characters haunting me this morning. There is nothing else I have read that so truly captures the modern Israeli experience, namely the challenge of living with hope and love under the constant shadow of the knowledge that life altering tragedy is a moment away. In Grossman’s Israel, it is not a question of will tragedy strike, it is a question of when.
There is a deep sadness at the heart of the book’s narrative. It stems from the bitter, unendurable, and yet necessary and seemingly eternal entanglement of the Israelis and Palestinians. Like Jacob and his angelic antagonist in Genesis 32, the two sides both wrestle and embrace at the same time, pulling one another closer and closer, unable to disengage even when both are damaged in the process. The difference between a strong hug and a smothering is only a matter of degree. A fine line indeed.
And in that kind of world, with that kind of pressure, with that much at stake, both personally and nationally, how is it possible to maintain one’s moral equilibrium? Is it possible for anything to stay pure and true, can anything – a people, a land, a sacred promise – escape corruption? Even a child? Perhaps particularly a child? Or does life, by its very definition, require moral compromise. And if so, where are the lines? When does the compromise take you too far, so far that you can’t ever find your way back?
And so, ‘to the end of the land.’ To a place of no return, to a place where the land itself, or perhaps the meaning of the land, is no longer what it once was. ‘Tiyyul’ in Israel is a powerful idea, to this very day. It captures the idea that the land should be walked, experienced, slept on, lived in, worked. And Grossman’s writing beautifully captures that Israeli sensibility with its vivid descriptions of the dusty dirt roads, of the spare and beautiful flowers that bloom in the arid wilderness, of the ancient mountains and biblical landscapes. The ancient Israelites walked the land, and the modern Israelis are still at it, still absorbing its essence in the most physical way possible. The land IS sacred, soaked in Jewish history, the place where Israelite kings ruled and Jewish scholars recreated their faith and Jewish soldiers fought for freedom and a Jewish nation was born anew after two thousand years.
At the same time, what the land demands is so high. The loyalty and sacrifice, the difficulty and determination, the toughness and moral compromise. The Hebrew title to Grossman’s novel is strikingly different from its English counterpart – אשה בורחת מבשורה – A Woman Flees from News. The book’s protagonist, Ora, walks into the wilderness of Israel as a way of escaping from what might happen in the real world. But in the end she must of course return. The ideal, mythic land of Israel exists only in imagination and religious text. It can be visited for a time, but the real Israel is where one’s day to day life must be lived. And the real Israel is like any other place in this world. It is both breathtakingly beautiful and filled with dust and debris, glorious and delicate, but at the same time dreary and difficult. It can rip one’s heart away, and make one’s heart sing. Grossman’s wonderful, poignant, powerful novel is exactly the same way.