When you’re on the road, time changes shapes and forms. It’s easy to lose count of days. Weeks seem like days. Days seem like weeks. One travels far in order to say, this looks like somewhere else’, said Yehuda Amichai. “It’s Monday”, we say, “so this must be Portland”; and also “it’s Portland so it must be Monday”…
It’s been more than three weeks since I started my current adventure, tour guiding with a group of teens through the Western States. In the day, we visit beautiful sites, trying to see more and more; in the evenings we review where we’ve been: “We traveled from point A to point B, and here is what we learned”.
The Torah (Num. 33:1-49) sets out a similar list of the stages of the Israelites’ route: “They journeyed from X and camped at Y”, over and over again. It’s poetic, and the effect heightens the tension and increased anticipation between being somewhere, settling down, unpacking, letting stuff scatter around the room, and getting to know a place, and between the endless urge to travel on, to see more, to check out what’s “behind the river bend”, to dream with the views passing by the bus window. The Torah could have just listed a long list of places, but it pauses at each site, as if to say, everywhere we stop at life has meaning to the journey.
Finally the journey draws to a close, and G-d tells Moses: “Take possession of the Land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess it” (33:53). According to Nachmanides, this is the source of the command to dwell in the land of Israel and inherit it. The end of the Book of Numbers emphasizes what we already know, that the Land is central to who we are.
The whole story has been about the promise and the journey to this place, and yet, the paradox of Jewish history is that though a specific piece of land is at its heart, Jews have spent more time in the diaspora than in Israel; more time longing and praying for it than dwelling in it; more time travelling than arriving. Much of the Jewish story could be written in the language of the closing Torah portion: “They journeyed from X and camped at Y”.
As Rabbi Sacks puts it (I think it’s he who said this. I found it in my notes unnamed and it’s too good to be me -): “On one hand, the G-d of everywhere can be found anywhere. He is not confined to this people, that place… He exercises His power in Egypt, in Nineveh, in Babylon. There is no place in the universe where He is not. On the other hand, it must be impossible to live fully as a Jew outside Israel, for if not, Jews would not have been commanded to go there initially, or to return subsequently”.
The sages shared two seemingly contradictory ideas. They said, “Wherever the Israelites went into exile, the Divine presence was exiled with them” (Mekhilta, Bo, 14). And they also said, “One who leaves Israel to live elsewhere is as if he had no G-d.” (Ketubot 110b).
Can one find G-d, serve G-d, experience G-d, outside the holy land? Yes. And – No. If the answer was only yes, there would be no incentive to return. If the answer was only no, there would be no reason to stay Jewish in exile. On this tension, Jewish existence is built.
This is highlighted when the two and a half tribes decide to stay on the other side of the Jordan. Moses eventually gave in to their request and allowed them to stay where pastures were greener but only when they agreed that should the people in the Land need help, they will be there for their brethren. Not that Moses had many choices, but what he set in place, is also etched into us.
This is what happens even on our bus, when 13 and 14 year olds show me their Jerusalem Post ap and updates regarding the “matzav” (current situation) in Israel. To paraphrase an old saying, you can take someone out of Israel, but you might not be able to take Israel out of them.
Just before Shabbat, we arrived at Zion National Park. “The settlers who came here named it after the Biblical Land”, says the shuttle driver by rote, but everybody in the group grows two more inches. “This is us”, calls one of the teens, proudly. This is us.