Long ago (and far away, as it turns out), when I was teaching 4th grade, we got into some amazingly deep conversations. One of them was about the Jewish People and the Land of Israel.
We talked about how this land was described in Torah times as “land of milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8), and yet, when the settlers of the late 19th century arrived, they found mostly swamps and robbers. Mark twain, who traveled the land in 1867, writes a sorrowful description in his book “The Innocent Abroad or the New Pilgrim’s Progress”. He tells of the endless rocky terrain, the rarity of agricultural growth, the painful blasting sun which “almost fried us”, coupled with the lack of shade as well as absence of trees and clean water. A traveler, he shares, can never find both (shelter and water) in the same place: “We traversed some miles of desolate country whose soil is rich enough but is given wholly to weeds – a silent mournful expanse… even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country… Jerusalem is mournful, dreary and lifeless… (it) is hopeless, heartbroken… desolate and unlovely. And why should it be otherwise?”…
Another traveler, Alfon de Lamartine, in his “Recollections of the East” from 1845, adds: “…Outside the walls of Jerusalem, however, we saw no living voice. We encountered that desolation and that deadly silence which we would expect to find at the ruins of Pompei… the burial ground of an entire people…”
Nachmonides of the 12th century writes of his visit to the Holy Land. Though it took place centuries earlier, it’s pretty much the same: “What shall I tell you about the land? There are so many forsaken places and the desolation is great. It comes down to this: the more sacred the place, the more it has suffered – Jerusalem is the most desolate”…
And yet, that was not always the case. Josephus, in his noted “the Jewish Wars”, from around the 1st century, shares a completely different scene: “… For the whole area is excellent for crops or pasture and rich in trees of every kind… it is thickly covered with towns and thanks to the natural abundance of the soil, the many villages are so densely populated….”
Botanists and researchers agree with Josephus and confirm that up until about 1800 years ago, there were forests in the Galilee. Indeed, while the exact interpretation of “milk and honey” is debated – was it, as we’re told in the Babylonian Talmud (Ktubot 111:2), about Rami bar Yechezkel who chanced to Bnai Brak and saw goats grazing under fig trees, so that the honey dripping from the figs mixed with the mild dripping from the goats, hence “Land of milk and honey”?- still, what happened between Exodus 3:8 and Mark Twain?? Was there a sudden disaster, the kind of Pompei??
We’re often told that for centuries, after the Temple was destroyed (70CE), other rulers and settlers passed through the land, using it for their own needs without much care for its tomorrow, depleting its resources. This is how it’s often explained and yet, does this make sense? Was California, for example, of 150 years ago, less beautiful then today? Some might even argue that it’s the reverse! So what is it about the Land of Israel?
Rabbi Yoel Moshe Solomon, one of Petach Tikva’s first settlers in 1878, gives us a hint: “… In all the days passed, from the time her sons left her, she had covered herself with sack cloth, shed tears and withdrew her light and hid in haze… she did not give her strength to strangers not her produce to aliens. Like her son’s destiny, who cannot find rest among the nations, so is hers…”
The land for him is not merely “dirt” in a coincidental geographical spot, but rather, a living woman, pained and bereaved over her missing beloved. As such, she can’t “grow” anything. She does not give herself to anyone else, until her one and only comes back. This sentiment repeats in other writings as well.
We didn’t go into quite this much depth, back in 4th grade, but the idea of this unusual connection, between a People and a Land, slowly became clear. That’s when one of my students raised his hand: “Is that why there’s trouble there now, because the Land is still in pain, over us not being with her? Should we go??”
Rabbi Nachman coined my favorite saying: לכל מקום שאני הולך,אני הולך לארץ ישראל Everywhere I go, I go to the Land of Israel.
The Land gives our meandering journey in this world a purpose and direction. Of course, it’s a metaphor! Or is it?? Yes. The place at our core is a place where the explainable and that which is not – meet; where heavens and earth – kiss. Sometimes we miss it, and how we are able to participate in it, is a personal quest, but at least one day a year we can pause to realize – and to celebrate – how lucky we are to live at a time when we can witness its renewed awakening; the beginning of its redemption.
Happy Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s 69th Independence Day – this coming Tuesday) & Shabbat Shalom.