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The Land of Israel as a function of spirituality.

The relationship between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel is a fundamental component of Judaism. Our exile from the Land dominates Jewish consciousness. We remember our abandonment like someone who still feels pain in an amputated limb. Exile whispers: Can we ever be whole again?

The laws of shmitta provide an answer. These laws, which take effect at the end of a seven-year cycle, restrict Jewish farmers in Eretz Yisrael from agricultural work. It is a time of personal rededication, and a reminder to Jews everywhere that Eretz Yisrael and its produce are sanctified. It transforms us from consumers to participants in the holy work of creation and commitment.

In Exile, return to the Land of Israel became a metaphor for the completion of Jewish identity, not simply the renewal of spiritual life, but the fulfillment of a national historic dream. That yearning embodied in daily prayers, expresses a conscious and subconscious refusal to become extinct; it offers a focus beyond what our eyes can see, a vision that transforms.

For the last 2,500 years, the Jewish people have lived in trauma, as shadow-selves in foreign countries, hoping for acceptance, existing precariously on the verge of destruction, ultimately, for the most part, expunged and destroyed. We survived tragedies because of an inner sense of connection with G-d, and a belief that one day we would return to our Land as the fulfillment of a Divine promise. The very core of Jewish civilization is to live Torah, bring ethical monotheism to the world, rebuild Eretz Yisrael, and re-establish our nationhood.

That dream did not begin with Herzl, nor has it ended with his successors. For secular Zionists, the establishment of a Jewish state was a matter of political expediency, to provide a homeland for refugees. The nationhood that happened in 1948, however, was only a political beginning of a more profound process. Today, that purpose is also in question.

Authentic nationhood is rooted in collective self-expression of our integrity as Jews and as human beings. Without Judaism, which nurtured the dream of return during the millennia of exile, Israeli nationalism means nothing more than military parades, picnics, and fireworks; it ends in xenophobia and chauvinism--and even self-destruction.

When the Second Commonwealth ended and the Temple was destroyed, Jewish life turned inward; religion became more private. Jews were no longer able to express their collective, national consciousness at a site, the Temple Mount. That expression was recast and embodied in prayer. The emphasis became more individualistic, while maintaining a sense of collectivity. One of the critical elements of that common purpose is the constant focus on Eretz Yisrael. The Land of Israel became a symbol for the spiritual and physical wholeness of the Jewish People.

For 2,000 years, a separate national existence has been suppressed in favor of spiritual and physical integration. Retaining our separateness (through our observance of Shabbat, kashrut, etc), while contributing to society, was a delicate balancing act. Under constant threat of attack and annihilation, Jewish communities in the Diaspora maintained their continuity and identity by transposing themselves. They became hybridized, bi-national, as Polish/German/American ... Jews--one physical, the other spiritual.

When the State of Israel was reestablished in 1948, and when most of Biblical Israel was regained in 1967, a new context and opportunity for the Jewish people was created. Metaphorically, we had the possibility of brining together two separate realms of Jewish existence--a physical presence in our historic homeland with its spiritual essence. Asserting sovereignty after 1967, however, was problematic, not only because of opposition from our enemies, but by our own failure to appreciate what had been achieved.

If the purpose of Jewish nationhood is only physical, to achieve economic/political security and a higher standard of living, it is temporary and meaningless. If nationhood is the expression of a unique and authentic Jewish civilization, one that embodies and enhances Judaism, then we have achieved real permanence. Israel as a nation, and Judaism as a religion, form a dynamic whole; one without the other is incomplete. That explains why The Covenant between G-d and the Patriarchs includes The Land of Israel.

The Covenant binds us to our Land, because it is a link between Jewish history and Jewish destiny. The very purpose of the Jewish People is directed toward Eretz Yisrael; without its transcendent image, there would have been permanent dispersion. Nor would there have been a unique form of slavery and exile, etched in memory and ritual. Our fate would have been as permanent victims, tolerated strangers in alien countries, constantly facing annihilation either because we were physically defenseless, spiritually weak, or plagued with a sense of cultural inferiority. Historically, the result has been rampant assimilation.

Being in the Land of Israel gives life a specific focus and form. Like The Temple, it grounds and protects us against powerful forces that threaten our existence. Place becomes significant because it gives authenticity to historical events, makes them more accessible, and thus more meaningful. Most major spiritual events in Jewish history took place in Eretz Yisrael; therefore, the Land itself is the critical element in Jewish self-consciousness.

But just as we ask what Israel stands for, we ask what Judaism means. How do we implement a spiritual heritage to create a society and institutions that elevate human existence? How do we translate the injunction to build a social order founded on peace and justice and function as Jewish nationalists (Zionists)? How can Jewish civilization incorporate political/economic/social power within a spiritual framework? Is it possible to rule over Arabs and retain our democratic and Jewish values?

Redemption of the Land is a symbol tot the historic transition from Jewish powerlessness to Jewish power. But are we ready to assume that role?

We sometimes act like immature nationalists, playing games that other less-secure countries, whose recognition came only a generation or two ago, play in the United Nations. We still live in our ghetto minds, uncomfortable with being Jewish, unsure of our right to be independent, and of how to express it. We are desperate for approval, even at the expense of our best interests and our sell-respect.

We have witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the most powerful anti-Jewish country in the world since Nazi Germany. Although we are worried about an "Arab bomb," (ironically, assisted by many of the same European countries that assisted in the Holocaust), there seems little we can do practically to prevent it. We look towards profits, rather than the prophetic tradition. Like others before us, we do not appreciate the importance of Eretz Yisrael in the history of the People of Israel, as a nation founded on a Covenant.

The very first comment of Rashi on the Bible explains that when Jews are accused of stealing Eretz Yisrael, they can respond that just as G-d created the world, every nation received its land, including the Jewish people. Looked at from another point of view, possession of Eretz Yisrael by the Jewish people confirms, and is a manifestation of, G-d's presence and the purpose of the Jewish people.

Not only is Eretz Yisrael "holy," it gives and receives holiness, almost as if it were alive. That is precisely what makes the Land of Israel special--it stands for an awareness of G-d's presence; it is symbolic of our holiness, our struggle to become closer to G-d. The Land, then, is not a Thing, but a Being.

Sanctity of time and place are, in Judaism, inextricably linked. Holiness is not an abstract condition but an expression of an inherent essence that can be brought to fulfillment by enacting mitzvot, specific acts of holiness. In this way, the ordinary becomes special, the material becomes spiritual. The creation of sanctity, then, is a result of what we bring to the world--making Kiddush, taking challah, being kind to others, and living in Eretz Yisrael.

The sanctity of the Land does not come about because we control it, or exist in it, but because we treat it with proper respect. We are obliged to live in such a way that brings honor and dignity to ourselves and others, and, in so doing, to fulfill the divine commandments that make us Jews.

Sanctity of the Land, therefore, is a way of creating sanctity in time; it is a way of transforming the abstract into reality, and that is why it is so crucial to understanding Jewish history. Without Eretz Yisrael, there can be no complete Jewish Peoplehood. Without Torah, we lose our connection to the process of redemption, our opportunity and obligation to transform the world.

MOSHE DANN (Ph.D.) is a former assistant professor of history at the City University of New York (CUNY). He lives and writes in Jerusalem.
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Author:Dann, Moshe
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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