**This post is dedicated to the memory of
Rabbi Lee Diamond z”l (1940-2019)**
“וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ,
אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ. וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ, וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ; וֶהְיֵה, בְּרָכָה.
“Adonai said unto Avram: ‘Go forth from your country, and from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, unto the land that I will show you. And I will make of You a great nation, and I will bless You, and make Your name great; and You shall be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1-2)
Like so many good stories, the pithy retort: “you just had to be there to understand” is applicable. We can talk about it, read about it, listen to lectures, sermons, podcasts, and watch movies about it, but there is nothing like being there. Like smelling the spices in the market, watching the sunrise over the desert mountains, and feeling the beating pulse of an ancient people alive and well writing tomorrow’s story in renewing our days and building a new Jewish reality.
It is the quintessential Zionist text. The classic story of the first monotheist, the patriarch, and the first oleh hadash (new immigrant). ‘Go forth unto the Land,’ he was told, and he left his home and his family, and left everything behind for the unknown. The story of Lech L’cha instilled in us the notion that Jewish peoplehood was linked with geography. That place matters. That our people, God, and Land are essential elements one intertwined with another (see Ruth 1:16).
Today, after nearly two millennia of exile the Zionist movement restored the notion that we as a people can find fulfillment, security, and self-actualization in our own land.
They called it euphemistically, “Aliyah,” ascension, as immigrating to Israel became more than just a banal transfer from one location to another. It was a spiritual ascension, a completely different madrega (mystical level) of holiness. The largely secular Zionist (which is way too simplistic a concept to properly capture the essence of the phenomenon) movement saw Aliyah as the pen-ultimate Mitzvah*. The mission of every Jew in the world was to come and live in the Land and then the State of Israel.
The vision was the classic ingathering of the exiles. Jews from all over the world would return home, build our Nation-State together. Of course, the great masses of European Jews fled the pogroms to the shores of the Goldene Medina… to America, but others, both out of ideology or necessity (or both) streamed into the first Jewish sovereign entity since the destruction of the Second Temple.
Now, that we have a Jewish State and our dreams have been fulfilled, how could it be that there were Jews who would choose not to come? Our sages of blessed memory could not have fathomed a world in which there existed a Jewish State and myriads of Jews chose of their own volition not to come.
Well, explains the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman – 1194–c. 1270) in a slightly more understanding explanation, it is really hard.
“וטעם להזכיר “ארצך ומולדתך ובית אביך”, כי יקשה על האדם לעזוב
ארצו אשר הוא יושב בה ושם אוהביו ורעיו וכל שכן כשהוא ארץ מולדתו
ששם נולד, וכל שכן כשיש שם כל בית אביו, ולכך הוצרך לומר לו
שיעזוב הכל לאהבתו של הקב”ה:”
‘In reference to “and from your birthplace, and from your father’s house” [one can discern] that it is increasingly difficult for a person to leave his/her land that s/he resides in, and there are his/her loved ones and companions and all of the others for whom this is also their homeland and birthplace, and for whom their parents household is here as well. Therefore, it is upon us to state that he [Avraham] left everything for the love the Holy One Blessed Be S/He.”
It’s hard, the Ramban teaches (he also came to Israel from Spain). It is hard and even unnatural to leave one’s surroundings, family and friends, and everything that one knows. But we are doing that for a purpose. For some, it may be God (like Ramban), and for others, it may be pure ideology.
We came to create a haven for Jews, an exemplary society living as the continuation of the ancient biblical kingdom, aspiring to be a light unto the nations.
It used to be the case that any tourist in Israel, upon meeting Israelis would automatically be asked, “So, Nu, when are you coming to live here?” In fact, at one of the early Birthright Israel mega-events in 2001, enthusiastic participants were chanting and celebrating their first time in Israel, when then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon walked on stage and in a glorious moment of classic Zionism gave a one-line speech:
“Welcome to Israel, it is my sincere hope that you all come on Aliyah very soon.”
And walked off the stage.
Huh? Really? That’s all you want to say?
Of course, many were offended, and even more, rolled their eyes in disgust and exasperation.
And even though this is old school thinking, lacking all nuance, he might have a point.
Sharon was the embodiment of the early Zionist movements, inspired by Ben Gurion himself whose greatest self-acclaimed achievement was that he came on Aliyah. And while that’s not the explicit goal of those programs, the PM should want every Jew to come and live in the Jewish State.
The 1950 Law of Return, which offered immediate naturalization for any Jew, gave us the opportunity to just show up and join our fate with the fate of the Jewish people. All cynicism aside, the feeling of becoming an Israeli is unparallel to any that I have experienced (shy of getting married and becoming a parent). It was a liberating catharsis that was immediately met with a bi-polar reaction of “Mazal Tov, Welcome Home!” and “Why would you do such a thing???”
Individual experiences are one thing, but we, as a Movement, work tirelessly to support Israel, to raise money, to advocate politically, but what if we as North American Jews followed the earliest imperative of Genesis and went forth to our Land.
While the Reform Movement didn’t initially jump on the bandwagon of the Aliyah movement, there were significant Reform Zionist Garinim (Aliyah cohorts) who came and grew roots in Israel helping to grow and build our movement there.
What would it look like if more American Reform Jews were to make Aliyah? Like Avraham before us and millions of Jews since I am calling for more of us to become citizens of the State of Israel.
My teacher Rabbi Lee Diamond, who sadly left this world 3 weeks ago, recently wrote to me the following:
“We, all of world Jewry, declare our right to citizenship In the Jewish State,”
“What if all American Jews were to become citizens of the Jewish State?” He pondered in a recent correspondence. Coming on Aliyah, whether permanent or not, is a game-changer. Yes, it’s hard. It may be inconvenient and challenging, culturally, politically, and religiously, but like the pioneers of yesteryear who focused on the body of the state today’s reality offers us a chance to build the soul.
American Jewry has done a tremendous amount to support Israel since its founding. Now it’s our turn, if not in massive numbers, at least in larger numbers than the few thousand who come every year. The only way to be fully engaged in the process of nation-building in Israel, and to fully understand the reality of Israelis is to be a citizen. Even if you don’t live there full time, by making Aliyah and becoming a citizen you have engrained your fate with the fate of the Jewish people and the Jewish State.
It is easy to look at modern Israel and say, “no thanks,” with all its problems, challenges and issues. But a good dose of idealism, ideology, and strong will should not be discounted. If the pioneering generation would have been cynical or preferred the material comforts of modern life, we might not have a State today.
So, for those looking to live in Jewish time, by a Jewish cadence, in a Jewish language, to walk the streets paved with memory, and the soil rich with our story, it’s never too late to be the next link in the chain that Avram began with one command: Go Forth to the Land that I will show you.
The gates are open and waiting for you.
*There is a famous debate between Rambam and Ramban as to whether residing in the Land of Israel should be counted as one of the 613 Mitzvot. In short, Rambam thinks it should not, and Ramban thinks it should.