Thursday, June 14, 2012

Israel: Process or Event?

Many years ago, after living in an apartment for some time, my family and I moved into a new home, one with a back and front yard. I remember walking out to the deck on the first night in our new environs and gazing out into the garden with pride.
I looked at a tall and imposing tree that might well have been a 100 years old and I said "I own you now." And then I thought, wait, how arrogant of me. I don't own that tree. It was here long before me and it will be here long after me. If anything the tree owns me! The most I can really say is that now, as I took ownership of the home, the tree and I are in relationship.

This Shabbat we read in the parsha of Shlach the story of the spies Moshe sent to explore the land of Israel in anticipation of the conquest. The tragedy of the expedition is well known. The spies, though princes and men of distinction, return and tell the nation that the land is good but too difficult to conquer. The people become disheartened and are prepared to return to Egypt. Their failing seals their fate. Their rejection of the land engenders a punishment that will cause them to wander an additional 38 years in the wilderness where all that generation will perish.

Many have sought to explain how it could be that these spies, men of character, could have brought back such a negative report. They were previously righteous. What happened to their faith? How could they have failed so completely?

This week I returned from a week-long back-packing tiyul on Shvil Ha'Golan, a path that leads from the Kinneret to the Hermon, a journey of some 100 kilometer. I hiked with my friend Avi, an experienced outdoorsman, up mountains and down valleys. We met wild boar and cayotee, gazelles and 100's of free ranging cows. We slept on ground shared with every kind of insect imaginable and some unimaginable. We became one with a land filled with miles and miles of cherry orchards and even more miles of wild bramble. Most important, we tread the holy soil our G-d gave us seeing vistas too glorious to describe in words. And each step, no matter the heat, no matter the incline, no matter the hindrance, we thought, how blessed we are that this land is ours!

In the context of my journey I came to understand the horrific mistake of the spies in a new way.

In life we come across many challenges that no matter how hard we try we just cannot manage. They are just too difficult or complex. No matter our determination or will power we simply have not the capacity to conquer. Yet what we may discover, if we persist, is that even if the challenge is too large or imposing for us to meet taking it as a whole, if we break the task before us into little pieces and work one step at a time, over-time, often much much time, we can indeed succeed and master the formerly unassailable.

Taking possession of a land is just such an overwhelming and impossible task, surely in one swallow and surely if the land is the Land of Israel. The spies saw the taking of Israel as an event, a country to be conquered and subdued with an invading army. They noted the peoples who currently were inhabiting the land. Still more, they noted the ruggedness and unbending nature of Israel itself. They had no model for taking posession of a land. There was no example for them of how this might happen. True, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov lived in Cannan. But they never settled or took posession of the land. They lived essentially as transients, loving the land but not making it theirs. The spies only concept for inhabiting Canaan was through a once and for all act of conquest. Yet they realized that was not possible. No act, no singular event, no matter how dramatic of forceful could subdue this land. This was a challenge too formidable to be subdued no matter how great the effort or how intense the will.

What the spies did not know was that Israel was not meant to be taken as an event, but rather by dint of process. They were right. No nation could make Israel hers simply by force of will or power. Israel cannot be owned as if in one swallow. History has shown over and over from the Crusaders to the Moslems that one cannot posess this land by conquest. Israel can only be claimed by means of settlement and over time, much time. It is for this reason that the Talmud teaches us that the first entry into the land under Joshua, despite the fact that it included all of the nation, did not sanctify the land forever. Once we went into exile, after the destruction of the first Temple, the holiness left the land. On the other hand, the entry under Ezra, though it included only a small portion of the Jewish nation, most of whom remained in Babylon, brought about a sanctification of the land that is everlasting, even after the exile and the destruction of the second Temple.
Joshua sanctified through conquest. Israel cannot be inherited by dint of conquest, even if that conquest included miracles. Ezra sanctified throught settlement, and over time. He fought no wars. He took posession through a process. That is the only way to make this land our land!

Having walked the land I have a new appreciation for the challenge of this great country. I know in a way I had not prior that like the tree in my backyard of years ago, neither I nor you can ever own this land. It is larger than any of us and than any multitude of us. The most we can do is become one with the land, inherit her, make her ours even as we belong to her.
Like a marriage in which we can never own our spouse, we can not own Israel. Yet like in a marriage, we can yet enter into the deepest of relationships with our land and forge an inseparable bond.

Israel the land is for us to love. Love is always a process and not an event!
The process continues and is ongoing. It is often uneven and frustrating. But one thing is certain. The spies were right. Israel cannot be had by a one time event or heroic act. Israel can only be inheritted through settlement and over time.
Blessed are we who share in the awesomeness of this process!

Shabbat Shalom

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