Happy 73rd, Israel
This Shabbat, the 5th of Iyar, is Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israel’s 73rd birthday. This year, because it fell on Shabbat, it was celebrated on Thursday.
The first time I went to Israel was when I completed high school back in the summer of ’79. I wanted to learn more about what it meant to be a Jew and heard of Aish as a Yeshiva for people who didn’t grow up in an Orthodox setting. I went for the summer, thinking in the back of my mind that if I liked it I would stay longer. I did – for nine years.
I can’t say that I had the fully-immersed Israeli experience during that time owing to the fact that I lived in Jerusalem which is pretty American/Western and that Aish is located in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City which is like Jewish Disney World. Just like Disney, it’s not quite real. There are tons of tourists most of the time and the place is always magical and clean.
I am forever grateful that I was able to spend as much time as I did in Israel and that I was fortunate enough to discover what being a Jew was all about in the place that is the heart and soul of our religion, history and culture. I am always encouraging people to visit Israel whenever they can (and as soon as it fully reopens) and it pains me when I hear of a Jewish person who has never been there. In my encouragement to such folks, I give a couple of sports analogies to try to get across why visiting Israel is so crucial to one’s Jewish identity.
Imagine a guy who loves hockey. He watches it all the time, follows the statistics, knows all the players, used to collect hockey cards and has all kinds of paraphernalia associated with the game. He is a real fan in every sense of the word. But there is just one problem. He has never actually been to a live game. Yeah, he has never stepped inside a hockey arena and felt the blast of cold air rising from the ice surface which is decorated with the team logo at centre ice. Nor has he witnessed the speed of the players, or felt their crashing into the boards, or seen how fast and hard a puck is travelling at the goalie. He hasn’t been part of 20,000 likeminded fans screaming when the home team scores.
This is what it is like for a Jew who is proud to be Jewish, who identifies as a Jew, who feels for the struggles of Israel and may even advocate for her on social media – but has never visited there. There is something missing and absent in that Jew’s experience of being Jewish. I am not saying this in any judgmental way, but merely stating it as a fact. There is a hole in that Jewish heart and soul.
Going back to the hockey analogy, no matter how big and High Def his TV might be, no matter how much time he spends following the game – you just cannot duplicate the smell, the sound and that energy that emanates from that 200 X 85 foot rink. And no matter how much Judaism or Israel you do in the USA or Canada or Britain or wherever you live, you cannot duplicate the sound, the feel and the energy that emanates from the stones, the sand, the water, the people and that Wall in Jerusalem. Just like you won’t fully get hockey until you have been to a game, you won’t fully get being a Jew until you have been to Israel.
The other sports analogy I use relates to the second day Yomtov observance outside of Israel. Other than Rosh HaShana, holidays are just one day in Israel vs. two elsewhere. Yeah, they have just one Pesach Seder, a 7th day of Pesach not an 8th, just one day of Shavuot not two, etc.
People sometimes wonder why we still need the 2-day thing in our day and age since its origins were based on the new-moon sighting uncertainty which no longer applies thanks to our set calendar. Nevertheless I contend that we still need the extra day to get the feeling of the holiday in our bones. Why? Because being a Jew outside of Israel is like an away-game in sports whereas being a Jew in Israel is a home-game.
When your team scores when they are on the road, the only people who are celebrating are the goal-scorer, his teammates and maybe a few visiting fans. But when the home team scores, the whole place is rocking and screaming support and joy. And so being a Jew in the USA or Canada, even in NY is an away game. You have a small circle of your fellow Jews celebrating along with you such as your family, your neigbours and your community. But it is a small circle of just your teammates and those few travelling fans.
But in Israel, you are in sync with the whole place, and the whole country is rocking with the feel and joy of the holiday. Everyone is doing Pesach or Sukkot on some level, even the non-religious who wish you Chag Samayach. For us who live outside of Israel, we are playing an away-game and so we need the extra day to really feel the holiday because it is not part and parcel of our surroundings the way it is with our Israeli brethren. We are in a foreign arena, figuratively and literally.
We live in very fortunate times. Thankfully travel restrictions to Israel are starting to ease up as they begin to approach herd immunity with just a few hundred Covid cases a day in the country. So it’s time to start thinking of visiting or revisiting. There really is no reason not to in our day and age. It is a 5-15 hour plane ride for most depending on where you live. There are amazing programs for all ages from March of the Living to Birthright to Momentum/JWRP that make it easy to go, as well as a ton of tour guides just itching to get back in business and show you around.
Want to take your Jewish identity to the next level? Want to get to the essence of who and what you truly are? There is no greater way to do it in these blessed times than a visit to our home, Israel.
Your team and your fans await.
Big ships out in the night
And we’re floating across the waves
Sailing for some other shore
Where we can be what we wanna be
Oh this must be what paradise is like
This must be what paradise is like