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Still a Land of Milk and Honey - Shelach-Lecha 5770 (June 4, 2010)

Parshat Shelach-Lecha contains a justly famous description [Numbers 13:27, in your Hertz Chumash on page 626] of the Land of Israel as a land flowing with milk and honey. The riches of Eretz Yisrael have endowed our people with a sense of home and of promise from our earliest ages. But why should a contemporary Jew, at home in America and comfortable with the English language, care about Israel? What has Israel done for us lately?

I mean, in the last week many have been embarrassed by Israel’s rather strained attempt to enforce its naval blockade on its enemy to the west, Hamas – pledged in every charter, word and deed to destroy Israel, remove her from the map, and depopulate her core. I have strongly defended Israel and will continue to do so . . . but for some of you this may be a bit expensive and somewhat embarrassing.

This is a dark moment for little Israel, my friends. It is dark in the world but in Israel there is, for us, a breathtaking, illuminating, awesome and penetrating light.

Any visitor to Israel cannot help but be moved by the archaeological testimony of the Jewish past; David's City, the steps leading up to the southern entrance to Solomon's Temple, Massada, where zealots fleeing the great world superpower of its of time – the Romans – headquartered their resistance against Rome, the tomb of Maimonides in Tiberias, the great natural “hump of the camel” which is Gamla (the Massada of the Golan Heights), the synagogues of the medieval mystics of Safed/Tzefat, the great mystical capitol of the Galilee. Each age of Jewish civilization has left its mark in the Land of Israel, and the great treasures which have come to light due to the careful studies and exploration of Israel's archaeologists -- the most notable of which are the Dead Sea Scrolls -- enrich our sense of belonging and of peoplehood for Jews everywhere.

For too long, Jews were reputed to be weak, passive and incapable of productive work. Hidden inside dimly-lit houses of study, Jewish pedants supposedly would mull over obscure and archaic books, while Jews lived in fear, poverty and ignorance.

While that characterization is not an accurate reflection of Jewish history, it is shared by many Jews as well.

The Zionist Movement and, later, the State of Israel, deliberately encouraged a new self-image for the Jew. No longer figures of weakness or passivity, Zionist women and men were pioneers -- transforming the desert into bounteous farmland, draining the swamps of the Hula valley, restoring ruined cities to prosperity and habitation. The sheer brilliance and audacity of the Ayalon Institute north of Tel Aviv, where a pre-state kibbutz bakery and laundry, used by the occupying British in the 1940s, was the secret underground location of a bullet factory, operating literally right under the noses of the forces of occupation then. The breathtaking boldness of Zichron Yaakov, where attempts to graft European grapes failed and failed and failed until something at last started to grow in the rocky and mineral starved soil of pre-state Palestine. When you think of Israel, think of Holocaust survivors from Poland running off the illegal ship in Haifa, being thrown a gun which they did not even know how to shoot and being bussed to Latrun, controlling access to Jerusalem. There hundreds died, many with the safety latches still engaged on their rifles, but with the words of Sh’ma Yisrael and Hatikva on their lips as they breathed their last breath.

Israel's ability to defend herself against a sea of hostile and implacable neighbors, Israel's vibrant (and occasionally chaotic) democratic system, and Israel's first-rate system of schools and universities have restored an image of Jewish self-worth that had been denied for too long.

And as to the political and ethnic virtue of a homeland for the Jews after 2000 years of wandering in exile through a stunningly inhospitable world? How can I begin?

Let me just repeat the words of one of our best modern thinkers, Emil Fackenheim, who said that had Israel existed in the 1930s, it might not have defeated Germany and the Nazis, but both of its airplanes would have perished in the attempt.

While it is certainly true that many Jewish artists, writers and thinkers adorn Jewish communities of the Diaspora, it is no less true that Israel has had a tremendous impact on Jewish and secular culture and science throughout the world.

Israel’s existence has radically transformed Jewish life . . . radically!

Think, for a moment, about how many synagogues and Jewish centers offer Hebrew classes. Now recall that until the 20th century, Hebrew was not a spoken language. Like classical Greek or Latin, Hebrew was a language that only a few scholars read. But it hadn't been used as a living language for two thousand years.

Zionism restored Hebrew to life and fundamentally altered our self-image and our ethnic image throughout the world. Israel is a living laboratory for Jewish expression in the modern world. In Israel, Jews must resolve questions of power, violence, government and being a majority in ways that Jews elsewhere only think about. It is the 14th most vibrant economy in the world, the 2nd most active in high-tech start-up businesses and the newest member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development – the European Common Market.

Israel leads the world – leads the WORLD – in books published per population. As a consequence, Israel's writers and thinkers exert an influence out of proportion to their numbers. Writers such as the Nobel laureate Shai Agnon or the magnificent Chaim Nachman Bialik, the modern Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, poets like Yehudah Amichai, and philosophers such as Yeshayahu Leibovitz, David and Donniel Hartman, Emil Fackenheim and Eliezer Schweid have profoundly shaped Jewish thinking and Jewish culture.

During the Shoah, every nation in the world closed its borders to fleeing Jews. Countless millions would have survived if the western democracies would have taken them in. During World War II, Jews had nowhere to go. With the establishment of the State of Israel, all Jews acquired a second home. Israel has taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees from Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia and elsewhere.

Oppressed Jews, from Argentina to Ethiopia to Uzbekistan, are no longer abandoned – they now have a haven in Israel. That concern for the abandoned extends even beyond a concern for Jews alone. When the "boat people" of Southeast Asia were drowning at sea, Israel opened its arms to them. In fact, Israel took in more Indochinese refugees than any other country except the U.S.A.! When the earthquake devastated Haiti, Israel was the first to arrive and establish the supreme field hospital, functioning within hours of their arrival.

When Arabs in Jordan or Lebanon need advanced medical help, they utilize the free medical expertise of Israeli hospitals. Israeli experts flew to the Soviet Union to save lives following the nuclear accident at Chernobyl.

For all of these reasons -- biblical memory, rabbinic longing and love, unity of the Jewish People, a renewed Jewish culture, pride, character and a haven for oppressed Jews -- Israel is still

the land of milk and honey, still our eternal homeland, regardless of where we hang our 'kipot.'

Let it never be said that we American Jews are in retreat and find Israel a distant and remote outpost without emotional connection. It is the trunk of our tree and without it, we will quickly wither, shrivel and perish.

Shabbat Shalom!

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