The Land of Hope and Dreams

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What happens when a dream becomes a reality? It loses much of its luster. Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.

The dream of returning to the land of Israel is the oldest dream in history. It is a dream that has stirred imaginations across the generations. Despite our dark world, for centuries we preserved our dream of a better place and of a better state for our people. This dream occupied our wistful prayers and suffused both our wedding celebrations and our personal mourning. Suddenly, seventy-four years ago, it was no longer a dream. In the 20th century, amidst an age of political chaos and international tumult, this dream burst upon the real world. We are left pinching ourselves just to make certain that we are no longer dreaming.

In our dreams, Eretz Yisroel was always perfect. It was an imaginative land of milk and honey and of national prosperity. It was fantasy location without impurity or human scars. This fantasy land was centered about a glistening capital, which housed the thrones of glorious Jewish monarchs. It was flawless and utopian. Nothing could taint this paradise, and nothing could go wrong in this land of our dreams.

We now inhabit a real country – with crime, politics, scandals, social fissures, and a range of other mundane experiences. It is always challenging to shift from vision to reality. Reconciling expectations with reality will always be disappointing. Gifts come in different types and sizes.  Sometimes they are perfect and sometimes they are flawed. Israel is a gift, but not without blemishes.

Additionally, we now inhabit a human state in place of the divine land of our imaginations. Israel, the land of Hashem, has become our land, the land of the Jews. it is a land of shopping malls and cities, of culture and of entertainment. A land of restaurants and universities, of homes and gardens. For some reason, Hashem desired that the final redemption be launched by human authors. Though human hand is incapable of perfection, we try the best we can. We will continue cultivating this land and readying it for the end of history. We will work until we reach the upper limits of human imagination and faculties. At that point, we trust that Hashem will enter this world and redeem it for us. He is proud of our efforts so far.

Some people can’t “break away” from the dream of “Eretz Yisroel” and remain disenchanted that the land of Hashem has become “humanized” as the state of Israel. For them, the state of Israel cannot compete with the sparkle of Eretz Yisroel.

A few years after making aliyah, I visited a revered rabbi of mine in the USA. I warmly invited him to visit me in Israel, offering to “show him around”. He confessed that he hadn’t traveled to Israel in close to 20 years. He worried that visiting as a tourist would trivialize the sanctity of the land. A journey to Israel, he reasoned, should be a pious pilgrimage and not a small-scale visit! If he didn’t remain in Israel, his visit would feel “small” and inconsequential.

I was initially impressed with the reverence he displayed toward our land and its sanctity. However, I soon realized the steep price he paid for his idealized version of our land – an absence of over twenty years from Israel. Eretz Yisroel may be the destination of devout pilgrims, but the state of Israel beckons every Jew across the world home, even for a short visit. Bring your cameras and your tourist bags. The land won’t mind.

But it is also fair to wonder whether, for others, Israel has become too humdrum and too human. In our daily interactions with the state of Israel have we abandoned the grand vision of Eretz Yisroel? Have our dreams been entirely swept away by the powerful reality that is the state of Israel? In celebration of our renewed statehood have we forgotten how to pray for the religious restoration we have dreamt of for centuries? Has reality engulfed our dreams?

This question is particularly compelling for those who endorse a historical partnership with “secular Israel.” For those who sense common destiny and partnership with irreligious Jews this question is critical. Partnering with secular Israel, we cannot, currently, expect the country to be completely religious. This preliminary condition of a secular state is hopefully a prelude to a more comprehensive and religiously oriented redemption.

Does the fact that our redemption is incomplete even disturb us? Are we too comfortable with our human-carved state to the point that we have abdicated the dream of a heavenly city?

Over the past year we suffered through a painful and disturbing period during which worldwide Jewry was denied entry into Israel. Visiting Israel is something that Jews have long taken for granted. In the past, travel was prohibitively expensive but, thankfully, it has become affordable to most. For many years, parachuting into Israel was easy, and was seen as an innate right. Last year, for the first time in decades, this right was denied. Though it was painful, it did remind us not to take our land for granted. Our ancestors waited weeks for the ship to sail, or they walked for months across scorching desert sands to arrive in the land. Their voyages were dreamy and inspired. Perhaps this temporary hiatus from Israel will restore some of that enchantment.

My rebbe, Harav Aharon Lichtenstein, would recite a chapter of Tehillim every time he landed in Israel. Are we capable of that level of religious passion?

Twice this past week I was asked my opinion about visiting the Temple mount. This is obviously a very complex question and I strongly support those who do ascend in a halachik fashion. Opponents of visiting the Temple mount assert that our mapping may not be accurate, possibly leading to severe encroachment upon forbidden areas. An additional concern is that “popular” visits may dilute the reverence of this holiest site. When the Mikdash stood, entry was carefully regulated. Entering the Mikdash arena was a religiously elevating experience that demanded both physical preparation and emotional planning. Mass ascent to the Temple mount runs a risk of converting what should be a religious journey into a selfie-opportunity or fodder for a social media post.  I support those who ascend, provided they maintain their reverence. This issue is just another example of the delicate challenge of living both in Eretz Yisroel as well as in the state of Israel.

One day the dream will fully materialize. The state of Israel will live up to all our expectations for Eretz Yisroel. Until that day, we must inhabit both realms. Jews know how to walk in two worlds. We have walked that way for centuries.