The other morning I checked in with my 60-something-year-old mother. She seemed very tired.
“I was up all night,” she told me. “I did not sleep at all.”
When I asked her why she did not sleep her response was simple: “I could not sleep until I knew he was safe. I could not sleep until he was home.”
My mother, it turns out, was up all night watching the news waiting to see the feet of Gilad Shalit touch Israeli soil once again. She waited up for him and worried for him as though he was her own son. And this worry, this sense of connection she and so many other Jews around the world felt for this one young Israeli man, reminded me that the world, the non-Jewish world, understands so little about our people’s relationship to eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, and am Yisrael, the people of Israel.
We do a disservice to ourselves and the future of the Jewish State when we neglect to speak of our cultural, artistic, agricultural, religious and spiritual connections to the land of Israel and our deep love for Israel. Too often when we defend the state of Israel, we speak in purely political terms. The world knows and accepts, for the most part, our modern history. They know about European anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, our refugee status and our immediate need for a safe homeland in the 1940s. They know about our continued struggle for safety in Israel today. But do they know about our ancient spiritual connection to the land of Israel that has kept hope alive in our hearts, even during the darkest moments of our people’s history?
In my work combating the efforts of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement in Olympia, I came to understand that many people who work toward the dismantling of the state of Israel have very little knowledge about our rich religious, cultural and spiritual connection. They think Zionism is merely a modern nationalist movement. They have no idea that we pray for the peace of Israel daily in our traditional liturgy and have done so for generations. They have little idea that so many of our holidays are based on the agricultural cycle of the land of Israel.
We celebrate the new year of the trees, Tu B’Shevat, in February. Almond trees don’t bloom in Seattle in February, but they do in the land of Israel. We smell the etrog and wave the lulav during Sukkot in Seattle but the smells and textures of these sacred plants are those of Israel.
Our symbols, like the pomegranate, the lion, and the olive tree are all connections back to our ancient and sacred homeland. Israel might have become a modern state in 1948, but our connection to the land and to each other goes beyond memory.
Zionism is a modern manifestation of a very old, very deep and very special connection we have as a people to our home: eretz Yisrael. It is also the manifestation of a deep and special connection Jews throughout the world have to each other. When we pray our call to worship prayer, the Barchu, we all face east toward Jerusalem. I often imagine that in that moment all Jews all over the world are turning toward each other, facing each other, and coming together in holy assembly to honor God. We did this before we even knew there was such a diverse and widespread global Jewish community.
We all prayed toward Jerusalem before Jews in Poland knew about Jews living in India or China or Morocco or Yemen. Daily we all faced each other when we faced the holy city of Jerusalem. We faced each other, even when we could not imagine the face of our fellow Jew so far away, because we are family and our hearts are untied through eretz Yisrael. We have faced each other, prayed for each other, and cared for each other across time and space for thousands of years. This is our spiritual legacy and it runs strong to this day.
It is this strong spiritual connection to the land and our people that has kept us alive. It kept us alive and together in the mellah, in the ghetto, in the concentration camp, in good times and in times of horrific tragedy. The hope and dream of living peacefully and securely in our home, our land, has been a bright light and source of beauty and joy and hope for thousands of years.
Israel Freelander writes that the love of eretz Yisrael:
Kept the torch that illuminated the thorny path of our people. It was the anchor that kept our ship from drifting out into the boundless ocean. And when the eternal wanderer seemed to sink under the burden of his suffering he looked up into the sky and saw the light that shone from Zion and with the renewed courage he continued his journey.
This is what the world needs to know: How we really feel about Israel. Yes we are defensive, we are protective, we are scared, we are proud, and we are justified in our fight for self-determination and security. But most of all, we are in love. We love this land and the people Israel. We love the trees, the soil, the birds, the rains and the mountains. We love the babies, the elderly and the soldiers. We love Israel so much we are willing to give up parts of it so we can live in it peacefully. We love Israel so much we fight for it. We labor for it. We love Israel so much we support it no matter where on this planet we live.
Our love crosses time zones, our love breaks down boundaries, and our love keeps us up at night. Each citizen is like our own close family. And this is why my own mother, who has not lived in Israel for over 40 years, was up all night. Her love kept her up. She could rest until she knew this young man was home.
We must all work to support Israel in our own way. I am a fan of J Street. You might be a fan of AIPAC or some other political organization. I am a fan of Israeli food and film. You might love Israeli dance and poetry. Each of us must keep our connection strong and our love visible for the entire world to see. And our love should keep us up at night because we should not rest until all Jews are living in security and peace.