Monmouth Torah Links

Parshas Maasei – Coming Home, Leaving Home

I write these words from somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean as I return home to New Jersey from a week-long trip to Israel. But am I really returning home? On the one hand, the answer is a resounding yes. I long to reunite with my wonderful family back in NJ; I can’t wait to get back to my comfortable suburban home; I look forward to enjoying the various creature comforts that I’m accustomed to (I had to rough it without diet Snapple for a week!). I’m eager to restart the Torah teaching and learning that I do in my hometown. And I certainly can’t wait to get out of this cramped coach-class airline seat! Yet, on the other hand, I feel like I am leaving, rather than returning, home.

A verse in this week’s Torah portion reads:

“You shall possess the Land, and you shall settle in it, for to you I have given the Land… This shall be the Land for you according to its borders…”

The Torah is telling us that a Jew’s real home is the Holy Land. And in so many ways, my soul feels at home in Israel, like nowhere else in the world. The Hebrew language, similar to the language spoken by the prophets 3,000 years ago and our prayers today, is music to the ears. Streets named after the greatest men and women in Jewish history, taxi drivers who wish you “Shabbat Shalom,” and major malls and highways that close in honor of the holy Shabbat all bring joy to the soul. Above all else is the feeling that every step we take in Israel connects us to the monumental events and figures in Jewish history. Visit Hebron and reconnect with the patriarchs, matriarchs, and the first human beings who ever lived. Visit the burial place of our matriarch Rachel; have your soul connect with her self-sacrifice and kindness, and beg her to continue to cry on behalf of her beloved children (see Jeremiah 31:14 with Rashi). Spend time in Tiberias and hear the echo of the footsteps of Talmudic sages, visit the burial place of Maimonides, and know that you are in a city whose beauty is extolled by the Talmud and whose residents, we are told, are filled with good deeds as numerous as the seeds of a pomegranate (Talmud Megillah 6a). Visit Tzefat, the city where the mystics walked – nay soared – and purify your body and soul in the magical spring water mikva of the great Kabbalist R’ Isaac Luria; feel the spiritual charge in the very air you breathe. To the best of my knowledge, none of this is available in New Jersey. 

Of course, Israel is not only about connecting spiritually to events from our past. Even today, it is very much a “desirable, good, and spacious land” with great beauty from sea to shining sea.

Float in the salty waters of the Dead Sea in the south, swim or boat in the fresh waters of the Kineret in the north, and watch as ibex roam the cliffs of Ein Gedi. You can visit some neighborhoods that have the feel of a 17th-century Eastern European shtetl, while a ten-minute walk away, you’ll find elegant modern hotels. Israel is very much a magical mix of ancient charm and modern high-tech.  From a spiritual and educational standpoint, Israel is home to some of the world’s greatest Torah scholars and institutions of Torah learning. And then there is the Western Wall: The very place from which the world was formed, where Abraham and Isaac were ready to make the ultimate sacrifice, where Jacob dreamed of a ladder with angels ascending and descending and received G-d’s promise of protection, and where both holy Temples stood. I experienced all the above in one week. But nothing prepared me for my visit to the Western Wall on Friday night. Thousands of Jews, observant and not, Ashkenazi and Sefardi, young and old, men and women, streamed to the Wall to welcome the holiest day of the week at the holiest place in the world. From all around resonated the magical melody of Lecha Dodi, written by a kabbalist whose grave I visited earlier in the week:

“Come, my beloved, to greet the bride,

The Sabbath presence let us welcome!”

Looking around, I almost sensed the Wall, which longs for its past glory, being comforted by the thousands of people gathered there. It was almost as if we were reassuring it, “Don’t worry, we are coming home.” 

Another stanza from Lecha Dodi, said by thousands Friday night at the Wall (and all over the world), says as much:

“Do not be ashamed, do not be confounded.

Why be downcast? Why do you mourn?

In you, the needy of my people will find shelter,

As the city shall be rebuilt on its hill…”

The feelings and experiences I describe are not unique to me. While I am on the way back to the US, my wife is still in Israel, leading a group of 22 women from our community on our inaugural MTL Women’s Mission to Israel. Of course, each woman is experiencing Israel from her own unique perspective, but all are connecting deeply and describe the experience as so meaningful that no words can do it justice. Is Israel perfect? Far from it. As long as G-d’s presence has not returned in its full glory, Israel

will remain imperfect. But it is still our home. 

The screen says that despite flying for five hours, I still have around seven hours left on the flight. The flight to Israel was only a little over ten hours in total. While they claim it has something to do with tailwinds and flight routes, we know the truth. Flying to Israel, we have the angels pushing us forward. Flying away from Israel, the angels are trying to push us back.

So follow the push of the angels. Visit your home away from home. Picture yourself living there. Support it. Learn about it. Love and cherish it, especially in these days on the Jewish calendar, which are set aside to remember Israel and Jerusalem. By doing so, we will be bringing the words of the prophet closer to fruition:

“The mountain of the house of G-d will be firmly established as the head of the mountains… For from Zion will the Torah come forth, and the word of G-d from Jerusalem… They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift sword against nation, and never again will they study war.” (Isaiah chapter 2)

May it be so speedily and in our days.

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