By Sam Glaser
Any discussion of Judaism must include mention of Israel. Israel is part of a powerful interdependent triad that includes God and Torah. All Jews are part of Israel, we are the Children of Israel, offspring of Jacob/Israel and we are also united as Israel, the Jewish community. This heavenly “belongingness” is hinted to throughout scripture; when our biblical heroes die they are “gathered to their people.” Furthermore, we are all spiritually unified with Israel the geographic entity. This tiny country is not just another global travel destination for Jews; most feel a palpable sense of holiness and a sense of being home. When I walk the land on my annual trips I feel joy in my step and a hard to suppress drive to hug everyone I see. It’s not uncommon for seemingly casual trips to the Promised Land to result in radical spiritual transformation for unsuspecting Jewish tourists. This is the source of the power of programs like Birthright, Gap Year and Aish’s Jerusalem Fellowships. This is why folks like my younger brother, a visiting surfer dude from Southern California, checked out a yeshiva in Jerusalem for the first time and decided never to leave.
A year after my brother got to Israel I had the opportunity to spend a month in the Holy Land to study, perform, and most importantly, to verify that my brother wasn’t brainwashed. I was recently engaged and used the experience to bone up on “chassan classes” (workshops with the Rosh Yeshiva for new grooms.) I found my brother in excellent shape, happy and resolved to pursue a path of holiness. He was anything but brainwashed! He suggested that I go to the kotel and find a Lubavitcher named Guru Gil who might show me the biblical instruments that he had hand crafted. Sure enough I found Gil (Rabbi Gutman Locks) joyfully wrapping tefillin on any willing tourist. I told him of my musical predilection and he offered to serenade me on his handmade harps and lyres right after Shabbat. Gil acquired the guru moniker because he followed his spiritual muse to India and acquired enlightenment and many followers in the process. At one point he led a commune in Baja California, the very location where I’m writing this essay. After coming to an intellectual and spiritual dead end with capitalism, Hinduism and Christianity, Gil was marooned with his unexplored heritage while visiting the Holy Land. He found that the countless hours of meditation didn’t hold a candle to simple outreach to other Jews with acts of kindness and became a giant in Torah.
That Motzei Shabbat I found my way to Gil’s Old City apartment and took my seat in his spacious living room with a half a dozen other guests. He gave us a booze-enhanced concoction and asked us to relax as we turned our chairs to face the Temple Mount. As he prepared to pluck his harp, I felt serene and buzzed and was ready for whatever vision the music might summon. He told us to direct our attention to the vortex of holiness that springs from the foundation stone of the Holy of Holies, the fount of Torah that we speak of emanating from Zion in the Psalm “Ki Mitziyon tetzei Torah.”
At first I was dwelling on the beautiful pentatonic tuning of the finely crafted instrument. Eventually I was able to venture beyond the physics of the note interactions and allowed the sustaining strings to evoke visions of iridescent grandeur. No, he didn’t feed us hallucinogens! I envisioned a black and white vortex spinning up from this crucial singular point, black fire on white fire, culminating in two heavenly orbs. These swirling orbs were fiery crimson and the deepest indigo and at one point the two separate spheres combined in an explosion of incendiary, regal violet. It was clear to me that these colliding circumferences were the imminent combinations of the souls of my fiancé and me. I felt a deep knowing that our union was heaven sent and that there was purpose and importance to our combined, yet unknown mission. Whatever that mission would be, I felt clarity that it would center around directing the attention of K’lal Yisrael, the Jewish nation, to this wellspring of holiness originating in Zion but available wherever hearts are open. On the day we met, my wife’s very spiritual roommate reported that she perceived two brilliant orbs joining together…I felt privileged that God had given me the gift of seeing the same vision.
Every single day in the life of the Observant Jew revolves around Israel. The quest of Aliyah is the persistent back-story of each of our festive occasions. The Shabbat liturgy repeatedly mentions the importance of remembering our origin story, namely, the formation of our nation in Egypt and subsequent wandering in the desert on the way to Israel. With all this emphasis on where we began, it begs the question, “Where are we going? The Jewish People clearly are working on more than getting to the next meal or surviving yet another Arab attack. What is it we are striving for? Why are we anchored to this strip of land in the hostile Mid-East? Why are the nations that surround us taking up arms in every generation? What do they want from us? What do we want for ourselves?
The Torah leaves us on a cliffhanger with these questions largely unanswered. Moshe dies on the border and the Jewish People wait for his successor Joshua’s lead to make the conquest of the Promised Land. One has to delve into the Torah’s sequel, known as Nevi’im, or the prophetic writings, to get the full picture of our mission statement. From the time of the settling of the land until the two exiles, Jewish history appears like a grand sine wave, with the apex of peace, faith and invincibility leading to a nadir of self indulgence, decadence and defeat and then back again. Much like our turbulent wanderings in the desert, we go from dutiful service to complaints and dissension, repeatedly testing God’s patience until destruction ensues. Each time on this hopefully finite cycle we gain more insight into what it might take to stay on top and the process begins yet again.
With the devastating conquest of the Romans and destruction of the Second Temple it appears that the jig is up. The Torah’s prophecies of the Jew’s utter despair, remaining few in number and serving a protracted sentence wandering the nations is tragically fulfilled. It seems all is lost; our mission has failed and we are now orphans of history without a homeland or hope. However, we receive certain guarantees in this ultimate exile in which we are still entrenched. We are assured that God will be with us, that the Torah will always be accessible and that at some distant point we will all come home. Our grand story is still very much alive, only now we have left our nest to spread our message to all the nations. After 2000 years of remarkable influence in every corner of the globe we have returned to our homeland with great signs and wonders. History continues to unfold in our Internet age with Israel at the forefront of current events in every day’s news broadcast.
Israel serves as the punching bag for the world’s malevolent obsession with Jewish exceptionalism. Our detractors seethe with envy and struggle to knock us down from our supernatural, unprecedented eternity. That a persecuted nation without a land should survive the millennia and still ask the “four questions” at the seder table and celebrate in fragile sukkot? That this “disgraced” people should commit the ultimate chutzpah of coming back to their land to create a flourishing first-world country amidst medieval, violent tribal monarchies? Who can tolerate such brazen behavior from these annoying Jews?
When searching for Israel on a globe it becomes immediately apparent that in spite of the excess of press received it is truly tiny and vulnerable. Smaller than the state of New Jersey, there isn’t sufficient space on the map to indicate the name of the country so “Israel” floats in the Mediterranean with an arrow pointing to a small, shapeless chip of paint. This geographic perspective also clarifies the logic behind God’s choice of a homeland for God’s treasured nation. If our purpose is to merely survive intact then we could have been located in the Amazonian jungle. But if our mission is to influence the world with the truth of ethical monotheism, it makes sense to locate our capitol at the crossroads of the world. Indeed Israel is directly in the trade route of both North to South and East to West movement between Eurasia and Africa. Israel’s centrality is not only geopolitical, it is geological: before the Suez Canal was dug, a raindrop falling in the Israeli hills would flow to either the Pacific or the Atlantic ocean.
There is also logic to God choosing a land without abundant natural resources. With no land-based oil reserves, limited mining opportunities and an inadequate water supply, the residents of the land are forced to innovate and thereby apply those innovations to all areas of life, the very engine of the “light unto nations.” Whereas the Nile was the ever-flowing body of water for the boastful Pharaonic deities, our Jewish homeland could never rely on grandiose self-satisfaction; the trickle that is the Jordan River leaves us perpetually dependent on God’s compassion in the form of rain to survive. This beneficent dependence is the crux of the fundamental spiritual message that we spread while dwelling at the crossroads of the world.
The initial journey to the Promised Land started with an element of surprise and mystery. Avraham’s first commandment was “Lech L’cha” or “go for/to yourself” to a land that I will show you. Within the initial call to action is a requirement of trust, coupled with a reassurance that all will go well. This simple lesson can inspire every Jewish journey; we go forth into the unknown with faith that God is by our side, every journey is a revelation both of the external world and our own personal topography. Soon after reaching the land, further tests challenge our patriarch. Famine strikes, requiring that Avraham seek refuge in Egypt, and then he is told that his progeny will serve as slaves in a strange land before their miraculous deliverance. Indeed, Isaac struggles to get along with the locals and his attempts to establish permanence by digging wells in often in jeopardy. Avraham’s grandson Yaakov acquires for our nation the name Israel at the breaking point of his wrestling match with an angel. The lesson is that the Land will be won only with effort and suffering, those crucial elements that are required to make any conquest meaningful. Our patriarchs set the stage for the tenacious determination that possession of this spiritual terrain requires.
The Dalai Lama opted to study the Jewish people to understand the method for surviving exile. He learned that all of our holidays center on the relationship with Israel and that all our central prayers include requests for a strong, vital homeland. We face Jerusalem as we pray and even salute the attributes of Israel every time we utter thanks for a slice of bread. Since the destruction of our Holy Temple we leave a part of a new house incomplete, symbolically break a glass at wedding, and sing Im Eshkacheich Yerushalayim (If I forget thee, Jerusalem) at a b’rit milah. Once a year we sit on the floor in shoddy clothes crying fresh tears for our vanquished kingdom. As Napoleon famously said, “A nation that cries for its Temple for 2000 years surely will see it rebuilt.”
To travel to Israel today is to take ownership of this cosmic miracle of the modern Israeli State. I implore my audiences around the world to make THIS the year that they venture on the very the steps of our forefathers and four mothers. We take spiritual ownership of the land not by talking about it but by walking about it. I emphasize the wonder of the various waves of immigration from around the globe over the course of this past century. As of 2016 the majority of the world’s Jews live in Israel! Let us make aliyah not because we are persecuted but because we are inspired by our Judaism to want it all! Israel has everything! Spiritual and material riches await! From tropical reefs to arid desert, lush fields to snow capped mountains. There are Jews from every corner of the earth, every skin color, every degree of observance, flourishing in every occupation. For the action sports minded: surfable waves, river rafting, rock climbing, world-class mountain biking and even skiing. Whatever you seek, Israel delivers!
The Jewish People are still wandering the desert, the desert of ignorance and brutality, attempting to sow the seeds of loving-kindness, justice and charity. The forces of evil in the form of Islamic fundamentalism, anti-Semitism, BDS, holocaust denial, are no match for the vast power of the Jewish spirit. We are engaged in a mission of world redemption and in the process are struggling to influence in a patient, loving manner while maintaining our unique identity. The trials of each generation seem one and the same, largely because they are eternal: to hold on to the dream of freedom against all odds, to keep the faith and keep our focus, to teach, touch and entertain, to find laughter amidst tears and in times of defeat, to pick ourselves up and strive once again. This is the mission of the Jewish People for the benefit of all mankind, the true gift of Israel.
I wanted to finish this essay with a pair of powerful moments that I experienced this week. One of the great gifts in life is getting “winks” from God. Everyone gets them from time to time. We often call them small miracles or coincidences. I have taught my kids to say “large world, well managed” instead of “small world” when they happen. I got two profound winks over the past several days that I’d like to share. One instance occurred while skiing with my boys in the promised land of Vail, CO. I was going to travel to Toronto for a Shabbaton and my sons had to get back to Yeshiva University in NYC after their winter break. Why not ski Colorado on the way? We flew to Denver and drove a few hours to get five days in this ski paradise that I believe has no equal. We timed it well: every day from first run to closing time we were flying down the slopes blanketed with fresh powder, impossibly blue skies and no crowds.
On our last day on the hill I was hopeful to meet up with one of my good college buddies who has moved to the Vail area. Unfortunately, my iPhone kept freezing up and we were unable to touch base. At about 1pm we were doing laps on one of my favorite runs, The Star in the remote Blue Sky Basin area in Vail’s famed Back Bowls. My son Max is quite the kamikaze (almost as fast as his dad!) and was flying just behind me when he caught air off of a lip and unfortunately did not see a diminutive fifty-year-old woman cruising on the other side of him. He tackled her midair and they tumbled together about a half dozen times. I watched the whole thing and was utterly horrified. I slammed on the brakes and the woman’s friend screamed at me to call ski patrol and find her friends with whom they were skiing. When I saw that Max was OK, I told him to wait with her and exchange information and then Jesse and I flew down in search of the woman’s compatriots. We didn’t find them but thankfully by the time we rode the lift back up the ski patrol had arrived and was loading the poor pummeled woman in a toboggan, mostly as a precaution. Who was waiting with Max? My college friend Brian Ogawa, the guy I was looking for! Yes, it was Brian’s friend that my son mowed down. This was not how we hoped to connect…but this “large world, well managed” moment gave us both a serious jolt of wonderment. Thank God, the woman is fine and Max escaped with a bruised leg and an important lesson of the need for a bit more caution.
Soon thereafter, following four days among the “frozen chosen” leading a Shabbaton for the largest synagogue in North America, Beth Tzedec, Toronto, I led a community Rockin’ Youth concert on Sunday and then flew directly to Cabo San Lucas to deliver a Tu Bish’vat jam for Chabad of Cabo. Yes, it’s been a decadent week! My wife and daughter flew down from LA to join me for some fun in the sun and thankfully Chabad has delivered delicious meals to our hotel everyday. Today I opted to do a dive in the nearby city of La Paz in order to experience a very rare treat in the underwater world: swimming with the largest fish in the sea, the whale shark. Jacques Cousteau calls this unique gulf “the world’s aquarium.” The local dive boats charge around $200 a person for the trip but one can find local Panga boat captains willing to do the same thing for about $20, especially if you have your own gear.
I expected the Sea of Cortez to be much calmer than the Pacific side of the peninsula but sure enough once past the breakwater we were tossed about by 6-10 foot whitecaps. After about forty minutes of turbulent travel, the captain announced to the Mexican tourists and me that it was time to suit up. I noticed that only I was getting ready. “What?” I stammered, “You folks aren’t getting in?” “No,” they replied. They weren’t crazy enough to jump in the water with these 30-foot plus creatures lurking about the depths. “Oh, great,” I thought, “I’m on my own!” When a vast grey shadow longer than our boat cruised by, the captain yelled, “Now!” I plunged into the roiling depths and swam towards the looming spotted skin of the leviathan before me. The whale shark was slowly ambling by and seemed to be keeping pace with my panicked strokes as I attempted to keep up. I travelled alongside with the beast only a few feet away! I attempted to avoid the mouth that could have swallowed a Smart Car and also ensured that I steered clear of the tail that could have smacked me unconscious. After fifteen minutes or so of matching it’s pace I could no longer keep up and so I flagged down the vessel to pick me up. This crazy experiment repeated another three times as we trolled the area.
My forth dive in the water was the most transformative. I was now slightly more relaxed, as relaxed as one could be alone in turbulent surf with a sea monster! At least now I attempted to film the adventure with my GoPro camera, whereas before I was too freaked out to remember to breathe! At one point, the shark that I was chasing met up with a fellow giant and they affectionately rubbed heads against one another. For the first time I was able to just enjoy the scene without having to frantically keep up and I felt an uncanny sense of union with these peaceful creatures and with all of creation. I then followed the smaller of the two beasts for a while and finally flagged down the boat. When I flipped onto the safety of the deck I looked back at the sea to say farewell to my new friend and the shark rolled on its side and WAVED its six-foot long pectoral fin at us. I’m totally serious! And not just once…but for about twenty seconds! Yes, I’m still freaked out. And yes, that was a powerful wink from the Creator of the Universe Who LOVES when God’s beloved human partners enjoy creation.