Sermon: May 19, 2017
D’var Torah for Parashat B’har
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
This week’s Torah portion, B’har (“At Mount Sinai,” Lev. 25:1—26:2), refers to a concept called ge’ulah, commonly and most often translated as “redemption.” In a religious setting, Redemption refers to spiritual elevation, perhaps following a moral fall and divine forgiveness. However, in context of this Torah portion, ge’ulah is more than a theological-philosophical term. Bound to very specific and complex laws regarding land ownership, here ge’ulah means “restoration,” in the sense of a return to an original state of being. In this parasha, ge’ulah occurs every 50 years, during Jubilee Year, and involves the restoration of all properties in the Land of Israel to their first Hebrew owners, the original tribes of Israel, each according to the portion that was assigned to it by God and Moses.
In the Torah’s view of ge’ulah, the Land of Israel, no matter how many transactions it may have endured, no matter how many times it exchanged hands and landowners, is intrinsically bound with the history of the People of Israel.
In the eyes of the Rabbis, however, the concept of ge’ulah refers to more than just land. Throughout the Jewish prayer book, the siddur, we find prayers praising God as Ga’al Yisrael “the Redeemer of Israel.” No matter how close we have come to being destroyed—whether by the ancient Egyptians or Babylonians, the Greeks or the Romans—throughout history and down to our own time, God has redeemed us, the People of Israel, restored us, and brought us back to the land of our ancestors.
I was thinking about this miracle of survival recently, while studying about an influential Jewish author who went by the pen name of Ahad Ha-Am (“One of the People”). Writing 150 years ago, Ahad Ha-Am, an important pillar in the newly born Zionist movement, diagnosed well the social ailments that afflicted the Jewish people of his time. He criticized the cultural, spiritual and educational decline that he saw all around him and called for a national awakening. Yet even he could not foresee the extent of the ge’ulah, the cultural renewal, that was about unfold throughout Europe and find culmination in the Land of Israel.
At the time of Ahad Ha-Am, the State of Israel was still a dream, a dream that over the next hundred years would take shape and form and then become real.
And now, Israel just celebrated its 69th Independence Day, a hallmark no one could imagine in the 1870’s. And some of us were even there to take part in the commemorations and celebrations.
Less than a month ago, a group of Temple B’nai Israel members drove through, hiked, climbed, swam, dug, learned about and explored the Land of Israel. We were moved and amazed by how modern and advanced it is, as well as by how much it has achieved in the short span of its existence.
The paradox of Israel isn’t only in the fact that, despite all odds, it is here. Nor is it only in the wide scope of its achievements. To look at Israel and Israelis today, it’s hard to grasp the reality that 70 years ago the Jews were not only a people without a land, but also a mere remnant of who and what we were just a few years earlier.
But I was born and raised in Israel. I saw it grow. And what never ceases to amaze me is that no matter how many times I visit, how long I stay and where I go, I see two Israels: I see the modern state, with its technology, museums, universities, culture and high-rises, and at the same time, underneath it all, I see the history embedded in its antiquities.
Wherever you go in Israel, you are reminded of the past. It isn’t only in Jerusalem, where the past lies right alongside the present, where transition from ancient to modern is smooth and polished. There’s En Gedi, one of my personal favorites. En Gedi is an oasis not far from the western shore of the Dead Sea. Hiking up the cliffs, you find refreshing waterfalls and pools, home to an amazing variety of wildlife. Here you can see the caves in which, three thousand years ago, the young David—in the years before he became king—hid while escaping the jealous wrath of his predecessor, King Saul. Today En Gedi is not only a culture and nature reserve, but also a thriving kibbutz whose assets include an animation studio, a cosmetics factory, a bottled mineral water plant, and an important field school.
Qumran, site of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, is just a short drive up from En Gedi, as is Sde Boker, the kibbutz where the first Prime Minister of the State of Israel, David Ben Gurion, chose to live out his remaining years and where his grave is today.
Yet another kibbutz we visited was Sde Eliyahu, a modern Orthodox kibbutz whose focus is on organic agriculture. Here ge’ulah means ridding the Land of poisons and pesticides and reverting to a simpler, more natural system of farming. Here the span between old and new, between ancient and modern is so seamless as to be almost invisible. It’s a miracle of survival and transformation that one has to experience to believe.
The colored cliffs of Machtesh Ramon are a natural wonder that draws geologists and topographers from all over the world. Our nature guide, while explaining how the site had formed over the ages, showed us a few of the finds he had managed to collect in this barren wilderness. These included not only minerals of all colors and shapes, but also shell fossils and even shark teeth (!) indicating that ages ago, this desert was the floor of a vast ocean.
Of course no tour of Israel is ever complete without some understanding of its modern struggle for existence. In the Golan Heights, we stood on the rim of an extinct volcano that overlooks one of the bloodiest battlegrounds of the modern State of Israel, the well-named Valley of Tears. Here, in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, sheer persistence and courage turned a near catastrophe into a victory, but not without self-sacrifice and the highest price paid by some of Israel’s finest and bravest defenders.
In Safed, the Galilee home to generations of Kabbalah mystics, and still to this day a pilgrimage site for many believers, we visited modern art galleries where ancient spirituality combines with new art forms and techniques to found a new language and a new idiom. A truly splendid moment here will remain etched in my memory: a bar mitzvah procession, winding its way through the narrow and ancient alleys of the city. Walking under a chuppa, a tallit canopy, as befitting a new bridegroom of the Torah, was a 13-year-old boy, who looked a bit discomfited and yet also thrilled to be led to the synagogue where, in a few moments, he would be chanting from the Torah for the first time. Surrounding the young man was his jubilant family as well as a band of musicians—and of course the inevitable videographer and soundman. While this group turned onto a side alley, we modern visitors from a new world went to say a prayer at the synagogue where The Ari, the sainted Rabbi Isaac Luria, founder of modern Kabbalah, used to worship in the mid-1500’s.
For me personally, the Land of Israel is filled with memories. I grew up here; I served in the IDF here. Here I developed a love for our people, our land, our history and our culture—a love that matured as, many years later, I assumed the title and role of rabbi. For me to return here with a group from my congregation was a highlight of my life.
On Shabbat, in Jerusalem, I marveled at this amazing juncture of time and space. After morning services in our hotel, and after a sumptuous Israeli breakfast, I was fortunate to spend some time with members of my family who came up from Tel Aviv to spend the day with us. Sitting around the rooftop pool were my brother (who had served in the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War and for a year and a half afterwards); our mother, a Holocaust survivor; and several of my brother’s seven grandchildren. Looking from one to the other, I realized that past, present and future all intertwined at that moment. I couldn’t have felt more fortunate, more blessed than I did that Shabbat morning in Jerusalem.
Only at that moment did I understand the full meaning of ge’ulah. Call it “redemption” or “restoration,” in Israel this spiritual concept is as real as the land itself. It refers to the existence of the Jewish People, some 3600 years after its birth, once again thriving in its restored, revived and reinvigorated Land. Despite all odds, against all predictions, Israel today is a true miracle, one for which we can yet once again say the blessing: Baruch ata Adonai, Ga’al Yisrael—We praise and thank You, Adonai our God, the Redeemer of Israel. Amen.
© 2017 by Boaz D. Heilman