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Ge’ulat Yisrael: The Redemption of Israel

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

D’var Torah for Parashat B’har

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.

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A Fragile Balance

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

D’var Torah for Parashat Acharei Mot

The story of Acharei Mot, this week’s Torah portion (“After the Death,” Leviticus 16:1—18:30), picks up with the aftermath of the disastrous events described a couple of portions earlier. In that portion, Shemini, set in the midst of the dedication of the Tabernacle in the desert, we read of the tragic death of Nadav and Avihu, two of the High Priest Aaron’s four sons, who were killed while attempting to offer their own sacrifices. The Torah tells that for this offering, one in fact “which God had not commanded them,” Nadav and Avihu were using eish zarah, “a strange fire.” As they drew near with their offering, a flame leaped out of the altar and consumed them in full view of Aaron, Moses and the entire congregation.

While the Torah offers no reason for this punishment other than that they did something they were not supposed to, rabbinic interpretations offer several possibilities. Some say that Nadav and Avihu might have been intoxicated, or perhaps that they were trying to contravene Moses’ and Aaron’s authority. Some rabbis fault the eish zarah, explaining that this “strange fire” came from the kitchen rather than from the eternal flame at the altar. Still others explain that, unlike Moses and Aaron, who worked in tandem with one purpose and one goal in mind, Nadav and Avihu worked separately, each trying to outdo the other in importance and impression.

In comforting Aaron, Moses does not blame the young men; rather, he says that it is “through those who draw near to God that God’s holiness appears.” Always charitable and forgiving, Moses prefers to see the pure motivation behind his nephews’ behavior. Aaron accepts the consolation, yet the questions persist—both in his mind and ours.

Were Nadav and Avihu wrong to try to draw near to God? Was there perhaps a barrier, some obstacle between their intentions and actions? Or did Nadav and Avihu simply draw too close?

In the Greek mythology story of Daedalus and Icarus, in trying to escape from the rocky island on which they were imprisoned, Daedalus constructs wings for himself and his son, taking feathers and gluing them to a frame with bees’ wax. Exuberant in flight, Icarus flies too close to the sun. Understandably, the wax melts and Icarus falls to his death in the sea. There is a simple lesson to this story: Keep a safe distance from the source of power and energy, lest you burn.

Yet that has not stopped people from trying to “draw near to God,” to be holy, to sense holiness, if only for a moment or two. Using various methods, from fasting to dancing, from pain to ecstasy, from monastic isolation to communal immersion, the goal has always been the same: To reach a state of unity with the Divine.

For some, nothing short of martyrdom suffices; even among Jews, the highest, the holiest, the most enviable form of death is while pronouncing the Sh’ma, the song of God’s unity.

So the question surrounding Nadav and Avihu’s death still stands, a mystery that defies simple answers. What did they do that was so displeasing in God’s eyes?

Drawing near to God is not the problem. It’s in how one tries to do it.

And in almost no other part of the world is this problem most visible than in the Middle East.

There are few places on earth where I feel closer to God than in the Land of Israel. Whether in the desert, surrounded by barren, eroded mountains, or in the rolling, lush green hills of the Galilee; whether at the Western Wall—remnant of the Holy Temple of our ancient people in our ancient and holy capital city of Jerusalem; or at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl, where the defenders of the modern State of Israel are buried—wherever I am, I seem to hear God’s calling in the wind, God’s voice in the surrounding silence. The fervent, tearful prayer of men and women at the Kotel (the Western Wall), the call of the muezzin from the mosque and the tolling of bells of the many churches—sometimes all at once—remind us that this Land has been touched by God. Here the earth itself is holy. As I cup it in my hands and let it trickle between my fingers I feel its searing power. Soft as baby’s skin in some places and rough as an old man’s beard in others, this sacred soil holds within it intense power. Our people have always drawn strength and faith from it. Nowhere more than in the Land of Israel do I understand better the connection between God, adama—earth—and Adam, the first human being.

I know I am not the first to feel this sacred connection. For thousands of years, this narrow strip of land has bridged civilizations, has been home to countless religions, and has drawn to it millions of pilgrims on their sacred journeys.

But the Land of Israel has also seen more than its share of war and bloodshed, all in the name of God. Its soil has been hallowed by the blood of hundreds of thousands who tried to draw near to their God, who came to walk in the footsteps of judges, prophets, kings and messiahs. But among those who came in search of holiness were also some who were more than willing to prove their faith by killing others and spilling the blood of those who did not share their faith and fervor.

Still today, a fragile balance of faiths exists in Israel. Try moving a chair allocated to one denomination to a corner of the roof given over to another. The commotion might erupt into a full riot, and possibly even evolve into an outright international crisis, before tempers cool again.

Separating between politics and religion in Israel is impossible. Religious fervor and nationalistic fervor are one and the same here.

And the fire burns.

Some people blame God and religion. But that’s not where the fault lies. The problem is in us.

It’s a problem when we use religion to gain power over others.

It’s a problem when we use religion to enforce our own views on others.

It’s a problem when we don’t recognize the diversity of human perception and the complexity of faith.

This week’s portion reminds us of the fate of Nadav and Avihu, whose entire approach to the altar was problematic. They each wanted more than their fair allotment; they wanted more power than even Moses and Aaron. It wasn’t only that they used “foreign fire,” unholy means, to achieve their goals. Their purpose to begin with was wrong too: It wasn’t to prove God’s power, but rather to own holiness and to extol their own individual supremacy.

Perhaps that is why the portion now picks up with further instructions regarding offering sacrifices. The proper way and the wrong way are clearly illustrated, with the ultimate message that no one can claim sole possession of holiness. Every individual has the Divine image within him- or herself. Each of us has a role and a place in the delicate balance between heaven and earth, between the sacred and the profane, between holy and evil.

Perhaps, if we take the lessons of Acharei Mot to heart, we may yet live to see peace in the Middle East.