O’ the Places You’ll See!
Sermon prior to the TOS Israel Trip
December 17, 2010
I recently returned from a study mission to Israel with fourteen Christian clergy and six rabbis. I publicly asked the Christians three questions, “How do you react to the Christian holy sites?” “How does it feel to be a minority?” “How does it feel to be in a place where Jews wield power?” They had no sense of awe at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the places where Jesus supposedly began and ended his life. In fact, they were repelled by the noise, the crowds, the smells, and the opulence of the Christian holy places. They were only moved by the calm waters of the Sea of Galilee. Their answer to the other questions “How does it feel to be a minority?” and “How does it feel to be in a place where Jews wield power?” were equally instructive. They replied that they were tourists in Israel and therefore had no relationship with the society that lived there. These questions were irrelevant to them. They were just there to glean what they could from this experience. They had as much relationship to the place as they did to other tourist trips to Italy, Greece, Turkey, or China.
I was fascinated by their answers. These Christians are tourists in Israel. They have no relationship or real interest in the place. Christianity for them is a universal religion that is not dependent whatsoever on the place of its origin. They were there to take pictures, learn something, and bring some thoughts back to their congregations. How Jews react to Israel could not be more different.
We are not tourists. We are pilgrims. Every time we visit Israel we are going home. This is the place where our ancestors lived, where our prophets preached, and where the Temple stood. This is the place where David ruled, the Maccabees fought, and chalutzim made strong. “We are returning home-home to our history, home to our people, home to the place where it all began for us.” We have a relationship with this land that transcends time and space. We will journey to many sites in Israel. “Tourists capture sights in living color. Pilgrims are themselves captured by the site’s holiness. They are unexpectedly carried away by what is simultaneously the story of the site and the story of themselves. We may begin as tourists or even as wary pilgrims in the making, hesitant to trash our Western style sense of being in control. We may go only marginally invested in the story we are about to experience, certainly not expecting to kiss the Wall, actually pray at someone else’s tomb, or dip our hands into the soil where Isaac dug his wells and modern day pioneers made the desert bloom. But we may be surprised. The land of Israel may have its own way upon us. We learn to see its sites, not just its sights, to appreciate its enduring sacred character, to know it for what it is; the land toward which we have been heading our entire lives.”
The trip we are about to take next Wednesday is not like any other. It is not a vacation- for I promise that you will be absolutely exhausted when you return. It is not just about visiting tourist sites- while we will see many we will miss more than we visit. It is not about having fun- though there will be an abundance of it. We are embarking upon a spiritual adventure. We are going to our spiritual and physical home.
Israel has much in common with the United States. It is a country of immigrants. It is a vibrant democracy. Its people have all the freedoms to which we are accustomed. It is raucous, dynamic, and bursting at the seams with energy. It has all kinds of topography, from the seashore to desert to mountains. It has all kinds of weather, from extreme cold to extreme heat. It grows more food than its people can consume. Like the United States, there is a huge gap between rich and poor. Yet that is about where the similarities end. Israel is very small, just the size of Maryland. It has a population of 7.1 million people, 20% of whom are Arabs, the rest Jews. While Israel is a country of immigrants coming from over 70 different countries, all the immigrants are Jews. It is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. Israel supports more start up companies than any other country besides the United States. Almost everyone is literate. There is universal health care. Unlike the United States, it spends over 50% of its budget on defense. Every eligible man and woman must spend two to three years in the military, which has profound effects on the society. There is no separation of religion and state in Israel. The government pays the salaries of only government recognized Orthodox rabbis and supports yeshivas and yeshiva students with tax dollars. Reform and Conservative rabbis are not supported by the government and are not recognized as rabbis. Israel, in contrast to the United States, has a system of proportional democracy. In Israel, voters are represented by the party for which they vote. If the party receives, for example, 10% of the vote, then it receives 12 seats in the 120 member Knesset. The party that receives the most votes receives the privilege of putting together a coalition government. Every Israeli government since the beginning has been a coalition government. If a party with as few as two or three seats in the Knesset pulls out of the ruling coalition, it can bring down the government. It is a rather chaotic system that seems to work. Unlike the United States, every Jew who immigrates to Israel automatically becomes a citizen. There are no visas, no quotas, and no exclusions.
Israel is the only place in the world where Jews are in the majority. While it may feel that Jews are the majority in Baltimore, we only make up 5% of Baltimore City’s population and 8% of the County’s. Israel is the only place in the world where it is completely normal to be Jewish. Israel is the world’s only Jewish state. It is the only place where Jews are in power. It is the only place in the world which offers security to the Jewish people. It is the only place in the world that wields power on behalf of the Jewish people.
We will see lots of young Jewish soldiers carrying their weapons with them everywhere. Israel is the only place in the world where we feel safe surrounded by young people carrying weapons. We will see life slow down on Shabbat. Even though we will be there on Christmas and New Year’s Eve, those observances will be irrelevant. What will be important to Israelis, and to us, is Shabbat. For ten days we will live according to Jewish time in the Jewish State. We will not like everything we see in Israel and we will not like all Israelis. After all, they are people just like us. Israel is not a Jewish Disneyland. It was not created to give us an interesting place to visit. It was created to give Jews from around the world a place to raise their children and earn their livelihoods in security and peace. Israelis have had to fight many wars to maintain that right.
We will have a wonderful and exhausting spiritual adventure. By the end of our experience, each one of us will be a pilgrim, connecting to the land and the place in very different ways. I promise you that you will want to return again and again because it always feels so good to come home.
I invite those traveling to Israel with Sally and me to please rise for a special blessing before departing for the Land: