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Vayeitzei 5782 - A Push Towards Travel to Israel

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Hizkuni, a 13th century commentator from Ashkenaz, sounds like a modern Israeli tour guide when he explains the holiness of the place where Ya’akov rests his head and dreams at the beginning of our parshah:

This is the place where Avraham offered prayers to God on his way to Ai, and Yitzhak later offered prayers on that same altar. The people Israel would fight battles in this very place in the time of Joshua, and one day, the Holy Temple, the Beit HaMikdash, would be built and destroyed, built and destroyed there, too!

When he wakes up from his dream, Ya’akov knows that this location is much more than a point on a map:

Surely, [he proclaims], Adonai is present in this place, and I did not know it. Shaken, he said, how awesome is this place! - Mah norah ha-makom ha-zeh! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway of heaven (Genesis 28:16-17).

Even though we extol God’s omnipresence, no matter where we are, Ya’akov Avinu, Hizkuni, and the Jewish people today also sense the sacred in that particular geographical spot of Old Jerusalem. Even today, Jews flock from all over the world to pray at the Western Wall - the Kotel - and yes, there is an egalitarian section. Our liturgy prescribes prayer three times a day, whether we are in Shreveport, Berlin, or the Bahamas, and we can talk to God on our own at any other time and place, and yet, when a friend or relative travels to Israel, we send little notecards for them to place in that wall, in hopes that God will hear our prayer even more clearly. Sometimes, Jewish communities like ours will even do all the hard work of organizing trips so that groups of people can go discover the Holy Land for themselves.

This week, the North Louisiana Jewish Federation will have two informational sessions about our community’s upcoming trip to Israel. (Before I continue, I want to make it clear - even though Federation and the rabbis’ discretionary funds can partly help fund the trip, this is not the most affordable way to travel to Israel. There are lots of ways and times to get to Israel if now is not fitting for you.) While our trip will be wonderful for those who just want to experience something new, take a break, or have some fun, I’d like to highlight some of the more spiritual reasons to travel to Israel.

Every week, we read stories about our ancestors’ encounters with God. Even among their trials and tribulations, our ancestors experienced real moments of inspiration - in this land, Avraham shared the beauty of monotheism, Yehoshua (Joshua) gave incredible pep talks, and Shlomo (Solomon) showcased wisdom as a key aspect of leadership. If our ancestors could experience that inspiration from the seas, deserts, forests, and mountains of Israel, we certainly could, too. If Avraham, Yitzhak, Ya’akov, Moshe, Sarah, Rivkah, and Miriam could have all heard God’s voice so clearly in this environment, we, too, might be able to access a clearer sound of God’s voice in that tiny state on the Mediterranean. Of course, we are not the only people who have seen God so vividly in the Land of Israel. Something in the air, the dirt, the natural resources, must allow for that different access to the Divine!

Just as we wish for the memories of our loved ones today to be for a blessing, we can honor the memories of our loved ones of old by walking in their footsteps. Driving through Israel, one cannot help but notice the interplay of absence and bounty, the famine and plenty that caused our ancestors to travel as much as they did, to worry, for example about the amounts of striped and spotted sheep about which Rabbi Feivel will read today. We see the kinds of carob trees that sustained Yonah (Jonah) and the rams and ibexes that inspired Psalmists to sing out to God. Whether we travel with a tour guide or just read the diagrams on every hiking trail and in every museum, we can learn what centuries our ancestors walked this ground, who they were, and what they did. Past Biblical times, we learn of ancestors who developed the spiritual practice of Kabbalah, who built universities, invented technology we use every day, and created a safe haven for the Jewish people. As we learn our ancestors’ stories, we have the chance to explore how their lessons can affect the lives we live. In Israel, we can better visualize and internalize the stories and liturgy we otherwise might read by rote.

Especially coming from a small Jewish community, in Israel, we have the opportunity to dream of a life of accessible mitzvot. When so many of one’s friends and neighbors spend Shabbat going to synagogue, eating together, and playing card games, it’s much easier to keep both the restrictions and the positive obligations of the holiday. When all of the restaurants and supermarkets around (or at least some of them, depending on the city) are kosher, it’s much easier to keep kosher. And when the buses display messages of hag sameah, there’s no need to wear a different face in synagogue than in the outdoor world. There’s no need to check email on Saturday, if no one is expecting you to check email on Saturday. Even if a trip to Israel is brief, it allows for an imagination of a certain kind of lifestyle; it gives us ideas about how to bring that lifestyle back home.

I am incredibly excited to travel with those of you in this room who are joining us. Even if this is not your time to travel, please know that I can help to find opportunities.  If you’re between 25 and 40 or 18 to 32, respectively, Honeymoon Israel and Birthright are both free. Just Googling Israel tours for seniors brings up several programs for active adults over 55. If neither of those demographics apply, I am happy to sit down with you, Google, and your 5, 10, or 20-year-plan to figure out a way for you to get to the Holy Land.

  B’shanah ha-ba birulashayim. Truly, next year, our Jewish community will be in Jerusalem. I hope you are able to join us, so that we can say together, Mah norah ha-makom hazeh - how awesome, challenging, wonderful, Divine, is this place?!

Thu, April 18 2024 10 Nisan 5784