Israel Really Is Real
Israelis tend to speak plainly and directly and brook very little nonsense. This isn’t to say that they lack a sense of humor, but it doesn’t resemble the New York “Woody Allen” irony so typical of the American-Jewish experience.
Perhaps it’s because of the very real existential threats that hang over everyone’s heads here in Israel, but I think it goes much deeper than that — and is related to the major difference in feel and style between the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds.
In the Diaspora, Jews have romanticized and fantasized and imagined Eretz Yirael (the land of Israel) from a distance of space and time. It was always the “Promised Land” — not the land we actually inhabit and experience on a daily basis. The lives of the Tannaim, those sages of the Mishna, and the last generation to be concentrated in Eretz Yisrael, studying and discussing and revealing the deepest meanings of Torah, read like fables.
We learn about the fantastic wealth of Rabban Gamliel, the Nassi — the President — and of Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaria, his part-time successor. We learn of the wondrous cave that sheltered Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son as the wisdom of the Zohar was revealed to the world through them. We learn of the miracles that occurred at the Bet HaMikdash, The Holy Temple, and we even refer to our debating champions, our leading sages, as Ba’alei Trisim, gladiators.
Although, to be sure, we also learn of the savagery against us and the periodic slaughters of our people, the poverty and hardship, as well as endless mundane matters of civil law and torts, kashrut and more, there is still an almost magical glow the Babylonian Talmud wraps around that land from which the sages of Babylon had been exiled.
The Jerusalem Talmud has a different feel entirely. Down-to-earth, it lists the relevant halachot in a straightforward, business-like way. It is dry in comparison to its Babylonian counterpart. It sets and reflects the tone of actual, not imagined, life in the land of Israel.
Although I lived in Jerusalem for seven years almost 30 years ago, and I should, therefore, know better, I arrived here on aliyah several weeks ago with a full set of unrealistic, non-realizable expectations. In place of experiencing a chain of epiphanies, one rapidly following another, I was faced with a seemingly unending round of government offices and bureaucratic errands. It’s a common experience to arrive early in the morning at the appointed building only to learn that it’s only open later in the afternoon, and when you finally talk to someone in the afternoon, you learn that the only person who can help you isn’t there at all that day. You need one piece of paper to be able to open a bank account, but you can’t obtain that certificate without a bank account to begin with. The stories are familiar to every new immigrant to Israel. On one hand, it’s like paying dues, as Israel, along with Torah and the “world to come,” are only acquired through hardship (TB Brachot 5a).
But they are more than a mere initiation rite. Rather, these challenges present a unique opportunity for us to expand our idea of “holy” and “spiritual.” Of course, we try to elevate our prayer and our Torah study from mere rote-repetition to making a deep connection with the Creator, and we also extend this outlook to a certain, very limited set of ritual acts we call mitzvot. But, while we often recite , M’lo Kol Ha’aretz Kvododo (“He fills all of reality with His presence”), and Eyn Atar Penuiy Miney (“There is no place wherein He is absent”), most of us divide our lives into the “spiritual” and the “mundane.” We leave our spirituality behind in the study or the prayer hall.
The reality of being in Israel is, we are taught, one of the highest, most spiritual states of existence available for a Jew. It often doesn’t feel that way at all — it’s hard to reconcile that teaching with sitting in a crowded bus stuck in traffic, or while waiting in line at an office. Nonetheless, if we believe in the integrity of the Torah and our spiritual tradition, these experiences, as well, are not merely holy, but filled with an overwhelming degree of holiness not found in our highest experiences outside The Land.
Thus, it’s time to get down to business, to finally understanding that every single moment of life that has been granted to us by the Creator is holy, only awaiting our opening of our eyes and hearts, and bringing our souls to the party.