I still remember as a youth back in Montreal after the long winter’s snow had melted and all land that wasn’t concrete or grass became muddy. The warming spring weather gave us an opportunity to shed our winter boots, coats, hats and gloves and go out into the local fields and enjoy the soon to be blooming season. Soon my clothes were covered in mud, and my poor mother would attempt to keep my younger brother and I from entering our house so that she could spray us down with a garden hose. Being sprayed down with cold water was bad enough, but listening to her carry on about how naughty our behavior was and how embarrassed she was of us, was a lot to bear. Well so many decades later and unfortunately, I guess I still haven’t learned some of the proper ways.
A Confused Education About Judaism and the Land of Israel
I suppose like many from my generation and background, I grew up confused, you can say, I was given mixed messages. My father sent me to elementary Jewish day school. Why? He told me that his father was less religious than his father, and he was less religious than his father. Therefore, he concluded, if he didn’t send me to learn a ‘little’ Judaism I wouldn’t be able to keep my Jewish identity. After learning a little about the laws of Shabbat and Kashrut, I asked my parents why we were hosting a party with scampi (shrimps) being that it wasn’t kosher? “Well son, you see, we don’t keep all the laws that you learn in school, but we want you to know about them”. And so it continued.
One of the most confusing issues of my youth was the issue of Israel and Zionism. We were shown old films of the Chalutzim, the Pioneers as they worked the land before the creation of the State of Israel. We saw films of the 6 day war where Israel overcame all odds and captured much of our ancient homeland from our enemies. We raised money to plant trees in Israel. We raised money for soldiers during the 1973 Yom Kippur. We celebrated 10 years of the reunification of Jerusalem in 1977 at my 6th grade graduation. This led to me standing up at the luncheon of my Bar Mitzvah and declaring that I would one day move home, to Eretz Yisrael and stand in Jerusalem our capital and wear a kippah with pride and without fear. The guests even gave me a standing ovation. They thought I’d straighten out. I’d get over it. I’d do the right thing and go in the right direction.
So many of them wrote checks for trees, for Israel Bonds, for Israel emergency funds, etc. When I talked about working the land, or going to the Israeli army if they would take me, they scoffed at those thoughts. “That’s for them. We’ll support them, but it’s not for you. You’re here”. It just didn’t make sense to me. I came to realize that more, much more than me being confused, were those who were preaching to me mixed and confused thoughts.
I came to realize what a North American Zionist was in the 1970s and 1980s. Sadly, I concluded it was 1 Jew, who raised money from a 2nd Jew, to send a 3rd Jew to Israel! No wonder Aliya from North America was such a tiny numerical disaster!
And Then I Visited the Land of Israel
When I first visited Israel and realized that so many millions of Jews were living all over the country, I began not to question why I should live in Israel, but why so many in the West refused to come home? Why Florida for the winter? You like the beach? So why not Netanya, or Ashkelon, or any other beautiful city in Israel by the sea? Everywhere I stepped, I felt at home. The Galilee and Judea/Samaria gave me a real feeling of oneness with the Land of Israel. I cried when I prayed in Jerusalem. I knew I would be back, but as a new citizen, not as a tourist. And a few short years later, I came home.
Who Were The Heroes in the Land of Israel?
We read about the Lehi (Sternists) and the Irgun (Etzel). We hear about the exploits of Ariel Sharon and how he disobeyed orders and sent Egypt back across the Suez Canal in 1973. You visit Tel Chai along the Lebanon border and you learn about the one armed hero, Joseph Trumpeldor. Then you visit the holy city of Tsfat in the Upper Galilee and you go the cemetery and while some very pious people visit the graves of some well-known rabbis, most people miss an area of seven (7) graves from before the establishment of the State. They are the graves of those who fought against British rule in Eretz Yisrael and were hung in the gallows for the cause. It is because of their sacrifices that we are all able to visit everyone’s graves there. How many young have perished so that the next generation could live in a safe and secure country?
Today, the land is habitable and the cities are booming. The ground grows delicious fruits and vegetables. However, a little over 100 years ago much of the area was either swamps or desert, and little grew. The early pioneers suffered from malaria and other diseases and there wasn’t organized health care, often no running water. Yet they persisted. Soon the swamps dried and the deserts bloomed. As described in the bible, when the children of Israel come home, the land of Israel blooms. And so it did.
Many would like us to abandon this land to our enemies. The enemies still residing among us, have learned about working the land and go about illegally confiscating it each and every day. Some great groups such as Regavim fight daily in court to stop the commandeering of huge swaths of State land. Yet, the purchase of private lands from faithless Jews continues unabated. If they don’t grab state land, they purchase private land. More and more they plant trees on the land and claim it all for their so called livelihoods. Within their olive groves sprout illegal houses and soon a new village.
Ten years ago we embarked on a project to encourage Jews everywhere to purchase private land in Israel. There are many benefits including, the many mitzvot (commandments) in owning and working the land, owning a piece of the Holy Land, and earning a modest return on investment. The greatest pleasure I derive from this work is watching people planting trees in the Land of Israel on an area they just purchased. It’s amazing how so many Jews from so many backgrounds unite when they work the land.
Jews won’t connect to the Land of Israel by showing them that Israel also has McDonald’s or Pizza Hut. Jews will connect to the Land by praying in the Machpela in Hebron, or Kever Rachel in Bet Lechem, or at one of the holy graves in Tiberias or Tzfat and certainly if they are permitted to, on the Temple Mount, the holiest place in the Land of Israel.
With the book in one hand and a shovel in the other, we must continue to build and strengthen Eretz Yisrael. Tu B’Shvat is fast approaching. Some of you will donate a tree and that is nice, and then you’ll go back to your daily routine and forget about it. Most of you won’t even do that. Yet, some will be out in the Lower Galilee village of Yavniel on that day. As required, they will be planting trees. To most of them they will be special trees. Why? Because the trees they will be planting will be their trees on their newly acquired land.
I really hope it will rain and rain hard on Tu B’Shvat. Why? Perhaps because I have not matured and the little boy in me still likes to play in the mud. I like to think it is because I am no longer confused. My mind is clear. No matter what, on Tu B’Shvat we plant trees, whether it’s dry and hot or damp, wet, and muddy. Maybe for me to appreciate what the pioneers did to reestablish our presence in the Land of Israel, getting a little dirty from holy Galilee mud isn’t so bad. And so…we get a little muddy on Tu B’Shvat and the trees look like thin legged chickens and 4 years later when these trees are harvested for the first time, we see the beauty of the now strong, hardy, olive trees and their delicious oil producing fruit. Are you also a little bit crazy like me? If so, we’re looking for a few good Jews!