Q: Last Tuesday [April 28] was Israel's Independence Day. Why do you love Israel? — E from Encino, California
A: I love the whole damn place! However, there are stories that are forever embedded in my memories of certain people and places in Israel.
Let me begin by explaining what Israel means to Jews and to Christians. Father Tom Hartman also loved Israel. Together we created Project Understanding, which brought Jewish and Catholic teenagers to Israel in hopes of planting seeds for new God Squads. The Catholic kids explained what the Christian holy places in Israel meant to them, and the Jewish kids explained what the Jewish places in Israel meant to them.
The trips were terrific, and we should all learn what the kids learned. There are sacred places on this Earth, and Israel, particularly Jerusalem, is one of them. Religions are not just about sacred time — the cycle of the holidays and prayer. Religion is also about sacred space. For Hindus, the Ganges River is a sacred place. For Aborigines in Australia, Uluru (Ayers Rock) is sacred. The Kaaba Stone in Mecca is a sacred place for Muslims. Every religion and culture share the common belief that, although every inch of planet Earth is a sacred creation of God, some places are filled to overflowing with sacredness.
Jerusalem is one of those places for Jews and Christians. My teacher Rabbi Nelson Glueck once told me that there is a legend that Jerusalem is the axis mundi, the navel of the universe, the place from which the world was created. That is the best way to explain a sacred place. It is a place that creates all the other places on Earth. The Hebrew word for Israel as a sacred place is not Israel, it is tzion — Zion. Zion for me is the place where heaven and Earth kiss. I cannot say it any other way.
In addition to the ancient Zion, the contemporary State of Israel is also special for me.
There is a place near Jerusalem where new immigrants to Israel begin their process of learning Hebrew and adjusting to their lives in the Jewish state. I visited that place years ago and saw a kindergarten class filled with new Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia. They are called Beta Yisrael, or Falasha Jews, and they have followed their own interpretation of Judaism since the time of King Solomon 3,000 years ago. With great courage and effort, Israel had rescued the entire starving and beleaguered Beta Yisrael community from Ethiopia during the time of its civil war and given them a safe home in Israel. I must say that it is always amazing to me to see Africans speaking Hebrew and reciting Jewish prayers, but it is obviously not amazing to them. That day I met a little boy named Moshe (his new Israeli name), who was drawing in crayon a picture of a dog. In Moshe's picture, the dog was smiling a big smile, which was cute and quite funny. I asked Moshe why the dog was smiling. He looked up at me with big eyes and his own smile and said, "The dog is smiling because I don't have to eat him."
There is a kibbutz (a collectivist farm) near the Sea of Galilee with another kindergarten that was visited by members of my synagogue. One of the visitors brought a large bag of crayon boxes for the children. He presented the crayons to the teacher, who told him to dump out all the crayon boxes on the big table where the children were sitting. He did that and immediately the children opened up all the boxes and piled up all the crayons in the middle of the table so that they could share all the crayons. I know that if a class of kids anywhere else was presented with such a gift, each child would probably write his or her name on a box of crayons to make it their own. Not that many Israelis live on kibbutzim, but the ones that do come out different from those of us raised in more individualistic and often selfish cultures. I think they come out better.
So when I am asked, dear E, why I love Israel, there are many reasons but it comes down to this: I love Israel/Zion because it is a place where a little Jewish boy from the heart of Africa does not have to eat his dog and where they make the best crayon-sharers in the world.
Happy birthday, Israel!
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