The Midrash says that God gave the Jewish people three presents which were also desired by the nations, and which can only be acquired through suffering: 1) Torah, 2) the Land of Israel, and 3) the World to Come. (Sifri - Devarim 32)
The fact that the Midrash groups these Divine gifts together indicates that they share a unifying common denominator. As Torah and the World to Come are clearly spiritual gifts, the Land of Israel must have a spiritual aspect as well. In fact, the proper appreciation of this spiritual quality is the key to unlocking the mystery behind the current Mideast conflict.
Why should acquiring Israel be any different than acquiring Uganda?
There is no way to understand this if we conceive of Israel as being just another country, much like the United States or Canada in quality, although considerably smaller. Such countries do not need to be "acquired through suffering"; they have no intrinsic spiritual aspect. God designed them as suitable habitats for humans who possess the spiritual reach programmed into the species at the moment of creation. There is no need for the human user to "grow into" these lands.
But Israel was not designed to be user-friendly. Just as the World to Come is only open to the spiritually deserving, the Land of Israel was designated as the earthly habitat of the human who strives to perfect himself and reaches out to God. In the unperfected form in which they were created, humans cannot live in Israel.
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Humans are unique because they are a mixture of physical and spiritual. We have a body which is similar to all other life forms, but we also have a soul. Body and soul jointly participate in most human activities. When a person eats, for example, the taste of the food, the setting, the cutlery, and the background ambience are almost as important as the nutritional value of the meal. Nevertheless, it is the need of the body for nourishment that provides the impetus for the meal.
Mitzvot are different. While many of them do involve both body and soul - eating matzah, wearing tefillin, blowing a shofar, etc. -- in the case of mitzvot it is the needs of the soul that provide the impetus for engaging in the activity.
To appreciate the subtle flavor of mitzvot, one must look at human activities that are purely spiritual. Deep meditation, for example, is an attempt to leave the confines of the body and express oneself as a pure soul. Because the impetus for mitzvot is, likewise, always a spiritual one, their performance is existentially equivalent to a purely spiritual experience.
But man is not pure soul. The body gets in the way when we engage in a "pure soul" activity. Removing the obstacle of the body necessarily involves tearing away and discarding a piece of oneself, a process that cannot help but be painful.
Living in Israel has all the distinguishing marks of a spiritual experience. The same process of divesting one's physicality is a necessary step in its acquisition. You can only get a grip on Israel as a soul.
We need only to look at the history of Israel to be convinced of this truth.
There is no other territory on earth over which so much human blood has been spilled. The secular theory attributes this strife to the strategic importance of this tiny patch of land, located at the junction of the trade routes connecting the lands of the north and east to Egypt.
An examination of the historical conflicts themselves points to Israel's importance as another sort of junction: its status as the Holy Land. In the minds of believers, Israel is located at the crossroads between the physical and the spiritual, where the mundane can cross over to the holy.
It is here that Cain and Able brought the offerings to God that served as the background to civilization's first homicide. It is here that Noah offered his sacrifice when he emerged from the Ark. It is the locale where Abraham was tested and told to sacrifice Isaac. Jacob's ladder was planted here, and King David later designated this site for the Holy Temple. Christians revere it as the place of Jesus' resurrection, and Islamic tradition designates it as the locale of Mohammed's ascent to heaven.
As all the monotheistic religions subscribe to the Old Testament, they must necessarily regard Israel as holy ground. For monotheists, the Land of Israel lies at the entrance to Heaven. Whoever holds it is already partially through the gate.
Christians and Muslims fought bitterly over Israel's possession as a holy resource in the Crusades, and today Arabs are fighting Jews for much the same reason. The terrorist acts from which Jews suffer are the work of suicide bombers and gunmen who believe they are earning eternal reward by sacrificing their lives in a religious Crusade to drive the infidel out of the Holy Land.
The Western mind may find it difficult to comprehend how a portion of earth that seems no different from any other can be designated as the habitat of the soul. But it is impossible to explain how Israel could have engendered so much conflict through history -- or become the major focus of world media and the United Nations -- without relating to it as a spiritual, rather than physical, place.
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Settling land physically translates into clearing the soil and taming the landscape. All the labor involved is focused on the outside environment; there is no particular need to work on one's character.
To conquer a spiritual land, this is not enough. Besides taming the soil, whoever wants to settle in such a land must also do heavy work on his soul. To live in a spiritual land, you have to grow into a spiritual person.
All spiritual growth is painful. "With much wisdom comes much grief," said King Solomon, "and he who increases knowledge increases pain" (Ecclesiastes 1:18).
The pain of spiritual growth is the suffering associated with the acquisition of Israel. The land punishes anyone who thinks of living in it as you would in any other country.
How ironic. The early Zionists, who organized the return of the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland, did so with the intention of creating a secular democratic state. They intended to solve the problem of anti-Semitism once and for all, imagining that once the Jews were living in their own land - once they were indistinguishable from Canadians or Americans or Englishmen -- the "Jewish Problem" would finally disappear.
Had Zionist pioneers foreseen that Israel is a land that requires a transition from a body-based lifestyle to one that is soul-based, they may never have come in the first place. Yet through Divinely-ordained history, there are now 5 million Jews in Israel -- the majority non-religious -- with no place to go, stuck in a land that demands soul-based behavior in order to acquire it.
In fact, the actualization of the Zionist scenario -- the successful establishment of a Westernized Jewish welfare state in Israel -- would effectively bring the secularized history of the Jewish people to an end. True, there would be hi-tech and Gucci and even Nobel Peace Prizes. But there would be no more "from Zion shall go forth the Torah, and the word of God from Jerusalem" (Isaiah 2:3).
Is it any wonder that Divine Providence cannot allow Jewish history to end this way? Through 2,000 years of exile, Jews have clung to a messianic vision with astonishing stubbornness. We bled rivers of blood in our determination to lead humanity to recognize God and accept His rule.
Is it reasonable to believe that God could allow the loyalty and self-sacrifice of several thousand years to just fade away?
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Which brings us to the Mideast conflict. God is demonstrating to the Jewish people that you cannot live in Israel as you would in New York. To live in Israel, you must fully devote your life to Judaism. After all, this is the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who were promised it as an inheritance so that they could worship God at the holiest place on earth.
God understands that the majority of Israelis aren't holding there at present (through no fault of their own), but this doesn't alter the fact that you can only live in Israel as a spiritual country. God has no other option than to make everyone consider what it means to be Jewish.
How can He accomplish this? One way is by allowing Jews to be shot at, blown up and terrorized simply for being Jewish. By allowing them to be terrorized until they reach the stage of hopelessness. After a while, this intense pressure will compel Jews to start asking some very pointed questions. "What's going on here? Why are we so different than other people? What value is being defended here that makes it worth all this blood and sacrifice?"
When an individual Jew reaches this point of soul-searching, he will either leave Israel, or set out to discover the meaning of Judaism. If he chooses the latter course, he will find answers in the Torah, and in so doing, move the Mideast problem one step closer to its true resolution.
God is not out to destroy the remnant of the Jewish people or to drive us out of our ancestral home -- certainly not after allowing us to miraculously regain it after a 2,000-year hiatus. God is just applying some pressure. He is teaching us that it is impossible to live in His Holy Land without thinking about the significance of being Jewish.
He is, in effect, leading us back to Sinai.
The greatest weapon the Arabs possess is the will to sacrifice their lives for their beliefs. The focal point of Jewish vulnerability is that we no longer believe in any higher power and can only rely on the might of our hands. We have absorbed the skepticism of the Western intelligentsia. For many Jews, the highest value is social justice and democracy, and we are seriously weakened by the fact that many of us question the justice of our cause. Torah values and promises are no longer useful to many as a means of justifying sovereignty over our ancestral homeland.
Our immense military power has not led to a speedy resolution. No matter what solution we attempt, we seem helpless to stop the carnage. Our national frustration and pain is aggravated by the fact that a large part of the civilized world regards Jews as the perpetrators of the violence from which we suffer, instead of perceiving us as its victims.
It is essential to have a stubborn belief in the justice of our cause to provide us with the necessary stamina to face the long haul.
Yet many of us come up empty.
What is the solution? For the Jewish people to succeed in our quest of reacquiring this junction between heaven and earth, we must regain our faith and the belief in our cause. We must recognize our current suffering as spiritual growing pains. Because in the end, that is the only means by which the Land of Israel will be acquired.