On this Shabbat of Parshat Sh'lach L'cha it seems appropriate to talk about an excursion to the Land of Israel, as this story marks the first such tour of the land—it is actually called that in our portion, "latur et ha'aretz" the sedrah tells us. The tale of the 12 mraglim, the spies who scouted out the land for Moses and ended up making a bad majority report, sets up a patter of poor PR for the land of Israel that I sometimes think has lasted until today. If you will, the 10 spies who say "it's a rich land and beautiful but full of monsters" are much like the majority of the world's press, that sees Israel's economic, democratic and cultural miracles and says, "Yes, but they are terrible oppressive people." And the two good spies today, the minority report by Joshua and Caleb, the voices calling in the wilderness, tell us "it is a wonderful place and morally pretty good; it only needs God's help to rise to a new level of sanctity."
So I have a scriptural justification for speaking about Israel tonight, but I must begin by apologizing to all of you who have been faithfully reading the 9 reports that I sent back on our Third Temple Emanu-El Israel Pilgrimage trip, which concluded last Shabbat. It is not that I intend to repeat the same information tonight that you have received in the last twelve days, and which you can access through our website or by a link in the weekly Temple email or by picking up the packet of reports that Mila Vasser has so carefully assembled for you in our literature stands. It is just that I realize that in my continuing enthusiasm for this subject we run the risk of literally overexposing you to Israel, as people used to do when they came back from their first trip to Israel with a thousand slides and forced everyone who visited to watch their slide shows.
For those of you who don't remember slide shows, they were basically PowerPoint presentations that broke down every 5 minutes or so.
For those of you who do remember slide shows, you know how desperate the experience could be. You have just finished dinner with some friends, and are looking forward to a smooth escape after dessert when your host says, "I can't wait to show you the slides of our trip to Israel! Come on into the living room, the screen is all set up." And with a sinking heart you are then forced to endure an hour and a half of blurry images of the Knesset, the Chagall windows at Hadassah, the Kotel at sunset, a cactus in the Negev, the Sea of Galilee, the beach in Tel Aviv, the cousins from Haifa, and the view from the hotel roof towards the Old City of Jerusalem. The crowning glory, of course, is the artistic shot of the hosts taken on the Mt. of Olives atop a camel, looking terrified, with the golden Dome of Rock in the background. "That was wonderful!" you say afterwards, less than honestly. "I could almost taste the felafel." And you beat a hasty retreat home, chastened and promising never again to go to anyone's home who has just come back from Israel for the first time.
The truth is that things have changed quite a bit in how we experience other people's voyages of discovery, and that is certainly true for Israel. We can now see our friends' tour photos real-time on Facebook, get email reports and podcasts directly from Israel, and of course text or talk on the phone or by Skype to distant travelers without taking out a second mortgage—if there were still second mortgages available to take. We can read the same Israeli newspapers here in America at the same time that visitors are reading them in Israel, watch the same videos from the scene of events in Israel that our pilgrims are seeing at the same time they are seeing them. The world has shrunk to the point that we can believe that we are actually experiencing virtual Israel nearly as completely here in Tucson as those who journey there can.
By the way, while the world may have shrunk electronically it still takes 20 hours to fly to Israel from Tucson no matter how you do it...
There are other differences in how we perceive the Israel experience. Where Israel was once a mythologized, distant land of the imagination filled with kibutzniks wearing stupid hats and making the desert bloom, draining swamps with one hand and fighting off medieval Arabs with the other, where a journey to Israel was a destination of a lifetime to be saved up for and savored for years, today we have a far more complex view of Israeli life and society. Today our prevailing mythos seems to be of a land divided between ultra-Orthodox fanatics and high-tech entrepreneurs, a dangerous place where terrorist disaster lurks around every corner, except for the new software tycoons. Going to Israel is now viewed either as a debatable vacation to an interesting and culturally important but intense and dangerous part of the world, some kind of sleepless hyper-speed mission trip in which we can import American luxury travel into a foreign, Jewish land while vigorously congratulating ourselves on our high charitable accomplishments, or as a place for college and post-college kids to go for a quick, sleepless, peer-group immersion into the Judaism they haven't really paid attention to for several years.
I'm not sure we have improved things much on the reality scale.
Having been back for a few days a certain perspective begins to settle in. First, with all the technological change in experiencing things from afar, actually being in Israel is really nothing like reading about it or seeing news reports on it or seeing photos or video clips of it. There is no substitute for actually going to Israel, and I do not mean on one of those high-pressure, short-term, quick sales institutional trips that folks end up on today. Israel is a modern, beautiful, energetic country, socially and politically far more complex than America but with most of America's comforts and development. It is also a small country, in which you constantly see people you know from everywhere in the world. Wendy and I counted 12 chance and delightful, encounters with people we knew from Tucson or Jewish life somewhere around the world, including actor Hal Linden, who seemed to be stalking us, as his visit with the Jewish National Fund paralleled our course through the country from hotel to hotel...
Next, I never feel as safe traveling as I do in Israel, to be honest, and there are interesting things to see and do everywhere. It is a great place to travel, well set up for Americans in ways few countries are. For one thing, the increase in English signage that has been in process for decades is now pretty complete. In Tel Aviv last week most stores had both English and Hebrew signs, and that was not just along the beachfront promenade but throughout the whole city. Jerusalem has followed along on this. I cannot recall even a year ago seeing so much English. Clearly the international language has taken hold with a vengeance in the Holy Land.
Second, there is no way to emphasize the explosive economic and infrastructure growth in Israel in recent years. From the lovely patio of the Rabin Museum in Tel Aviv we could see 12 construction cranes at work on major new buildings—12! And that was just a portion of Tel Aviv. Jerusalem's new outdoor Mamilla shopping arcade, which runs from King David Street to Jaffa Gate, is now one of the glitziest and busiest in the Middle East, if not the world. The road system in Israel, once pathetic, is now outstanding. We watched the Jerusalem light rail system carrying passengers throughout the city—it's a little more impressive than our upcoming Tucson light-rail system, by the way. Their economic growth rate is something close to 5% annually, and while their unemployment rate is still about 6% ours here in America is 8%. They haven't felt the effects of the global recession, and they now have huge natural gas reserves that will begin to make them a net exporter of energy within the next five years or so. And the food just keeps on getting better: as our bar mitzvah on the trip, Jake Gordon, said, "Israel is heaven on a plate." It really is, and the improvement is exponential. When I first went to Israel in 1976 food was pretty awful, except for felafel. In 2012 food is extraordinary, including a remarkable world-class restaurant where we celebrated our anniversary last Saturday night in Tel Aviv. In fact, we are simply not hip enough for most good places there nowadays...
The Gay Pride Parade took place a week ago in Tel Aviv, the entire city was turned into a welcome center for the hundreds of thousands who flocked there from all over Europe, and all over the world, for it. It is one of the largest and most successful in the world, and the openness and generosity of the city was completely evident. It made for a fascinating drive to shul last Shabbat, by the way, as we passed groups of revelers dressed—and undressed—for the parade who called out cheerfully to us as we headed for Friday evening services. Everything is available in Israel now, and this was a wonderful celebration.
As always, the explosive modernization of the country includes integrating the tremendous antiquity of Israel's phenomenal past. New excavations, like the fantastic City of David work, have unearthed a great deal of material from first Temple times, long considered a kind of lost era in Israeli archeology, and the new sites are being handled with great finesse and a showman's touch. And where possible ancient sites, like Cesarea or Jaffa, are turned into contemporary, fully functional commercial and residential areas, where people shop and work and create art and put on concerts and plays and eat in the same exact structures that were used a thousand or two thousand years ago. And the new material coming from the archeological digs and research continue to change the way we perceive the past in important ways.
Third, this is the first trip I have taken that was an interfaith experience. That meant that we Jews had the opportunity to share certain sites and experiences we would have seen otherwise, and to gain a perspective that is often absent from purely Jewish trips. One of our travelers was an engineer, and he noted that before you can really understand something you must see it from three different perspectives. Having the Jewish and American perspectives, as usual, was aided by having an educated, knowledgeable Christian perspective on the central sites of the holiest country for the world's largest religion as well.
Two of my favorite moments came with the Reverend John Kitagawa of St. Philip's Episcopal Church, our partner on the trip. The first came at the Kotel, when I took John under the arch in the Kotel area, to the very intense section where the ultra-Orthodox minyanim are held 24 hours a day, a weird and compelling place of varied services conducted by various groups with a high degree of religious fervor. The other was at the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, where there were artistic depictions of the mother-and-child submitted from many countries around the globe, and we both agreed that the finest of these came from Japan, showing a Japanese Madonna and Jesus. As John put it, "I know full well that Jesus wasn't Japanese, but I love it anyway." I understand...
On every trip to Israel I learn something I did not know before. This trip, there were several obscure and weird facts, including that the black spots on all the unique Bauhaus inspired building in Tel Aviv come from bat guano, and the reason they don't remove the bats is that they eat all the mosquitoes that would otherwise prey on the residents. I also learned that the single most reviled individual in Israeli society is the kablan, the building contractor or remodeler; the running joke is that while hell has many beautiful homes, heaven is in general disrepair because there are no kablanim, no building contractors in heaven. But my favorite odd fact was that apparently Moshe Dayan, the famous general and defense minister during the Six Day War, refused to be photographed from behind because he had, well, a rather well-developed rear. As Israelis said at the time, "Golda Meir was our first leader with real..." um, we would say beitzim, or cojones. "All the rest had gigantic rear ends."
You see, Israel was imperfect even in those heady days...
Imperfect, but quite wonderful, even then and more so today. For what we ultimately take away from such a journey as ours, including a fabulous bar mitzvah experience at Robinson's Arch at the Western Wall, marvelous and varied and musical Jewish services in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, peaceful economic protest in Jerusalem and wild gay pride celebrations in Tel Aviv, a continual feeling of family and friendship and camaraderie throughout, great food, fantastic excursions into the past, the present, and perhaps the future in a magnificent land, is always the desire to share this with everyone here—and to bring you all to Israel, speedily and soon, to experience it for yourself.
To be, if you will, the Joshua and Caleb, the good spies, of today's promised land.
May this be God's will, and ours, speedily and soon.