J. Berger on The Land



A Kiss for Eternity


December 15, 2007

Anshe Shalom

Hanukkah Sermon

By Jack Berger





Two Texans meet a Jew at a real estate convention and begin comparing their real estate holdings.


The first Texan says I own 30,000 acres and it takes me half a day to drive from one side of my ranch to the other. It is beautiful and I love to just sit out and watch the clouds go by.  I call my spread the Silver Cloud Ranch.


The second Texan begins to smirk and says, well I own 50,000 acres and it takes me all day to drive across it.  I have mountains and valleys and a lake where I can fish, fields where I can hunt and I can ride my horses all day long.  I call my spread the Mountain View Ranch.


And then they turned to the Jew and asked him about his real estate and, a bit uncomfortable, he tells them that he only owns about 300 acres, and with that the Texans break out into hoots and laughter / a hearty guffaw and with a slap on the back one of them asks – and what do you call your cute little spread, boy?  And the Jew answers – Downtown Dallas… and the laughter stopped.


And with this story we get a very profound Jewish message. Our people and our Land have never been about quantity – it has always been about quality. In our wanderings over the past 2000 years, money-wise our people did ok… for a while… yet money has too often been the root of our Diaspora delusions… whether in England, France, Spain, Italy or Germany / too often  materialism gave our people a false sense of security.


A Love Story


Yet in spite of our setbacks, our defeats and our humiliations, our story has endured as the longest running love story in the history of mankind, which has continued to perplex the world.  It is a love story that has endured from the time G-d said, “Let there be light…” for our all-knowing G-d knew from the day He created the world that His beshert was going to be a stiff-necked people. But He also knew it would be a love that would endure and it has – our Rock is perfect… all knowledge is His… From the days of Abraham in Ur an eternal bond was formed between a zealous lover and a sometimes difficult people who He believed in – more than we have believed in ourselves.





We have just commemorated Hanukkah, the festival of Gevura – heroism… a magnificent moment in our peoples’ history. A story of Jewish leadership and miracles… The odds, as usual, were against us, the Athens Tribune had already declared a Greek victory – but as Ben Gurion once said / when it comes to our people and our Land… “A Jew who doesn’t believe in miracles is not a realist”.



Leadership and Land


Throughout our history we have had many Jewish leaders of all shapes and beliefs, some good and others not so good, and we have had historical Jewish heroes who were not always warm and fuzzy – Judah Maccabee was a tough Jew and a leader who fought against the politically correct, multicultural Jews of the Hellenist persuasion before he attacked the Greeks. Several years ago I read an article about another Jewish hero entitled “Follow Which Leader?” It began with “… as usual the Torah… does not take a clear stand…” which I found perplexing. Here a rabbi was writing about Pinchas, and if there was ever a parasha in the Torah that takes a clear stand, this was it. As uncomfortable as some might feel – because you know how important it is for some to feel – you might remember that G-d chooses people to step up throughout the Torah – Abraham, Moses, Caleb and Joshua – Shimon and Levi,  Nachson and Pinchas – and there are a lot of very clear Thou shall not’s… so the Torah does take a clear stand – some just don’t always want to accept it… like the words - “I am giving you this Land as an eternal covenant” – seems pretty clear to me – but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.


It should be remembered that when Pinchas slew Cosbi and Zimri, his act stopped a plague that had killed 24,000 – not very touchy-feely stuff - but the rabbi continued… “Hashem extolled Pinchas and declares him a hero… Pinchas risked any popularity… he didn’t care at all what the people thought of his actions.  All he cared about was the dignity of G-d and this gave him the strength to act boldly…  G-d repays his loyalty with an unbreakable covenant / the priesthood… Moses got his strength to lead from a people who want to be led and at the moment they refuse to follow, his energy dissipates...


“Pinchas… does not derive his strength from the people… he does not need their approval… He does what is right… we all know examples of leaders who fail because they are too concerned with making sure they are popular… the trick for us is never to stagnate or lose sight of our obligation to G-d…” end of quote… Amen!

 (Rabbi Asher Lopatin, Chicago Jewish News, 7/9/04)


Nothing in the Torah leads one to believe that Pinchas remained sensitive to the people... and we read from Midrash that he was ostracized by the people – they wanted to kill him.  I’m sure the comfortable Hellenized Jews of Hanukkah times probably felt the same way about Judah Maccabee. Assimilating Jews didn’t just start in the 20th century.


Judaism Is Not About Democracy


My friends, Judaism is not about political correctness or democracy – and I know that may come as a shock to some – but Judaism is about a benevolent dictatorship with our G-d, Avenu Malkanu – as the King and we as His evit Hashem, His servants – that is Judaism and when some want to create a religion in their own image – it is no longer Judaism - liberalism is not Judaism! For you see, G-d is great in spite of what the Jew Christopher Hitchens, writes. Hitchens is a terrific writer, just not a terrific Jew.





Perhaps the most obvious example that Judaism is not about democracy comes in parasha Shelach Lecha – Send forth men, for yourself / 12 leaders / 12 machers and let them scout out the Land… - 10 come back with an evil report – 2 come back with it’s a land flowing with milk and honey. Now if you believe in democracy, the 10 with the evil report were right – but if you believe in Judaism, and our Torah – it’s the 2 with the good report who win. We Jews are a people small in number – if democracy were the way, we’d all be Christians!


No, Judaism is not about democracy.  I don’t recall a single vote on anything in our Torah – No one voted for Moses to be the leader - Abraham is told – Moses is commanded – the children of Israel are demanded.  Judaism is first and foremost about following our G-d and when you read the Torah the focus from beginning to end – the overriding theme begins with Lech Lecha – Abraham, go to the Land - not to idolize it - this is not about downtown Dallas – but the Land is about following G-d’s command… to go to a place – the King’s palace where He will dwell amongst His people.


Lech Lecha – go from where you live. I’m sure Ur was a nice comfy place to live especially when you’re rich, kind of like Lincoln Park or Glencoe, but Abraham leaves… And then we have Moses leaving the comforts of the palaces Egypt – the land of leeks and onions and fish – the good old days of materialistic slavery - and as bad as the sin of the golden calf – of worshipping a false god  - it was the sin of the scouts / the false report against the land / when G-d determined that the Israelites would die in the wilderness and a new generation would enter the Land.


The command was to go from our past and go to where G-d would transform His people into an Am Kadosh… and by now it should be clear that the greatest Zionist ever wasn’t Jabotinsky or Herzl – Ben-Gurion or Begin…it was Elohem… our God of Justice. The ingathering from Egypt, the more recent ingathering from Europe, from Russia, Ethiopia and the Arab lands, is about na’ase ve nish ma and the theme of all five books is a travelogue of our peoples’covenantal journey going to the Land…


And there was no better description of this ingathering than one by the historian John Gunther who wrote in 1938:

          “but Zionism could not be installed anywhere else… How can they

          sing the Lord’s prayer in a strange land… The concrete achievements

          of Zionism have been considerable… to many it was enthralling.

          I have watched the immigrants come in at Jaffa… from the ghettos

          of Lemburg and Czernovitz and Prague.  No, they were not handsome

          vigorous young men.  No, they were not lit by any apparent inward

          fire.  Instead they were wretchedly dressed and miserably poor

          huddled in compartments where brisk British officers shuffled and

          distributed them:  they looked like refugees from the slums.  But a

          few years later I saw these same people, tilling the soil, carving

          livelihoods out of the dusty rock of the Jordan hills – upright, alert,

          self-sufficient, with pride in their work and pride in themselves.  The

transformation was all but unbelievable.  They had begun to transform the Land, but the reality was that the Land had  begun to transform them.”


It was about getting your hands dirty with courage, pride and love, sometimes risking popularity – many Jews thought they were nuts – but a few years later those who chose to stay in their comforts of the most cultured, most civilized, most enlightened societies of Europe, those who didn’t lech lecha to Palestine… were being slaughtered by the tens of thousands, asphyxiated in gas chambers and burned in crematoria - so much for an enlightened Europe.


A History Lesson


Our Land of Israel has been conquered over 17 times by at least six empires over the last 2,500 years and never once did any Christian or Moslem conqueror make Israel or Jerusalem the center of its theology (for the Christians it became Rome, for the Moslems it became Mecca the third holiest is a bunch of nonsense… how the world indulges in their willful ignorance of lies big and small… unfortunately so do too many Jews).


The fact is, as the late Pope clearly stated to the world from Jerusalem, no other people were given their Land by G-d. No other people have been tied to their Land with such devotion that three times each day our people turn toward Jerusalem and pray to return. The very existence of our people is an historical mystery.  As a nation we have survived for nearly two thousand years while seemingly on the brink of total annihilation, yet the announcement of our death has often been greatly exaggerated. 


No other nation has survived its enemies against all the odds of history… Jews have been the victims of crusades, inquisitions, pogroms and holocausts, surviving them all.  “What is the secret of their immortality?" asked Mark Twain.


Never did G-d ever give up on His people.  It was just over 60 years ago, when even the best friends of the Jews believed that this time there was no longer a chance for the Jews to survive, yet our people not only survived Hitler and his all-too-willing executioners…but our Jewish people had the chutzpah, just three short years after the Holocaust, to not only survive, but to return to our homeland and begin a miraculous rebuilding for all the world to see.  How goodly are thy tents of Microsoft, Intel and Iscar / O’ Jacob, thy dwelling places O’ IsraelThe reestablishment of the State of Israel confronts all peoples of the world with the obvious reality of our unique, eternal covenant of love with G-d,  with His land, and that the very existence of Israel and our people bears witness to a higher force at work …otherwise it makes no sense! 


Every Jewish prayer for the last two thousand years was filled with love of the Land of Israel… G-d, may You rebuild Jerusalem in Your mercifulness.  Or, Take pity, our G-d of Israel, on Jerusalem, Your city on Mount Zion, the habitation of Your glory. Or, May it be your will, Oh G-d, to make us return to our land. The more distant the land was, the more fervently it came alive in our peoples’ hopes and prayers.  The State of Israel was in fact reestablished not in 1948 but in the year 70 C.E., the day after the Romans exiled us. 


From our Birkat HaMazon, our grace after meals, we say, When the Lord brought us back to Zion it was like in a dream…then our months filled with laughter…and our tongues with ringing song!  And the peoples of the world said look what their G-d did for them. How could we "sing the L-rd’s song" in a strange land“we couldn’t!  Ki miTzion  tetze Torah u'dvar Adonai miYerushalayim.   From Zion came the Torah and the word of G-d from Jerusalem.  No other people make that claim. 


The world community has for decades declared that Jerusalem needs to be internationalized.  Yet is there anything to discuss?  To whom does Jerusalem belong? For the Christians, their pilgrimage is to Rome.  For the Arabs, their pilgrimage is to Mecca.  For the Jews, our pilgrimage has always been to Jerusalem. From time immemorial, even in the writings of Christian missionaries, is it not true that Jerusalem was always referred to as the city of a Jew. Was it ever called the city of Titus, or the city of Saladin?  And today, do the descendants of Titus or Saladin mourn and fast on the ninth of Av, the destruction of the Temples?  In this country the capital is Washington, D. C. and in Israel too the capital is called Jerusalem D.C. – David’s City!


When a Jewish boy is only eight days old, he is circumcised and the Jewish community wishes him all the good things in the world, but above all, they pray that he may ascend to the Land of Israel and visit the Temple on the three festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Succot. At eight days old he becomes connected to our tradition and becomes a Zionist. 


When the child has grown up and is standing under the chuppah, in the very middle of the ceremony everything stops.  The rabbi then places a glass on the floor and asks the bridegroom to break it as a sign of mourning. The young man vows never to forget Jerusalem… "as one would not forget one’s right hand...”  At the very moment of declaring his devotion and his love for his bride, a moment of incredible joy and sanctity…it is still impossible to forget our longing for Jerusalem.  This has been our custom for nearly two thousand years.  How many millions of glasses have been broken in Jewish history? 


On Passover, the most celebrated Jewish holiday, we re-tell the story of the Exodus.  But the Seder ends with the words…Next Year in Jerusalem.  On Yom Kippur, as the book has been sealed and the sun has set…the shofar is sounded - we start the New Year with the words, Le Shana Ha ba ah Yerushalayim.


And perhaps the most profound connection of the Jew to the Land is the tradition of burying the dead in Israel. Now some might argue that there are Jewish cemeteries all over the world, far away from the Land of Israel. Yet the tradition is to sprinkle into the grave some earth from the Land of Israel just before the burial is completed.  While his tombstone may be outside Israel, the body is buried in the Land of Israel.  And when a Jew mourns, the words of comfort are not "May you be comforted among the mourners of Chicago, New York or Los Angeles" but the words we recite are – “May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”  Do any other people attach their most profound life cycle events to the Land of Israel or our most special city of Jerusalem?  (With inspiration from Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo.)


And it is in next weeks Parasha Va Yechi, when Jacob realizes he is about to die, he

pleads with his son Joseph and makes him swear - “If I have found favor in your eyes… please do not bury me in the galus of Egypt… I must lie down with my fathers and you must bury me in their tomb… in the fields of Mamre, near Kiryat Arba in Hebron at the kever of  Machpelah…” Of course the Torah takes a clear stand.  There is an old adage – if I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t have seen it. It is time for our people to believe it!


And yet, as I recently traveled with my wife Ana through our biblical communities of Beit El, where archeologists believe they have found the site of Jacob and his ladder / past Kever Rachel / where Rachel weeps / toward the fields of Mamre, and to Hebron,  and Machpelah to honor our Matriarch Sarah - it finally dawned on me, with a great deal of pain, that perhaps it is true as some say… that the settlers, the current occupiers, may truly be an obstacle to peace – and it may be time to uproot their communities and move them out – to make them leave by force if need be…for you see, the settlers, the real occupiers…are the Western Jordanian Arabs recently called Palestinians, who from 1948 to 1967 were and still are… Jordanians…and they are occupying our Land given to us by G-D…And as G-d commands repeatedly through all the five books of Torah  (for those who read the Torah) "…go in and possess the Land I am giving to you and your descendants this day…as an everlasting covenant”…the Land I am giving to you – My Jewish people.  I didn’t write it – I just recite it - NOW, WHO ARE YOU GOING TO BELIEVE, CONDALEEZA RICE OR OUR TORAH? …THE UNITED NATIONS OR OUR G-D?  Whose side would you have been on - the 10 scouts with their evil report or Joshua and Caleb – the good guys in white kippot?!


It was the prophet Hosea who declared of G-d, “And I will betroth you to Me forever” (Hosea 2:21).  Just as with Pinchas, our G-d answered the Maccabees with a kiss of hazak ve amatz (of courage and strength), with the miracle of victory and of eight days of oil.  Hanukkah is just one of the many extraordinary gifts of love G-d has given our people – be cause we are “the apple of His eye” – His beshert… because He did choose us – and where we consummate His love has always been in “the land I am giving to you as an everlasting covenant” – a land of milk and honey – and Weizman Institutes and Technions and Hadassah Hospitals, Universities and Yeshivot … Israel.


May we and our children, and G-d willing our grandchildren be strengthened from this Hanukkah and this  Shabbat to proclaim Hineini / as one people with one destiny /  Am Choshi B’ Artzeinu / to be a  free people in our own Land / with Jerusalem as our undivided eternal capital.  For you see, the world wants its Jews to be heroic, to have courage strength and self respect  - that is how you become a light unto the nations – that is how you tikun olam – repair the world – remembering in our heart Ki Mizion Te’tze Torah  – u’dvar Adonai mi Yerushalayim.  Am Yisroal Chai!



Shabbat Shalom        


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