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Living in Israel and Living Israel

No human being who ever lived deserved entry into the land of Israel more than Moshe. He had stoked the redemptive imagination of a band of dispirited slaves portraying a faraway land carrying a Divine promise. Moshe had patiently endured their constant whining and exasperating cowardice as they initially spurned their invitation to Israel. Most impressively, he had shepherded this nation along a 40 year detour, watching sadly as the original ranks decease in the desert while yielding to a new generation more readied for entry. Remarkably, Moshe was so ardent about a land he had never visited but whose borders he lovingly contemplated atop a distant mountain precipice. Though he was reared in an immersive Egyptian culture he sensed that he belonged elsewhere. Yet, tragically he is haunted by a crushing Divine sentence – he will be buried on a nondescript and unidentified mountain while his successor, Yehoshua, will steward the grand passage into their collective dreamland.

Facing this devastating verdict, Moshe prays furiously for reconsideration. By Chazal’s account he proffers 500 prayers while petitioning for clemency. In fact, the anatomy of mainstream Jewish prayer is based on the architecture of Moshe’s tefila. Who can read this parsha without deeply sympathizing with Moshe’s agony upon having his request denied. No human is exempt from accountability before God- even the greatest to ever live.

Dramatically, Moshe presents one final and compelling argument. For the past 40 years he has been hauling the bones of Yosef through the desert. During the frenetic departure from Egypt the general population was too busied with the mad dash to the desert and the collection of Egyptian treasures to worry about an ancient promise to a forgotten grandfather whom they never met. Despite Moshe’s massive workload on that 15th of Nissan 3300 years ago, he personally attended to the retrieval of Yosef’s coffin despite the lack of direct genealogical relationship. Moreover, during the 40 year trek Moshe personally towed the coffin rather than delegating its maintenance to a porter. Despite the potential halachik complications of being rendered impure through contact with a dead body (quite a critical concern for someone constantly traversing the Mikdash), Moshe kept the bones “on his person” -or at the very least in his immediate vicinity.

Here lies final Moshe strategy: Yosef’s bones are designated to be buried in Shechem- the city awarded to him by his father Ya’akov. As the “pall bearer” of Yosef’s coffin for over forty years, Moshe petitions for entry. Even if he isn’t personally deserving shouldn’t he be granted passage into Israel to accompany the body he had so lovingly superintended? Presumably, Moshe, who never inhabited Israel, deeply identified with Yosef who was stripped from his homeland at the age of 17 never to return. Despite his own lack of adult residency, Yosef is awarded land in Israel, including a burial site. Moshe reasons that the same possibilities should be extended to him.

God’s answer to Moshe and His rejection of this plea is striking: though Yosef can pass Moshe is barred. Yosef can pass since he acknowledged life in Israel –“hodeh b’artzo”; Moshe is blocked because his life wasn’t calibrated to the same degree of “hodeh b’artzo”. Though neither actually inhabited the land (in Yosef’s case he was absent his entire adult life) their relationships with the land were vastly different. Despite Moshe’s yearning for Israel, a slight miscue reflected a weaker affiliation with our land than Yossef exhibited.

Both Moshe and Yosef faced similar circumstances which challenged their Israel “identity” and their level of association with a remote land they would never return to. Yosef is falsely accused of crimes against his master’s wife and he asserts ”I was grabbed from the house of the Jews (Beit Ha’Ivrim)” accentuating that, though he is imprisoned in Egypt, his true alliances lie elsewhere. By contrast, Moshe is introduced to Yitro by his recently rescued daughters as an “Egyptian man” who saved us. Moshe doesn’t protest this designation and grants this definition based on current location and birth origins. Had he followed Yosef’s example he would have insisted that, though, his culture, language and dress appeared Egyptian, he belonged elsewhere -a Jew belonging to Israel. His deafening silence at this misidentification reflects a less robust association with his land and this condition of “lo hodeh b’artzo” disqualifies him from entry in life and, tragically, in death.

This contrast between Yosef’s profound identification with Israel and Moshe’s lesser devotion provides an important model for the modern challenge of life outside of Israel. The doors of history have suddenly swung open, offering the long dreamed-for opportunity to return home. Yet the world is complex and many Jews genuinely yearning for life in Israel are wedged into situations which resemble Yosef and Moshe. Each longed to be in Israel but each played pivotal historical roles outside the boundaries of their homeland. Each was destined to pioneer Jewish history from afar. Geographical resettlement oftentimes lies beyond our reach and beyond our best human abilities. Identification with Israel is an entirely different matter and it lies squarely within the reach of the human imagination and the passionate dreams of a Jewish heart. Not every Jew merits to tread upon the stones and sand which Yehuda Halevi sang to. However, every Jew possesses the ability to be ‘hodeh b’artzo”- to embrace their “belonging” to their homeland.

The condition of hodeh b’artzo can primarily be achieved through attitude as well as engagement. Without question, a Jew must accept and advance his current conditions and his present community. The dream of a different terrain mustn’t instigate a fantastical escape from existing settings and incumbent moral and religious obligations. Accepting a current reality is heroic, conjuring that current reality as “ideal” is historically myopic. It takes great emotional maturity and formidable personal conviction to excel within a current condition while still recognizing it as imperfect and fallen. Jews are always tasked with this “dual processing” regardless of where they live. Even Jews in Israel, indulgent in their homeland are charged with appreciating their gift while acknowledging the gap between our limited achievements and the comprehensive Messianic ideal. Likewise, a Jew who resides beyond Israel’s borders must bifurcate: accept and redeem current settings while genuinely acknowledging their imperfect nature. Secondly, and beyond mere “attitude adjustment”, Jews who seek to model Yosef must actively engage in the affairs and events of Israel. Active engagement with, and participation in, Israeli society and culture forges a profound identity from afar. However, even without active and direct involvement, simple “enhanced awareness” of Israel can help forge deep attachments. This form of expanded “Israel consciousness” must encompass periods of crisis as well as periods of normal stability. Without question it is ‘easier’ to be concerned about worrisome events in Israel but sometimes, awareness and engagement in pedestrian day-to-day Israeli events can fashion a more natural and holistic identification with our land. Attitude and engagement each bind our identities to that “other place”.

It is deeply meaningful that, like Yossef, so many who never fully resided in Israel have the benefit of burial in our country. If Jews aim to replicate Yossef in death they should certainly aspire to reproduce his life of “hodeh b’artzo”. Some are afforded the privilege to live IN Israel while every Jew must endeavor to LIVE Israel.