Probably the most often asked question I receive in my outreach work is: “Rabbi: where are the miracles? The Bible is filled with miracles, why doesn’t God perform them anymore? If God performed a miracle, Rabbi, then I’d believe and maybe I’d even follow in His ways.” My answer is always the same: God does perform miracles; we just need to be able to see them. They may not be as obvious as the splitting of the Red Sea, but they’re still miracles. If there was any event in contemporary times where God showed His hand in history, it was the creation of the State of Israel, which we will celebrate next week on Yom Ha’atzmaut.
Most of us are familiar with the incredible history behind Israel’s creation and continued survival. Whether it’s the War of Independence in 1948, the Six-Day-War in 1967, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Uganda hostage crisis of 1976, the ceaseless scud missile attacks during the 1991 Gulf War and countless other incidents ever since, the miraculous outcomes of these events are even more pronounced when you delve into the details of these extraordinary accomplishments.
“The eye of God is on the land”- “from the beginning of the year till the end” (Devarim 11:12) The Torah tells us that all year long, God keeps an eye out for Israel. Our Sages speak of the special Providence that God exercises over the land, and as a result, there will always be miracles in Israel.
But there’s one miracle that I want to share that I am personally privileged to see in my outreach work and that is the spiritual impact of Israel on those who come.
I have rarely met a Baal Teshuva for whom Israel did not play a major role in their spiritual development. There’s something about being in Israel which is simply transformative.
I’ll never forget a Sunday afternoon back in July of 2000 — 35 of us gathered at Kennedy airport for the first ever MJE Trip to Israel. One of the participants standing in the corner of the terminal was a guy in his 20’s with a large backpack swung across his shoulder. I went over to introduce myself. He told me his name was Jonathan, that he had very little to do with Jewish life and that this was his first trip to Israel. Like most of the others on the trip, Jonathan didn’t know a soul but by the end trip, he told me he felt a deep connection not only with the other members of our group but with Israel and even with Judaism itself.
“A deep connection”, I thought to myself, really? From one week in Israel?
Even I was a little skeptical. But like so many others, when Jonathan returned to New York, he started to come around more. He began to attend MJE classes, our beginners service on Shabbat and very quickly became a part of the MJE community. About one year later he returned to Israel, this time to study, which he ended up doing for one year, and then another….until he eventually became quite learned and actually received smicha from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. In 2008, Jonathan made Aliyah and now lives with his wife Dena and their beautiful children directing the Hillel Beit Midrash program at Hebrew University — reaching out to American students traveling to Israel for their first time just like he himself did back in 2000. Since that trip we’ve brought over 1000 participants to Israel — all of whom have been powerfully impacted in so many ways.
What’s the magic of Israel?
How can just one week in the holy land affect such a dramatic change in a person’s life?
There are many answers but the most important is authenticity. To most young Jews growing up in America, Judaism is something like a fairy tale. You hear these stories of this glorious past, maybe at the Seder or in a sermon on the High Holidays, but its ancient history; it’s a relic of the past that has little or no relevance today.
But that all changes when you come to Israel because when you are in Israel you don’t hear about Judaism, you experience it. In Israel you don’t just read about Jewish history, you see it.
You travel, as we do each summer, through the Tunnel Tours – that connect us to thousands of years of our history and place us in proximity to where the Holy of Holies once stood in the Temple. You can climb Masada and feel connected to our ancestors who fought off the Romans with their last breathe. We sit in Tzipori, at the very place where the Sanhedrin, the Jewish High Court would sit. You go on an archeological dig and uncover pottery dating back to Solomon. Our tour guide walks around with a Tanach and shows the group where exactly King David is believed by archeologists to have lived. We travel to Tzfat and pray in the synagogues of the very Sages and Kabbalists who composed the prayers we say every Friday night to bring in Shabbat.
“Ano dome shemiyah l’reiyah” - you can’t compare hearing to seeing. Seeing is believing, and that is why Israel is indispensable to outreach.
Israel is the ultimate authentication of Judaism for the Diaspora Jew. It provides some evidence for all those stories we listened to growing up, all the “reasons” we were told to be Jewish.
When I asked Jonathan what impacted him on that trip, he answered that for the first time he saw that Judaism wasn’t just a bunch of stories, that it was real. That our people, our land, and our faith was a living and breathing reality and he wanted to be part of it.
And so, as we pay tribute to our beloved Israel this week we need to recognize how she serves not only as a safe haven for Jews the world over, but also as a gateway to young Jews searching for a deeper connection to their roots and for an expression of God in the world.
Hashem performs miracles. We just need to look a little eastward to see them.
Happy 75th Birthday Israel. May God continue to bless you.