Redemption – Matt Drisco

Unlike many of the people posting to this blog, I had no reason to go to Israel. I was poor, out of college, and, most importantly, followed a girl to Israel for several months. I didn’t have any Jewish roots of which to speak, nor did I have a particularly strong connection to the monuments. Israel, for me, was a country of political and religious discord, a country of news stories. So you seek, so shall you find. I saw a Jerusalem as a city of contradictions, from Me’a Shearim to Ein Kerem, orthodox to liberal, a city in which people existed in a threadbare peace. Strife existed not only between religions, but within them as well.

I found many things wrong with Israel. I was shortsighted.

After living there for 5 months, I traveled to even cheaper pastures. I took the bus to Cairo to live two squalid months right after the revolution. I thought I had seen strife, or mistakes, or hypocrisy, but I had not understood the miracle of Israeli development.

Many people who have not travelled the Middle East do not understand this simple fact: Israelis redeemed the land. I am not speaking in a spiritual sense, but in a physical one. They delivered the land from the autocracy and poverty and corruption and desert. I look at the other lands that broke from Ottoman rule and I am amazed. The land of Israel is not a miracle. It is a story of work, of redemption, and of struggle, as the name means. God struggles. Israel struggles. The people struggle. There is no other way to redemption.

 

Matt Drisco lived for five months in Israel, including an ill-fated bike ride around the country. He also lived in Cairo for two months. He currently lives in Los Angeles, where he studies business.

 

Out of a Land of Static Bonds – Jay LeVine

As we move from Passover to Shavuot, we relive the mythic story of movement from slavery to the freedom necessary to experience revelation. Egypt is often equated with slaveryin the first commandment, God tells Israel “I have taken you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage (avadim).”

The Hebrew word avadim could also mean idol-worship, and understanding the Exodus as freedom from idolatry intrigues me. What is the significance of idol-worship for today? Idolatry seems so….biblical. No one really worships little stone figures anymore, right? And anyway, isn’t religious intolerance a major contributing factor to many of the ills in the world?

For many years, I assumed the term “idolatry” was more or less retired from active duty on the theological dream team. However, I came across an understanding of idolatry that has now convinced me that my appreciation of the state of Israel hinges precisely on an ongoing struggle against idolatry.

Erich Fromm defines idolatry as alienation from self. When we give up our power and locate it outside of ourselves – by placing athletes and stars on pedestals, by blaming others for our circumstances, etc. – we are practicing idolatry. Idolatry means giving up the freedom of choice; idolatry means quieting our creativity until we are static and powerless.

The modern state of Israel is in my humble opinion a magnificent case study on this understanding of idolatry. On the one hand, Israel represents the best of the struggle against idolatry: It was founded on a premise of locating power within the Jewish people, instead of in external governments. In so many ways Israel has required and inspired tremendous creativity, in the arts, literature, technology, and more. Yet there are ways in which choice is constricted, where religious creativity is seen as illegitimate, when power becomes its own excuse and thus enslaves those who think they wield it.

For me, Israel represents the ongoing journey out of Egypt – out of a land of static bonds that hold back the creative free spirit.

 

Jay LeVine recently earned his Masters of Jewish Education at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, where he will be continuing for his fourth year of rabbinical school in the fall. He grew up in southeastern Arizona and graduated from the University of Arizona with bachelor’s degrees in Finance and Judaic Studies. Among his passions are Hebrew poetry, indie music, and Jewish books. Check out his blog at jayasherlevine.com.

Chanukah in Egypt, Chanukah in Israel – Sam Spector

I have a confession.

While studying in Israel, I violated a commandment in the Torah.

Deuteronomy 17:18 states that God commanded, “Do not return that way (towards Egypt) anymore.” However, wanting an escape from my studies and lured by my worship for the false idol that was the beaches of the Sinai Peninsula, I decided to take my chances during Chanukah and return to the land of bondage.

I made sure when I packed my backpack that I included a pack of Chanukah candles, just because I was violating one commandment, heaven forbid I would not light the candles! In the desert, a few classmates and I found an isolated place. We nervously looked around, sang the blessings and kindled the festival lights. We hurried off before anyone could spot us, worried that our Jewish identity would put us in danger, and watched from a distance as the flames danced in the sand. I thought not only of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt 3000+ years ago and how they had crossed this desert to freedom, but also of the 80,000 Jews who populated this country a mere 80 years prior.

Today, the Jewish population of the largest Arab country is approximately 100.

Upon my return to Israel, my Egged bus passed massive hanukkiot with their billowing flames, and finally, after 7 hours of travel, I arrived back in Jerusalem. As the bus neared the station, I wiped away the fog on the window and gasped. Before me stood a high-rise apartment building, and in every single window was a lit hanukkiah, hundreds of them!

Though Israel is a place that is far from perfect, my Revelation came not at Sinai but upon my return to Jerusalem; this country is my home. For the Jews from Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Ethiopia, Morocco, Spain, Poland, Russia, Germany, France, and Egypt, among dozens more countries from around the world, who had previously been scared of the ramifications of expressing their Judaism, Israel is now a place for them to do so with pride rather than fear.

On that cold night, the lights of the hanukkiah and the freedom of my people warmed my heart and I fell in love with Israel.

 

Sam Spector was born and raised in Seattle, Washington, and studied at the University of California, San Diego, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Cum Laude with a B.A. in Judaic Studies. He is entering his final (5th) year of rabbinical school in the fall at the Los Angeles campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Sam is a Lieutenant Junior Grade in the United States Naval Reserves and the rabbinic intern of Temple Judea in Tarzana, CA.