One year ago, I fulfilled my lifelong dream and moved from the suburbs of New Jersey to the Land of Israel. We moved to the small town of Efrat, just outside of Bethlehem, trading our view of the local gas station and pizza shop in New Jersey for a view of the Jerusalem skyline.
Our first year wasn’t exactly easy. My kids, some already in high school, have struggled with speaking Hebrew, and it took some time to find a job that was a good fit. Our house is less than half the size of our home in New Jersey, and with Israel’s sky high car and gas prices, I spend too much of my time on public buses. And though I work two very busy jobs, I earn less than half of what I earned in the United States.
But here’s the thing; I’ve never been happier!
When I wake up each morning, I look out my window and remember: “Yes, I’m actually here! I’ve made it to Israel! It’s not a dream!” When I walk to the local synagogue for prayer, I don’t drag my feet the way I used to. And when I come home from work to my wife and children in the evening, I find that I’m more excited to see them!
According to the World Happiness Report, I’m not alone. Despite the constant danger of terrorism and rocket attacks, Israelis are among the happiest people in the world.
It all begs the question: Why? Why am I so much happier in Israel, despite the challenges?
The reader of Jewish history will soon discover that Jews seem to specialize in suffering and grief. From the destruction of the Temples to the Holocaust, there have been no shortage of horrors and tragedies over the last two millennia. But in the book of Deuteronomy alone, as the people of Israel are about to enter the Land of Israel, the word “rejoice” (Sa-mey-ach in Hebrew) appears no less than twelve times!
The context of these verses indicates that joy is bound up together with the Land of Israel, and specifically with the Temple in Jerusalem:
“Look only to the site that Hashem your God will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation, to establish His name there. There you are to go, and there you are to bring your burnt offerings and other sacrifices, your tithes and contributions, your votive and freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks. Together with your households, you shall feast there before Hashem your God, happy in all the undertakings in which Hashem your God has blessed you.” (Deuteronomy 12:5-7,The Israel Bible 469-470)
God, of course, is everywhere. He created the entire universe, with its glorious and endless galaxies and stars. But it is on planet earth, and within that the Land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem, where God is closest. In Jerusalem – “the site that Hashem your God will choose… as His habitation” – where God’s presence is most obvious.
This is the source of the joy of the Land of Israel. It is the place where all Jews, and ultimately all of humanity, will join together to worship God in unity and joy! As the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once wrote: “It will be there, said Moses, that the entire tangled narrative of Jewish history would become lucid, where a whole people – “you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levites from your towns, who have no hereditary portion with you” – will sing together, worship together and celebrate the festivals together, knowing that history is not about empire or conquest, nor society about hierarchy and power, that commoner and king, Israelite and priest are all equal in the sight of God, all voices in his holy choir, all dancers in the circle at whose center is the radiance of the Divine.”
Simply being here in the Land, in the place God has chosen as the throne of His kingdom, is the reason for our joy! As the singer Matisyahu once sang: “Don’t you see? It’s not about the land or the sea; Not the country but the dwelling of his majesty.”
To live in the Land without joy is inconceivable; it is a lack of appreciation for the gift of living in God’s presence! “Because you would not serve Hashem your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything, you shall have to serve—in hunger and thirst, naked and lacking everything—the enemies whom Hashem will let loose against you…” (Deuteronomy 28:47-48)
No matter where in the world we live, life is filled with challenges. Life in Israel, though far easier than it used to be, brings many challenges. But despite all the tragedies, despite all the wars and terror attacks, the Jewish people remain steadfast in their dedication to living a life of joy in the land of joy. And how could it be otherwise? After thousands of years of exile and suffering, God has fulfilled His promise and brought His people back to the Holy Land, where they once again are dwelling in the radiance of his presence. How blessed are we to witness these miracles!
“l will rejoice in Hashem, Exult in the God who delivers me.” (Habakuk 3:18)