By Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz
I have a special personal connection with this week’s Torah reading. 31 years ago, I was a chef in a fancy restaurant in Manhattan. I had a cool motorcycle and lots of cash to party and play. I had long hair and a tattoo. But I was angry all the time and a bit self-destructive. I drank Jaegermeister and rode my motorcycle in the snow. Something was wrong and I couldn’t figure out what it was. So I took a three-week vacation to get away from the city, go to Grateful Dead shows, and meditate in the forest. In the quiet of the forest, I was able to hear the “still silent voice” that I had neglected for far too long. And the message was clear.
I was living the dream. But it was someone else’s dream. It was some form of a generic image of happiness that actually sucked the life out of me.
And the still small voice whispered one word that gave me joy and hope: “Israel”. Like my great-great grandfather, Abraham, God was telling me to go to the place that was the source of my soul.
Three months later, I got off the plane at Ben Gurion Airport. To be honest, my life got very strange at that point. Rather than cooking amazing cuisine, I was milking cows. A former pacifist hippie, I became a combat medic in the IDF. The bizarre oxymoron of going into battle with the intention of healing people suited me. I was suddenly a barely literate immigrant who sometimes forgot which direction the letters were supposed to be read. Strangely enough, it was in Israel that I became a writer of novels (in English). My clothes had fringes and the only long hair on my head were the two sidelocks that stuck out at the sides. And I traded in my black leather jacket and boots for black leather tefillin (phylacteries).
It was a long strange trip but the voice never left me.
“This is the higher you,” it whispered. “This is what I created you to be.”
Just like Abraham had to leave everything behind and travel to the promised land to become the father of the chosen nation, I realize that I could never have become what I am today if I had not gotten on a plane and come to Israel.
But why? Why did it have to happen in Israel? Why didn’t God make Abraham into a great nation in Ur of the Chaldeans or Haran?
God’s first communication with Abram was the phrase lech lecha, “go forth” (Genesis 12:1). It was a command to migrate. Changing location and surroundings have an impact on a person’s internal spiritual reality. Abram’s journey toward God began with physically removing himself from the place where he was comfortable, a place that was inhabited by idolaters.
Similarly, when the first Europeans arrived on the shores of America, they saw it as an opportunity to begin a new society. Many attempts at utopian communities began with physical journeys, separating the people from other communities.
But the imperative to travel given to Abram from God did not only call for him to leave a place of idolaters. Not only did God tell Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house,” but he also told Abram to go “to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1).
The destination was divinely intended. The land of Israel was a unique part of Abraham’s service of God. The land itself had a special ability to bring out from Abram and his descendants what was necessary to serve the God of Israel.
Jewish identity is matrilineal, but the spiritual attachment to God is strongest in the Land of Israel. So many Biblical commandments are only possible in the land of Israel. This is true of all of the agricultural commandments. The Temple service may only be performed at the specific spot on the Temple Mount that was purchased by King David. The commandment to bring the first of the fruits to the Temple can only be performed by a Jew who owns land in Israel.
According to a standard view, 26 of the 613 commandments apply only in Israel. But the biblical commentator Nachmanides maintained that all of the biblical commandments are only relevant to Jews inside the land of Israel!
When God commanded Abram to leave his father’s land, he was separating him from his past but he was also leading him to a place that would allow him to serve God in a way that he could not achieve anywhere else.
This special level of connection to God was absent from the world for 2,000 years while the Jews were exiled from their land. With the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, this heightened level of connection is once again possible. And to my great joy, I was able to enact my own personal lech lecha (go forth), and I am now able to achieve this special level of connection with God in the land of Israel.
As a part of your journey toward God, it is important to pay attention to your physical surroundings. As Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach used to say, “Wherever you go, there you are.” And if you have the opportunity and the means, come and visit the land of Israel!