THE BLOG
12/18/2013 02:01 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2014

Dreams of Zion

Israel's existence is a miracle, easily distorted by the politics, easily forgotten in the relentless propaganda hurled at its simply being a nation: After wandering in exile for almost twenty centuries, the Jewish people have returned to their homeland where they govern a Jewish democracy, speak the ancient language of the Torah and the Mishnah, and conduct their daily routine in the neighborhoods of Isaiah, King David, and Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi. It is easy to take this collective resurrection for granted, easy to give into the blurred line between legitimate criticism of erroneous policies and the sweeping delegitimation of its right to exist at all. Even after visiting Israel many times, I still forget how astonishing the establishment of Israel really is. Occasionally, however, a simple intrusion in my life can abruptly focus my amazement on that little state.

A few years ago I received a small airmail package from Israel. My college roommate had moved to the Negev region (the desert region in southern Israel) shortly after graduation and was living on a kibbutz. One March, a few weeks before Passover, he mailed me a copy of the newly-printed kibbutz Haggadah. It was beautiful. Although similar to many others I've seen, there were two striking differences: the text was entirely in Hebrew, and the Haggadah emphasized agriculture and land over the traditional rabbinic concentration on liberation and commandment. Only in Israel, I thought, would such a Haggadah seem perfectly natural. Where else would a translation be superfluous, since even the youngest child at a kibbutz Seder understands the Hebrew of the Bible and the Mishnah? (I am so used to evaluating the translation of American Haggadot that this one seemed almost incomplete.) And where else would the emphasis on agriculture and the cycle of the seasons seem so natural? Restored to their own land and once again farming the soil, Israeli Jews experience a heightened sensitivity to the seasons and natural rhythms of growth and harvest. Within the confines of this little package, I was once again reminded of how unique Israel truly is.

The great treasures that have come to light due to the careful studies and exploration of Israel's archaeologists -- the most notable of which are the Dead Sea Scrolls -- enrich our sense of belonging and of peoplehood wherever we live. The last time I was in Jerusalem, I went to the Israel Museum near the Knesset building. The exhibition of pottery, jewelry, and glass was from an unearthed tomb of the Seventh Century B.C.E. I passed each case fairly quickly, until I was stopped by a spot-light illuminating a metal strip no larger than my thumb. Scratched onto this thin silver band were the ancient Hebrew words of the Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing. That little scroll, unearthed in Jerusalem, is the oldest existing fragment of a biblical text. I stood staring at this prayer, one that I recite every morning as part of the Shaharit service, and I began to weep. I wept at the mystery and majesty of finding my own spiritual expression rooted in almost 3,000 years of Jewish living. Across the ages, a distant soul mate had found purpose, comfort, and identity in the same prayer that Jews today use to start our day.

Having grown up relatively non-observant, I took on the mitzvah of tefillin (phylacteries) as an adult. I recall telling my grandmother about the first time I saw someone wrapping himself in tefillin, and her surprised and encouraging response: she went into her closet and emerged holding a brown paper bag that contained her father's (my great grandfather's) worn set of tefillin. A year ago, a dear friend arranged to bring my tefillin to Jerusalem, where a sofer (scribe) installed new Hebrew scrolls, rendering the tefillin kosher for ritual use once again. This year, I brought those tefillin to Jerusalem. Imagine the power of standing on the balcony of my hotel, with a view of the Old City of Jerusalem and its walls, as I wrapped myself in my tallit (prayer shawl), strapped my great grandfather's tefillin around my arm and across my forehead, and began to recite the ancient prayers that faithful Jews have recited throughout the millennia. I had the sense that my great grandfather had taken his precious tefillin, with all that they embody, and passed them across a chasm of a few generations until they could be lovingly received, and again become a vessel for connecting to God many decades later. In a sense, that link across the ages is precisely what being in Jerusalem means too. As I wore my great grandfather's tefillin and recited the same prayers he would have recited each morning, I thought about what this moment would have meant to him and to his contemporaries -- how they had prayed for the chance to see Jerusalem as the vibrant center of a sovereign Jewish community, and how he must have doubted whether he would have a great grandchild for whom these mitzvot and tefillot would still speak. I stood in his presence, and through his eyes I could see the miracle that Jewish continuity is, the unlikely miracle that Israel remains.

Israel's miracle is not only its deep and ancient roots. Today's vitality -- cultural, social, intellectual, religious, economic -- also speak to the continuing blessing of Jewish peoplehood. Each year, I get to visit the family of my college roommate, who made aliyah after graduation in the late 80s. Each year I watch as his twins, Noah and Yonah, grow taller, stronger, more thoughtful and more beautiful. They chatter to each other in Hebrew, and then smoothly transition to English to speak with their parents or with me. I marvel as my cousins' children, Adina and Doron, head off to their youth groups on their own, how my nephews and niece, Alon, Roi, and Maya, spread their creative energies in such diverse and productive ways. And I reflect that the miracle of Israel is no less its present than it's past.

My ties to Israel extend deep into my roots and soar far into my future.