In my college years, I traveled to Israel with a classmate. For each of us, it was not our first trip to Israel.
Idealistic and naïve, we traveled on our own with plans to volunteer on a kibbutz. We decided without consulting anyone or any group on which kibbutz we wanted to work.
We spent a few days touring and then headed to Sedot Hayam (the kibbutz on which Hannah Senesh had lived). Needless to say, they turned us away at the gate because we had not gone through proper channels.
We toured a little more on our own and then parted company. My friend decided she did not like Israel and headed for Europe. I met some other college friends who were on a tour sponsored by the American Zionist Youth Foundation and was able to join their tour. With college students from all over the United States and representing every shade of Jewish politics, that summer in Israel became a wonderful experience for me.
The title of this week’s Torah portion Ki Tavo translates as “when you come” (into the land). According to this Torah portion, when the Israelites came into the land, they were to offer first fruits as thanksgiving to God. The portion then goes on to describe how once they crossed the Jordan, the tribes were to divide with half of them going to Mount Gerizim, half to Mount Ebal with the Levites in the valley between the two mountains. In a loud voice, the Levites were to declare the blessings and the curses that would come upon the children of Israel depending on whether they followed God’s commandments or not. The Israelites were to respond “Amen” to the respective blessings and curses.
Personally, I believe that just coming into the land of Israel is a blessing. Having just finished what could have been my 20th trip to Israel this summer, I kept thinking how blessed I was to be able to be there and do all the things I did. I am already planning the next two trips (an interfaith venture in January with Seton Hill University’s National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education and a trip next June with my congregation) — more blessings.
While the Torah portion speaks of the people being blessed or cursed, there is also the idea that the land will be blessed or cursed.
Is Israel blessed or cursed today? There are those who look at the elusive peace, the acts of terror, the constant state of war, the government scandals, conflicts between the haredim and more liberal elements of Judaism, issues with the Arab population, water shortage, cost of living, more than its share of fatal traffic accidents and see only curses. Then there are those who see the blessings of Israel: the natural beauty of the land, the number of business start ups, the sense of feeling at home, the indescribable Judaic art, the abundance of amazing kosher haute cuisine, hearing Hebrew spoken on the streets, the vibrant bustle of Tel Aviv with its burgeoning skyscrapers, the antiquities, which have survived so many centuries, and so much more.
My friend looked at the land and saw the negative. While it is not always a land of blessings, neither is it a land of all curses. Like any country, it is both.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)