Live in Israel, even among idolaters
לעולם ידור אדם בא"י אפי' בעיר שרובה עובדי כוכבים, ואל ידור בחו"ל ואפילו בעיר שרובה ישראל, שכל הדר בארץ ישראל דומה כמי שיש לו אלוק, וכל הדר בחוצה לארץ דומה כמי שאין לו אלוק...
Always, one should live in Israel, even in a city which is mostly idolatrous, rather than live outside of Israel even in a city which is mostly Jewish, for one who lives in Israel is as though he has a relationship with Gd, and one who lives outside of Israel is as though he has no relationship with Gd…
I didn’t make it up – this is a gemara!
One thousand years ago, Rabbi Yehudah haLevi explored this assertion that one can only have a relationship with Gd in Israel. He explained that we, the Jewish people, are like a prolific grapevine which is tailored to flourish in a particular soil, and with particular cultivation. The acts of cultivation are taught in the Torah, and the soil is the Land of Israel.
I want to come back to the question of whether one can only connect to Gd in Israel. First, though, I want to focus on another startling part of this passage – that I must move to Israel even if that means living in an עיר שרובה עובדי כוכבים, an idolatrous city!
When I taught this passage in a shiur several weeks ago, one of the participants challenged me. Is an idolatrous city where our grapevine should be cultivated? What about all the ways in which Judaism places such a powerful emphasis on living among good influences, and avoiding bad ones!
· The Torah demonstrates the dangers of living in idolatrous societies. Think of Egypt with Avraham and Sarah, the Philistines with Yitzchak and Rivkah, and Shechem with Dinah. Yosef tells his brothers to live in Goshen, not among the Egyptians.
· The gemara records rabbinic decrees meant to encourage Jews to live away from bad influences, to avoid joint meals and social drinking, and so on.
· Rambam rules that a Jew who lives among people who are bad influences is required to move!
On Rosh HaShanah we spelled out the importance of איחוד הנפשות, of bonding with others in empathy, but did Rav Yerucham Levovitz really envision unity and empathy with idolaters rather than Jews? How can the gemara tell me to go live among idolaters in Israel?!
The risks of community
I believe that Rav Levovitz’s vision of building a community in which people bear each other’s burdens is incomplete; more is necessary, because community based solely on a shared set of actions can become a negative:
· A community in which people join together to do good things can become a community of peer pressure, in which people do right only because deviating would carry a social price.
· A community which develops norms of practice can become a community focussed on rules and rote – what Yeshayah called מצות אנשים מלומדה - without spiritual depth.
If community becomes all about doing as the herd does, then we fail the promise of unity.
The goal of Kesuvos: Communities of beautiful grapevines
I believe that talmudic passage about living in Israel means to teach us to cultivate a community of souls who personally connect with Gd as Step One, and who then communally carry forth that Image of Gd into this world,bearing each other’s burdens, as Step Two.
To use the Kuzari’s grapevine metaphor:
· When our roots are a search for Gd, then we will be nourished not by peer pressure but by personal spiritual desire.
· When we are nourished by personal spiritual desire, then our rules and rituals will not be the essence, but the means of bringing forth spreading shoots, lush leaves, fragrant flowers and sweet fruit, the mitzvot and chesed and empathy.
· And once we unite these grapevines in spiritual communities which develop the empathy and chesed we discussed on Rosh HaShanah, then we will benefit, individually and collectively, from the joint influence of so many human beings growing together and reaching heavenward.
So first we should seek Gd, as Step One – and then we are able to take Step Two, and build spiritual communities.
Outside Israel, we have Yom Kippur
And now I return to that gemara’s specification of living in Israel to be near HaShem. We are not in Israel; how can we seek Gd? Does the gemara believe that all is lost? Would the Kuzari say we are wasting our time? I think not – because even though HaShem is most available in Israel, we can seek HaShem, in a life-changing way, in the experience of Yom Kippur, anywhere.
Through the rest of the year - whether in Israel or elsewhere - the drive of the day-to-day and the reality of our religious doubts make it hard for us to commit to a search for Gd without nagging voices distracting us. “I need to go to work.” “I have a meeting to get to.” “My phone is ringing.” “My emails are piling up.” “If Gd is good, how do you explain tsunamis and earthquakes?” “If Torah cultivates spiritual Jews, what about that rabbi who was arrested?” “I don’t see Gd anywhere!”
But Yom Kippur is our Israel, the place where Gd is found. Yom Kippur is a day when we put aside the busyness and the questions; Yom Kippur is a day of experiential Judaism. We don’t eat. We don’t wash. Husbands and wives are apart. It’s all about focusing on Gd. We recite viduy, privately specifying our mistakes from the past year. It is a personal conversation with Gd. And the Talmud says that this is the time when HaShem is near – קראוהו בהיותו קרוב. It’s not only that Gd is near to hear our repentance; Gd is here for our connection, and our cultivation. This is the fertile soil in which we can cultivate the grapevines of the Jewish people - and even if we currently live in exile.
What that connection looks like
What does that connection look like? What are we looking to cultivate in our hearts?
Shir haShirim, the ultimate love song between Gd and the Jewish people, describes it in beautiful and moving terms:
(ט) מַה־דּוֹדֵךְ מִדּוֹד הַיָּפָה בַּנָּשִׁים מַה־דּוֹדֵךְ מִדּוֹד שֶׁכָּכָה הִשְׁבַּעְתָּנוּ: (י) דּוֹדִי צַח וְאָדוֹם דָּגוּל מֵרְבָבָה: (יא) רֹאשׁוֹ כֶּתֶם פָּז קְוֻצּוֹתָיו תַּלְתַּלִּים שְׁחֹרוֹת כָּעוֹרֵב: (יב) עֵינָיו כְּיוֹנִים עַל־אֲפִיקֵי מָיִם רֹחֲצוֹת בֶּחָלָב יֹשְׁבוֹת עַל־מִלֵּאת: (יג) לְחָיָו כַּעֲרוּגַת הַבֹּשֶׂם מִגְדְּלוֹת מֶרְקָחִים שִׂפְתוֹתָיו שׁוֹשַׁנִּים נֹטְפוֹת מוֹר עֹבֵר: (יד) יָדָיו גְּלִילֵי זָהָב מְמֻלָּאִים בַּתַּרְשִׁישׁ מֵעָיו עֶשֶׁת שֵׁן מְעֻלֶּפֶת סַפִּירִים: (טו) שׁוֹקָיו עַמּוּדֵי שֵׁשׁ מְיֻסָּדִים עַל־אַדְנֵי־פָז מַרְאֵהוּ כַּלְּבָנוֹן בָּחוּר כָּאֲרָזִים: (טז) חִכּוֹ מַמְתַקִּים וְכֻלּוֹ מַחֲמַדִּים זֶה דוֹדִי וְזֶה רֵעִי בְּנוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִָם:
The daughters of Jerusalem ask the heroine of Shir haShirim, the Jewish people: Why is your Beloved different from any other? Why do you seek your Beloved like this?
And the heroine responds,“My beloved is pure white and red, standing out even among ten thousand others. His head is like gold, his coiled hair is black like a raven! His eyes are like doves by streams of water, bathing in milk, set in a gorgeous foundation. His cheeks are like a bed of fragrant flowers, mounds of spices; his lips are like lilies, dripping flowing myrrh. His arms are cylinders of gold, set with gems; his torso is ivory, inlaid with sapphire. His legs are marble pillars, founded upon sockets of gold; his appearance is like the choice cedars of Lebanon. His palate is sweet, he is entirely desirable. This is my Beloved, This is my friend, daughters of Jerusalem!”
And we find a similarly beautiful description of that connection each time we repeat the amidah on Yom Kippur, right before the viduy, in כי אנו עמך, when we declare to Gd:
For we are Your nation, and You are our Gd.
For we are Your servants, and You are our Master…
For we are Your lot, and You are our Destiny.
For we are Your sheep, and You are our Shepherd.
For we are Your vineyard, and You are our Guardian…
For we are Your beloved, and You are our Lover.
For we are Your splendour, and You are our Friend.
For we have spoken for You, and You have spoken for us.
This is what that gemara wants for us – not to live among idolaters, but to find Gd - in Israel and on Yom Kippur! And once we have found Gd, then we can engage in איחוד הנפשות, bringing ourselves together to form spiritual communities.
Yizkor, and beyond
Yizkor is an especially appropriate time to think along these lines:
· At Yizkor, each Jew recites the Kel Malei and asks Gd to remember as we do. Bereavement could be all about personal loss, and not a religious experience – but Yizkor makes it about Gd. Yizkor is a moment of locating Gd personally, even within grief.
· But it is also about community We invoke the memory of those who created our Jewish world. Victims of the Shoah. Valiant founders and defenders of the State of Israel. Parents and other relatives. Yizkor is a time of profound community.
And when we put back the Torah after Yizkor, and begin Musaf, let us retain that blend of the two steps. Let us stand as a community of human beings, daven as a community, sing as a community. But let us also retain that Shir haShirim and Yom Kippur focus on the private union with Gd, even outside the Land of Israel, cultivating grapevines that are nourished spiritually, and that flourish communally.
One last note, which might take the level of dialogue somewhat out of the rarefied spiritual atmosphere we associate with Yom Kippur, but which I hope you will find as meaningful as I do:
It can be hard to detach ourselves from the world around us, and experience a union with Gd. We are surrounded by neighbours and friends and relatives here. We get distracted, and pausing to re-focus is challenging. And perhaps we have a history of Yom Kippur davenings which did not reach those heights, telling us cynically that this day won’t be any different.
The other day, I saw a video that really resonated with me on this point. It featured an American football player, Derrick Coleman. Coleman is deaf, and in the commercial, he talked about what it took for him to reach his goal of football success. Speaking over a montage of football scenes, Coleman said this:
They told me it couldn’t be done. That I was a lost cause. Kids were afraid to play with me. I was picked on… and picked last. Coaches didn’t know how to talk to me. They gave up on me, told me I should just quit. But I’ve been deaf since I was three – so I didn’t listen.
For the record, Coleman was not drafted by any NFL team out of college. But then he signed as a free agent after the 2011 season. He became the first deaf NFL offensive player in 2012, and won Super Bowl 48 at the end of the 2013 season. As of the start of the current season, he has two more NFL touchdowns than I do.
Sometimes, all of us need to refuse to listen. Achieving community with Gd is hard – but even if we have yet to achieve it today, or ever, this Yom Kippur isn’t over. Coleman concludes by saying, “Now I’m here, with a lot of fans in the NFL cheering me on. And I can hear them all.” May we merit Coleman’s level of success in our Yom Kippur, and may HaShem hear us all.
 Kesuvos 110b
 Kuzari 2:21 specifically cites this passage, but look more broadly at 2:8-24
 Eruvin 62a re: גזירה שמא ילמוד ממעשיו
 Avodah Zarah 59b, for example
 Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deios 6:1
 Yeshayah 29:13
 Of course, Ramban to Vayyikra 18:25 cites Sifri that mitzvos outside of Israel are really training for mitzvos in Israel
 Rosh HaShanah 18a
 Shir haShirim 5:9-16