In Plain Language: The song of the wandering Jew

Go to the four corners of the Earth, plumb its secret places, discover its many wonders. Seek God’s presence wherever it may be found, and you will hopefully become a fuller, richer person.

June 25, 2016 01:03
4 minute read.

'If one is studying, and sees a glorious object of nature, and disconnects it from his learning, that is a grievous error!’ writes the author. (photo credit: MOSHE KWART)


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'Summertime, and the leaving is easy...’

No, I didn’t misspell that line from Gershwin’s famous tune from Porgy and Bess. It’s summer time in Israel for at least the next four months, and that means Israelis will be on the move – to here, there and everywhere. Intrepid travel agent Mark Feldman of Zion Tours estimates that a million-and-a-half Israelis – a full 20 percent of the population – will travel abroad during the summer months, the majority of them on vacation or visiting family. We will quite literally uphold our tradition as a “wandering people.”

These figures become even more amazing when we consider how dangerous a place the world has become, particularly for Jews and Israelis.

We will go to Europe, where terrorist attacks are occurring with ever-greater regularity; today, a stroll down the majestic Champs-Élysées in Paris involves a constant looking over our shoulder.

We will visit South Africa, spectacular in its natural beauty and graced by a genteel Jewish community, but stained with a virulently anti-Zionist government and an evil national hero, whose latest insanity is to nominate mass-murderer Marwan Barghouti for the Nobel Peace Prize.

And, of course, our No. 1 destination will be the United States, still on the “safe list,” yet reeling from its latest hate crime which occurred just a stone’s throw from Disney, wistfully billed as “the happiest place on Earth.”

Considering the risk, there are many who will champion staying put in Israel, not venturing beyond our own borders.

They will say that we have everything we need right here in our own little corner of the world, from world-class hotels to stunningly beautiful beaches to gorgeous nature reserves and national parks to kid-friendly places of interest.

And they are right, of course; Israel is the world’s most fascinating country, with more than enough sites and activities to occupy an entire summer and beyond. Indeed, even as thousands file through the security lines to board departing planes, more than half a million summer visitors from abroad will be arriving here to take their place.

So why do we have such an incurable case of wanderlust? And is it a bad thing? The short answer is no, it is not a bad thing at all – particularly if we approach it from a spiritual point of view. God created a magnificent world, and He wants us to enjoy it, to appreciate it, to learn from it and broaden our horizons.

At the very dawn of time, at Creation itself, God charged Adam: “From all the trees of My garden you shall surely partake.” By tasting the fruits of God’s labor which grow throughout the planet, we can gain a deeper appreciation of the Almighty and His works. And that is why the rabbis created blessings for every phenomenon of nature, from the perpetual rainbow at Alberta’s Athabasca Falls to the daily volcanic eruption on Stromboli Island, off the coast of Sicily.

The well-known story is told of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the brilliant leader of 19th-century German Orthodox Jewry. One day he closed his Talmud and announced to his students, “I am off to the Alps!” When one of the boys questioned how the rabbi could leave his studies, even temporarily, the rabbi explained: “When I reach 120 and enter the next world, the Almighty may ask me, ‘Nu, Shimshon, so what did you think of My Alps?!’ And I must be able to tell Him just how marvelous they truly are!” There is a fascinating Mishna in Ethics of the Fathers (3:9): “Says Rabbi Ya’acov: If one is walking on the road, studying Torah as he goes, and suddenly stops his learning to comment ‘What a beautiful tree! What a magnificent valley!’ – that person has endangered his soul.”

Now, the simple meaning of this passage seems to suggest that we must never interrupt religious study, even to observe the glory of nature. But I was blessed to know a fabulous tour guide, the late Yisrael Shalem of Safed, who would take his groups – like the medieval kabbalists – to the forests and wadis of the Galilee, to view the flourishing flora and fauna and discuss Torah.

There he explained the message he believed this Mishna was expressing: If one is studying, and sees a glorious object of nature, and disconnects it from his learning, that is a grievous error! For God’s spirit and grandeur can be found in the towering mountains, in the majestic waterfall and in the roaring rapids no less than in a profound commentary on the weekly parasha or a deliciously challenging piece of Gemara.

Perhaps the Passover Haggada sums it up best when it says succinctly, “Go and learn!” Go to the four corners of the Earth, plumb its secret places, discover its many wonders. Seek God’s presence wherever it may be found, and you will hopefully become a fuller, richer person because of it. And then, of course, return to enchanting Israel – where every Jew belongs. 

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana and a member of the Ra’anana City Council;

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