‘Get Up! Walk the Land” (Genesis 13:17) was a divine charge to the patriarch Abraham. It was given to Abraham after he separated from Lot. God promised him all of the land of Israel: North, south, east and west. Among the patriarchs, Abraham was the most itinerant. The unusual phrase lech lecha (walk for yourself) is repeated twice only to Abraham (Genesis 11:1 and 22:2). As well, the Hebrew root of the verb to walk in relation to the land of Israel is repeated in many different contexts and conjugations to Abraham. In comparison, Jacob outrightly rejects Esau’s suggestion that they “travel and walk together” (Genesis 33:12). What is the significance of walking the land?
The Biblical commentaries Ramban (1194-1270, Spain and Eretz Yisrael) and Chizkuni (13th century, France) interpret the term walk to mean an act of acquisition (kinyan chazakah) of the land. How do we acquire something by taking a walk or a hike?
Please allow us to digress for a moment with some personal memories. On a weeklong family trip to New Hampshire way back in the summer of 1987, we discovered that hiking was a great sport for all ages (our kids ranged in age from 1-13), as we conquered some beautiful chasms and moderate peaks with our 1-year-old in a baby carrier and the rest cruising alongside. In addition, we noticed hiking is a sport one can grow old with, as we saw hikers in their 80s on the trails!
During our sabbatical year in Israel (1991-92), we transplanted our new-found love of hiking to Israel, where much of the country’s population is on the move on fantastic trails. That amazing year, we also deepened our connection with newfound Israeli friends who introduced us to many beautiful vistas and challenging venues on which to test our skills.
Dear reader, no matter what your age, if you are reasonably healthy and not yet a hiker, we encourage you to start now. Initially, condition yourself with daily walking, gradually raising your heart rate and building your stamina by increasing your distance and elevation goals. When you are ready, buy sturdy hiking shoes and carefully choose trails and routes (get advice for this) that are easy at first and then gradually choose more challenging hikes. Always let someone know where you are going and whenever possible hike with partners and an experienced hiker who knows how to follow the trail safely.
One of our more significant observations in Israel was that walking the land in the Jewish state intensified our love of the land. Walking and hiking in Israel is the same physical activity as walking and hiking anywhere in the world, but it is very different emotionally.
The late Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu once wrote in a letter to his family (our loose translation and paraphrase from the Hebrew follows):
“I can’t describe to you precisely what I have seen on my hike because words will never be adequate to describe exactly what I’ve experienced. But when you come to see this place with me another time, I will help you see its true splendor. My recent hikes have left a deep impression upon me. Until now, I confess, I did not truly feel the land… I know that our land exists, and that I live here, and if the need arises I will fight for her; however, truly feeling the place, the ground, the mountains, the valleys of Israel – this intense feeling - I feel only now. I must explain that when serving in the army and you walk the length and breadth of the land, you feel it, but the feeling is mitigated by the thirst on your lips, by the grueling pace of the march, the burning sun and the sweat, by the heavy pack on your back, by the weapons you carry, by the exhaustion and exertion that the soldier endures. I learned many things in the army, the pleasure of sleep, the taste of fresh water, the tremendous value of determination, the miracles that a man can bring about if he only truly wishes to do so. But only after my service am I determined to get to know the land (in a different way), to know every tree and stone, and to complete this mission thoroughly…” (Michtivei Yoni, page 90, Sifryat Maariv).
What an incredible formulation: To feel the land. God knew that commanding Abraham to walk the land would cause him to feel the land, and once he felt the land, he would own the land! When you connect emotionally to something, it becomes a part of you.
We have had the opportunity to visit many places in the world. We have walked, hiked, skied and toured many countries in God’s beautiful world. We have seen grand canyons, tall peaks, volcanoes, deserts, ice fields, lakes, rivers, and oceans and have enjoyed them all. We have taken our grandchildren on hiking trips, as they reached the age of bar and bat mitzvah, but that is another story; yet, we never became attached to those other places the way we have connected to Israel once we began to walk and hike it.
When you feel the land you want to see it developed. You want to build a home there and live there. You want to protect that land. From Kiryat Shmona to Eilat, from the Golan to the Negev, from the Kinneret to the Mediterranean, this is such a precious land. So many brave people continue to be prepared to give their lives out of the love of this land. When you visit the sacred ground of the military cemeteries in Israel you see the sacrifice made by so many tens of thousands of people (mostly Jewish but not exclusively) who gave their lives because of their love of Israel, such as Yoni Netanyahu.
So, please put on those hiking boots and sun hats, pack your water bottles, sunscreen, maps and power snacks, pull out your hiking sticks, find some friends who share this passion and schedule your next hike, even if it’s your first. You will feel euphoric about your accomplishments, be motivated to continue, and truly experience a love and a connection with the land of Israel. See you on the trail!
A new oleh, Heshie Billet is rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Woodmere in Long Island, NY, and a member of the US President’s Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad. A new olah, Rookie Billet recently retired from a long career as a Jewish educator, principal, shul rebbetzin and yoetzet halacha (halachic adviser) in the US, and hopes to contribute to life in Israel.