Every Jewish journey to Israel is an aliyah, an ascent, because wherever we start, we always go up to get to the holy land. Once there, we go up to get to the holy city. Jerusalem is not the highest point in Israel, but the main approaches to it, both from east and west, are ascents. So, we call the tour I’m helping to lead in a couple of weeks, “Song of Ascents,” the title for the psalms that pilgrims recited in ancient times on their way up to Jerusalem.
It’s ironic, then, that the final chapter of the Torah, which we read today on Simchat Torah, opens with the same verb, v’ya’al Moshe, “And Moses went up,” because Moses doesn’t get to go up to the Promised Land. Instead, he goes up to Mount Nebo, east of the Jordan facing Jericho, and gains a vision of the land. Here is a reminder that most of Jewish history has unfolded in exile, and that the land of Israel has often been a place of vision and inspiration more than of habitation. Yet even in exile, the Jewish people have always As a consolation, God treats Moses with great tenderness: “So Moses the servant of the Lord died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of the Lord. He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, near Beth-peor” (Deut. 34:5–6). The rabbinic sages read the Hebrew text literally—“And Moses died at the mouth of the Lord”—as indicating that Moses died by a divine kiss, an act of tender compassion to compensate Moses for the harshness of his death sentence in exile. “Thereupon God kissed Moses and took away his soul with a kiss of the mouth, and God, if one might say so, wept . . .” Then God himself buried Moses, in an act of loving kindness that all Jews are to emulate by mourning and caring for the deceased.
This picture makes the image of the land of Israel as home all the more compelling, and reminds us what a great privilege it is for us to be able to go up to the land, whether as pilgrims or immigrants. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman writes,
The master metaphor of “home” is a Jewish gift to the world. Life is a process of heading home to God. Along the way we have a taste of being with God—the experience of earthly homes where we know we are welcome, where no one hunts us down, where we welcome others the way Abraham did the strangers who arrived at this tent in the heat of the noonday sun.
And to keep all this in the forefront of our consciousness, we visit Israel on occasion: as pilgrims, really going home. (Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman. Israel: A Spiritual Travel Guide. [Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 1998], p. 36.)
I’ve got a lot to do to prepare for this trip over the next two weeks, but I hope to keep the spiritual anticipation of going home—up to our real home—as the focal point of it all.
I hope to do more blogging throughout my trip to Israel, so stay tuned!