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Ancient Jewish History: The Bible On Jewish Links To The Holy Land

by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein

The Jews' link with the land of Israel and their love for it date back almost four thousand years. It began when God told Abraham to leave his homeland, Ur Kasdim, and go "to a land that I will show thee." Abraham had such great faith and trust in God that he left his home and community. He was reassured by the divine promise, "I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves" (Genesis 12:2-3).

Israel is known by a number of names, including Canaan, Eretz Yisrael, Zion, or simply as ha-aretz, meaning "the land," a sign of its belovedness and significance. It is the Holy Land, par excellence. God promised Abraham that he and his descendants would inherit the land of Israel as an eternal possession.

In the words of the Bible, "On the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying: 'To your descendants I have given this land..."' (Genesis 15:18). It is interesting to note that the Hebrew verb used in the Scriptures is natati, meaning "I have given" (past tense). This passage implies that God had already given the land to the Jews at some earlier time, though this is the first record of such a promise. Rabbinic commentators suggest, however, that God had set aside the land of Israel for His people already at the time of Creation.

In other words, the Jewish rights to the land were always part of the very fabric of Creation. They are eternal and unconditional. God promised Abraham, "I will give to you, and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojourning, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession." God also covenanted with Ishmael, regarded as the father of the Arab people. However, that promise was for nationhood, not land. But the land of Israel was not just a Divine promise. It was also the home of our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their wives, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah.

For the past 3,000 years there was always a Jewish presence in the Holy Land. Israel is at the core of Jewish identity and peoplehood; the land shapes the Jews' self image and character as a community covenanted with God. Indeed, to repudiate the link between the Jews and the land of Israel is to repudiate the Bible itself. To denigrate the centrality of Israel for God's people is to distort God's Word.

How Did The Jews Maintain Their Attachment To Zion (Israel) Throughout The Centuries Of Exile?

To fulfill their vow never to forget the Holy Land during their exile, the Jews introduced the theme of Israel into virtually every aspect of daily life and routine. To this day, Jews everywhere face toward Israel when reciting their daily prayers. A prayer for return to Zion is part of the standard Jewish blessing over meals. The Passover Seder meal, as well as the High Holy Days services, are concluded with the fervent hope and promise of, "next year in Jerusalem!"

Indeed, the restoration of Israel and the ingathering of the exiles are at the heart of all Jewish prayers for redemption and for the coming of the Messiah. It is customary for the groom to break a glass at a Jewish wedding, reminding the celebrants of Jerusalem during the happiest moment of life. Jews commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the exile from Jerusalem with an annual day of fasting and mourning. Through these customs and rituals, Jews demonstrate their trust in God's faithfulness.

Jews believe that those who cast their lot with Israel, praying for the peace of Jerusalem and the welfare of its inhabitants, will be rewarded by God's abundant blessing and countenance.

Israel is more than just the lifeblood of the Jewish people. It is God's land, the place where Divine providence is especially manifest. "The eyes of the Lord... are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year" (Deuteronomy 11:12). It is a "Very, very good land" (Nu. 14:7); "a blessed land" (Deut. 33:13); "the beauty of all lands" (Ezek 20:6).

The Jewish mystical tradition claims that the very air of Israel makes one wiser. The land will, it is said, stubbornly "refuse" to bear fruit unless the Jews, its natural caretakers and the inhabitants for whom it was created, dwell on and cultivate it. History bears out this notion. Modern Israel was a land of desert and swamp for centuries until waves of emigrating Jewish Zionists in the mid-nineteenth century began tilling its soil. Only then did the land blossom and give forth its produce: "For the Lord will comfort Zion; He will comfort her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden..." (Isaiah 51:3).

God's promise to Abraham created an inexorable bond between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. The fulfillment of God's promises resulted in the miracle of a Jewish return to their land after nearly two millennia of dispersion. Never during the long intervening centuries did the Jews waver in their passionate yearning to return home to the land God had given them. Never did their love for Israel wane.

What Does The Existence Of The State Of Israel Mean For Jews Today?

There is something ineffable about our feelings toward Israel—they can never be fully captured or articulated. For more than we grasp Israel, it grips us. Only the person who experiences this love and attachment can understand it. You see, Eretz Yisrael or Israel is not just the land God promised to Abraham and his descendants. It is not only the "holy land" at the very center and core of all Jewish beliefs and practices—it is so much more.

Israel, for the Jew today, is God comforting His people. "Comfort ye, My people." It is that miracle which gives us hope for our future after enduring such a long and dark past. As the prophets say, "For there is hope for thy future, and the children shall return to their borders."

After the Holocaust, we Jews gazed dumbfounded at what had occurred. Was it possible to go on believing in a God of love after losing 6 million individuals, one third of the Jewish people, almost 2 million of whom were children? Was it possible to go on believing in God's covenant with Israel and their election? Was it possible to go on believing? In God? In man? Indeed, was it possible to go on?

Like Ezekiel before us, we Jews stood amidst the ashes of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Treblinka and we looked down in the valley of Sheol we asked, "Can these dry dead bones again live?" Can we Jews possibly recover from this devastation? And behold, a miracle—God breathed life into those dry bones and they came together, sinew to sinew, bone to bone. They took on flesh and spirit. They arose and were reborn in Jerusalem. "For the Lord has comforted His people, He has redeemed Zion."

What does Israel mean to the contemporary Jew? It means that God has not abandoned His people. It means that He is true to His Word! Israel's existence gives us our very will and determination to continue living... as Jews. "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem and for the welfare of all its inhabitants. They shall prosper that love thee." (Psalm 122:6)

Do Jews Believe That The Birth Of The State Of Israel Is A Miracle?

People view life and events in two different ways. Some see them as they are on the surface, i.e. the "natural" order of things. Others see them on a much deeper and more penetrating level. This is what the Psalmist meant when he said, "A fool will not comprehend this." What seems obvious and revealed to the person of faith is viewed entirely differently by the one without faith.

Certainly, there are those Jews who view the birth and continued existence of the State of Israel as an "amazing" occurrence, one that came about because of the courage, training and initiative of the Israeli army. And this is, of course, correct. But what this perspective fails to take into account are the words of Moses in Deuteronomy, reminding the victorious Israelis never to forget who gave them that courage, that power, that ability to win the battle.

Yes, the birth of Israel and its continued survival in the face of many attempts to destroy it is a miracle. Indeed, I would go farther—the very continued existence of the Jewish people after having endured centuries of persecution, bears witness to a God Who is involved in human history, Who is concerned about its direction, and Who cares deeply about the welfare of His children.

It is impossible for me to look at the unfolding events in Jewish history, particularly those in recent years, to see Jews coming from all four corners of the earth to Israel—from the former Soviet Union, Yemen, America, black Jews from Ethiopia, and not see God's hand in these events. God is gathering His children back as He promised to do. He is settling them on their land as the prophets foretold. And He is redeeming the world as the Bible said He would.

The exciting part of all this is that the drama is still unfolding—God continues to be true to Israel and His Word. It is happening right in front of our eyes. It is so obvious and clear to see. Yes, yes, yes, Israel is a miracle. "From the Lord this has come about, it is wondrous in our eyes." And yet, the fool who does not look deeper, below life's surface, will never comprehend these truths.

Sources: International Fellowship of Christians and Jews