This week’s parshah, “Vayetzei,” meaning “And he left” or “he went out,” is found in Genesis 28:10.  

Ya’akov leaves his hometown, Beersheba, and journeys to Charan. On the way, he encounters a place (later Ya’akov names Beit El – the House of God) and sleeps there, dreaming of a ladder connecting heaven and earth, with angels climbing and descending on it. God appears and promises that the land upon which he lies will be given to his descendants. Upon waking, Ya’akov utters with a sense of awe: 

אָכֵן יֵשׁ יְהוָה בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וְאָנֹכִי, לֹא יָדָעְתִּי 

“God is in this place, and I didn’t know it!”  

This verse reminds me of how Rabbi Heschel thought and wrote about the land of Israel.  

Rabbi Heschel saw Israel as an ancient and living source for Jewish life and inspiration. He understood Israel as the land where God’s presence is visible everywhere through the miraculous events of Jewish history: “It is a land where not a spot is visible that is not reflecting an event, a moment… When you think of Israel, you think of events, of breakthroughs in history.” (Heschel, God in Search of Man

Like Ya’akov’s experience of God breaking through his consciousness in a dream, for Heschel, the land of Israel is full of moments in which God “breaks through” into our consciousness through events in history. 

Heschel saw the formation of the modern state of Israel as another such miraculous event. In Israel: Echo of Eternity, Heschel wrote: 

“Israel is a country where a full Jewish life can be lived in accord with tradition and conscience; where the Sabbath fills the streets, not only the homes; where the language is Hebrew. Every people has a right to its own territory, in which it can develop its own culture and strive for making a contribution to the world out of its own spirit.”

Out of the land of Zion come the great teachings of Judaism – כי מציון תצא תורה (ki mitzion tezei Torah), and for Heschel, among the greatest of these teachings derived from the Prophets. Heschel admired the Prophets—Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah—above all for their uncompromising moral compass. The prophets were not popular, as their message of justice created discomfort among the complacent. Heschel believed the Prophets sought to convey “God’s pathos”—the deep concern of God for the lives and the suffering of all human beings. 

“The more deeply immersed I became in the thinking of the prophets, the more powerfully it become clear to me what the lives of the prophets sought to convey: that morally speaking there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings.” 

Heschel was a Zionist, in the deepest sense of the word: recognizing the uniqueness of Israel for the flourishing and expression of the Jewish people, and for the formation of our moral compass.  

This Shabbat, may we all consider what Israel means for each of us and for Klal Israel.  May raise again in our conscious how “God is in that place,” even if we can’t always know it.  

Shabbat Shalom,  

Moreh Greg