Of Tel Aviv, Yerushalayim and Our Image


yerushalayimBy Rabbi Meir Goldberg

The Yomim Tovim of Pesach and Shavuos define our national purpose. They prepare us to remember our national mission of being a mamleches cohanim v’goy kadosh,  A kingdom of priests and holy nation.

“You are not like everyone else,” says Hashem. “You are special, different.”

The Sforno (Shmos 19:6) comments that at Har Sinai our national mission became to lead the world in recognition of Hashem.

Unfortunately, most of our secular brethren don’t see themselves that way. They have inherited the attitude of early secular Zionist leader Jacob Klatzkin who wrote:

“Let us be like all the nations… In longing for our land we do not desire to create there a base for the spiritual values of Judaism. To regain our land is for us an end in itself – the attaining of a free national life.”

The Israeli government is using a new strategy to improve Israel’s damaged public image. While Israel used to be perceived as a tiny lamb amongst the many Arab wolves surrounding her, she is now seen as the new Goliath in relation to the Palestinians. In addition, most casual observers in the western world have Middle East fatigue. They simply aren’t interested in the two neighbors who constantly fight with each other. Consequently, Israel is not very popular on the world stage. To win the new public relations war, goes the new strategy, Israel must re frame her image from that of a tough, no nonsense bruiser, to that of a chic, sophisticated and most importantly, cool, nation. In other words, take the focus off of conflict and make Israel look more like everybody else.

Thus, a website promoting Israeli tourism, was proud to announce that the Lonely Planet travel guide recently dubbed Tel Aviv the new sin city; a kind of San Francisco of the Middle East. “Hedonism is the one religion that unites its inhabitants,” observed the Lonely Planet editor. “There are more bars than synagogues. G-d is a DJ and everyone’s body is a temple.”
I was recently talking about this to a secular Israeli. I mentioned to him that Americans are generally quite religious – 92% believe in G-d. Judging from my own experience and that of numerous friends and associates, most Americans look to Jews and moral representatives of G-d. A very large portion of non Jews really do see us as Hashem’s people. I, somewhat naively, mentioned to him that perhaps Israel should portray itself as a moral leader. That is, not just as a nation that does what is morally popular in the world, but rather as a nation that is willing to take a stand for what is correct, even if it will get criticized for it. Most people will respect those that do so regardless of whether or not they agree with them.

Needless to say, he disagreed with me. I believe it is because I am a religious Jew and he is secular, thus the divergent worldview.

You see I am a product of Yerushalayim, “Ki Mitziyon tatzai Torah udvar Hashem M’ Yerushalayim,” While he is a product of Tel Aviv.

Rav Yissochor Frand once gave a shiur on shmittah and kedushas haaretz. He talked about the greatness of Eretz yisroel, where the very fruits and vegetables are holy. Afterward he recounted what he had heard on a National Public Radio report done right after the Oslo accords, contrasting Yerushalayim and Tel Aviv.

What is the difference between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem? They interviewed several people. The thrust of the responses was that Tel Aviv is a “normal city”. Tel Aviv is a pragmatic city. “It is a city which is unencumbered by history. Tel Aviv is like Miami!”(I guess now it became San Francisco.)

Jerusalem is not Miami. Jerusalem is not pragmatic. Jerusalem is not “normal”. Jerusalem is “encumbered by history” – thousands of years of history that the city must bear on its shoulders.

They contrasted the differences between a Friday afternoon in Tel Aviv and a Friday afternoon in Jerusalem. They had excerpts of the sounds of Tel Aviv: teenagers listening to ‘Rap music’. They commented “this is so normal”. A person on the street Friday afternoon in Tel Aviv could shut his eyes and just listen to the music and think he was in downtown Baltimore. Tel Aviv is ‘normal’.

On the other hand, “the Orthodox Jews, many of them dressed in the broad brimmed hats and the long caftans, are scurrying through the streets of Jerusalem trying to prepare for the upcoming Sabbath”. Tel Aviv is “normal”. Jerusalem is “abnormal”.

Mr. Kivi Bernhard, a South African Jew, once told over the story of how his boss, a diamond dealer in Johannesburg, sent him to close an important transaction with a Brussels based client. As Kivi sat down in the plush office, the client pointed out a Picasso painting prominently displayed on the wall.

“How much do you think that costs,” asked the client? “I don’t know much about art,” replied Kivi. “But I guess around $100,000.” The client laughed.

“That’s the insurance on it. It is worth somewhere between $12 – $15 million. Tell me Kivi, what’s the worst thing you can do to ruin that Picasso?”

Kivi answered,  “The worst thing I can do to ruin it would be to take a knife and stab it through the painting or perhaps to take some paint and throw it on the painting.”

“No” countered the client, “Because it would still be a Picasso that some crazy man stabbed or threw paint on. The worst thing you could do is to take a knife and make a quarter inch cut in the corner of the painting where it is signed by Picasso, because then it isn’t a Picasso anymore, it’s just a painting.”

Kivi concluded that this is a great metaphor for the Jewish people. We are supposed to proclaim Hashem’s existence to everyone. We are supposed to be Hashem’s signature on the beautiful mosaic called the world. If we forget that, we are no longer unique or special.

This Yom Tov, let us try to invite in our secular brethren, so that they reignite that spark that exists within them and realize their unique mission.

So that they do not think that we and our land are simply like everyone and everywhere else.

Like Tel Aviv, San Francisco, or Miami.

Rabbi Meir Goldberg is the Director of Rutgers Jewish Xperience at Rutgers U in New Brunswick, NJ. He resides in Lakewood, NJ with his wife and five children. He can be reached at Mgoldberg@RutgersJX.com

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  1. Even more than “cool” …or tourism, I am finding that Israel really shines in the areas of science and technology. The world should know more about the great innovative and creative talents today in Israel. A few websites are showing this on Twitter…and that’s “cool”!