Connecting to the Land

December 1, 2005
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Michael Cohen

It was the Zionist philosopher Ahad Ha’am who said, “More than the Jews have kept the Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” One can also say, “More than the Jews have kept the Land of Israel, the Land of Israel has kept the Jews.” It was one of our most important decisions, made at the moment that we were expelled from the Land that we decided to keep that connection to the Land strong. The Romans knew this when they changed the name of the Land from Israel to Palestine hoping to cut that connection.

We made that connection strong by making it tangible, real, and full of meaning. It is not surprising that when the Dali Lama asked to be taught the secret of our maintaining our identity over thousands of years of exile, as he anticipates the exile of the Tibetans will be long as well, he was taught by the rabbis and teachers he met to maintain a real connection with his land.

Tu B’Shevat, is the holiday par excellence that makes that point. It makes no sense to celebrate the planting of trees in the middle of the winter in North America, or Poland, or Moscow, or London for that matter. It does make sense though if you want to be reminded of the climate, the foliage, and the seasons, of the homeland of the Jewish people. We know of no other people in the world who were exiled off their land for more than 150 years and maintained their identity except for the Jewish People. One of the key factors for to maintaining our identity all these years was maintaining our connection to the Land.

We are told that the Land of Israel was assigned to us as a sacred trust. That trust, if we are to take it seriously includes the care of its holy soil, water, air, and animal life. The health of the land is also a good barometer of the health of the Zionist movement. Zionism stands not just for returning the People to the Land, but also the care of that very Land so that the Jewish People may thrive on it. We prayed for almost 2,000 years for the ability to return to her soil. The Land as always calls out to us. The Green Zionist Alliance ( <a href=””></a> ) is an example of a response to that call. Four years ago it became the first Zionist environmental party to participate in a World Zionist Congress. The GZA is running a slate again in this year’s elections leading up to the 35 th World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem in June, 2006.

When Abraham and Sarah accept the brit (covenant) with God it is directly linked with an everlasting connection to the land of Israel (Gen. 17). That connection includes within it the message of the opening of Genesis and its very strong environmental ethic. That ethic teaches the value the environment has in and of itself (separate from human needs), the goodness of environmental diversity, and the need to care for it.

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Rabbi Michael M. Cohen is the Executive Director of the North American offices of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies ( ) on Kibbutz Ketura.

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