The most common sermon for Parshat Shelach is that bad-mouthing, יציאת דבה, (yetziat diba) Eretz Yisrael has disastrous results. The infamous Meraglim, scouts, return with a glowing report of Eretz Yisrael and then turn on it as אֶרֶץ אֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ (Eretz Ochelet Yoshveha), a land that eats her inhabitants. They thus tore the heart out of the Jewish people who were poised to immediately enter The Land, and we were condemned to wander the desert for forty years.
I’m in the twenty-sixth year of what was intended as a two-year “sabbatical” from life in Jerusalem. I pray I’m reprieved without having to serve out the next fourteen. This parsha speaks to me as not other because it describes my very own experience.
Like many American olim, especially in the early 1980s when life in Israel was in economic chaos and the United States was experiencing unprecedented affluence, I was on the receiving end of what became for me unbearable expressions of jealousy from a number of native-born Israelis. Being dati, religious, in those years when the overwhelming majority of non-charedi Israelis were (often militantly) secular, didn’t help (nor did the increasing political power of many charedi, backwards-looking, leaders, undercutting a forward-looking orthodoxy). Having a family like this as immediate next-door (less than three feet from door-to-door) neighbors made it inescapable. Day-to-day life became unbearable.
Now pre-conditioned to anger, paranoia and defensiveness, it seemed that I attracted the sort of experiences that my friends only confronted very occasionally, and they with much more patience and equanimity than I was able to muster. I’d get overcharged when filling my car with gas, cheated by taxi drivers and by grocers who, literally, had their thumbs resting on the scale. And don’t get me started on contending with Israeli drivers.
Most of my friends, including Israelis I knew, tolerated my kvetching good-naturedly. One friend, however, was horrified and I remember her voice rising in fear when she said, “Don’t speak lashon hara (slander) on Eretz Yisrael!” I also remember trying to justify myself by repeating, for the umpteenth time, my litany of gripes.
Anyhow, it built up until I remember, screaming out to myself in my car that was caught in yet another senseless gridlock, “This place is eating me alive!” That afternoon we decided to leave.
Although I spent the next several months traveling the length and breadth of The Land, lovingly and mournfully photographing everywhere I hadn’t previously seen, and although I’ve since returned for numerous visits, although I’ve done tshuva over and over and have become a vocal advocate for Israel in every forum I encounter, I’m still here. Not all damage is reversible.
Of course the Israeli government is imperfect. Of course we can better meet our challenges. Of course there are vestiges of prejudice and racism (although in my experience vastly less than anywhere else I’ve ever visited and infinitely less than it’s regularly accused of). Of course there is crime (again, vastly less than in the US or in Europe). Of course Judaism in Israel has yet to develop to its fullest. But our approach must be to correct, not to condemn.
If one doesn’t, can’t or won’t learn the lesson from this parsha, try to learn from my experience.