Limitation, Liberation, and Love: Reflections on a Summer in IsraelThursday, October 26, 2017
One of the first realizations to hit me painfully, upon arriving back in Canada after a month in Israel, was how much choice I had about what to eat. In Jerusalem, I subsisted quite largely and contentedly on a few staples: pita and hummus, watermelon with feta and mint, lentils, fresh figs, chopped cucumber and tomatoes. Back in Toronto, though, I was hit with a staggering array of choice on my own shelves (…so many things I could put on just my bread!). And, rather than feeling free, I felt pressured. It reminds me of a lesson which is so easy to forget: that unlimited options can, ironically, sometimes be limiting.
As good North Americans, we loath discrimination, even in the broader sense of the term: “To separate; to select from others”—in other words, to choose. Choices limit, and we resist binding ourselves to commitments. We live globally, severing ties to people and place because these, too, are limitations. This universalizing impulse is also propelled forward to some degree by Christianity. Built, yes, upon a Jewish Man on a mission that began with Israel (Matt. 15:24), Christianity spread far beyond the narrative of Israel that makes up the Old Testament, welcoming in a new community stretching beyond traditional limitations: “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free.” Alexis de Tocqueville, the great prophet of the American mind, claimed that those of us living in the age of equality think more of “the duties of each individual to the race” and more rarely limit ourselves to “devoted service to any one man.” Choosing to favor a specific group grates against the Canadian multicultural “mosaic” or the American “melting pot.”
The Israeli mindset, however, is fundamentally different.
While in Jerusalem this summer, an Israeli friend asked me whether I felt connected to my Egyptian side. “Not really,” I replied, “except that I care more when I hear about attacks against Christians in Egypt than I do if the attack was somewhere else.” Then my multicultural Canadian conscious kicked in and I quickly added, “But I probably shouldn’t care more.”
To which my Israeli friend promptly and firmly replied, “You have to care more.”
To choose, to prefer, to discriminate is to limit. It binds me to a commitment and requires me to forfeit something of my freedom. But choice also liberates possibilities unattainable by ambivalence. And it is a prerequisite for one little thing: love.
Love requires choice, and therefore love limits. A man who chooses to marry the one he loves does so at the cost of (in the words of traditional wedding vows) “forsaking all others.” The Bible tells us that the Lord Himself chose Israel “to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” This choice—Scripture couples the words “set his love on you” with “chose you”—was not because of any particular greatness in Israel but “because the Lord loves [the people of Israel]” and was faithful to His promises (Deut. 7:6-8).
Reading through Scripture while in Israel, I was hit by this uncanny idea:
“For the Lord has chosen Zion;/ he has desired it for his dwelling place:” (Psalm 132:13) …
“ the Lord loves the gates of Zion / more than all the dwelling places of Jacob.” (Psalm 87:2) …
“the Lord loves the children of Israel” (Hosea 3:1) …
What do we politically correct North Americans do with a God that chooses? Most often, we may interpret these words (“Mt. Zion,” “Israel,” etc.) figuratively. And yes, there may be a second or foreshadowed meaning. But if these words also at all literally mean what they literally mean—that hill I can see from my window, that city surrounded by walls, this blooming desert of a land—then you start to get this crazy picture that God really seems to be insanely infatuated with this concrete, physical, dusty, tumultuous, sun-scorched place.
“If you got a free plane ticket to anywhere in the world right now,” someone asked me as we walked home after my first Shabbat dinner back in Jerusalem, “where would you choose?”
I think I was momentarily baffled. “I don’t want to go somewhere else,” I said. “I just got here.” While my friends explore new countries and continents, I keep spending my travel pennies flying back to this little strip of land along the Mediterranean. But somehow, this is a choice that does not limit but rather liberates, a choice to love and be loved back.
Jerusalem: it’s not always easy to be there, from the heat to the political chaos to just never knowing exactly what you’re buying from the yogurt aisle. And yet, just trying to make my way past my window which looked out upon Mt. Zion, I would find myself staggered anew, so many mornings and evenings, sunrises, sunsets, and light-speckled nights, by the beauty in panorama before me. And so, my last nights in the city, when dark had already fallen and the black hulk of Mt. Zion stood dark against the sky, and the Dome of the Rock gleamed on the Temple Mount, and the lights down in the valley and up on the other side twinkled, and the city had, finally, fallen silent (for now), I threw open the screenless side of the window and sat on the sill, looking out, feeling too much to want to put thoughts into words or even to think, and so just saying nothing…because He loves it, too.