The Land of the Deer
“G-d said to Moshe, 'Go up to this mountain of Avarim and see the Land that I have given to the Children of Yisrael…” (27:12)
The prophet Yirmiyahu called the Land of Israel Eretz HaTzvi – the Land of the Deer.
If you skin a deer, the hide contracts so much that it's difficult to believe that it contained the carcass of the animal. So it is with the Land of Israel; when the Jewish People live here it expands to accommodate us, and when we are not here it shrinks. (Talmud Bavli, Gittin 56a)
It seems that geographically this is also true. I doubt that there's another country in the world that contains such diverse topography in such a small space. You can drive from the snow-capped mountains in the Hermon to the baking heat of the Dead Sea, the lowest place on Earth, in just a couple of hours.
And when you approach Jerusalem from the West, the land is fertile and forested; as soon as you leave to the East you immediately enter the Judean Desert and the land of the camel.
But there's another aspect to this geophysical contraction.
Ohr Somayach/Tanenbaum College in Jerusalem where I teach is just this side of what used to be the Jordanian border and for many years that no-man's land between West and East Jerusalem remained untouched.
Not much more than a decade ago, an Arab goatherd used to minister to his rather bedraggled flock on that thin strip of land. Remarkable for nothing, it could have been anywhere in the hills of Judea.
I doubt very much that goatherd would recognize the place today. The four lanes of Highway #1 now traverse his grazing field from the Damascus Gate towards the North, and the tracks of the new Jerusalem light railway have just been completed. A sundial stands atop the last hill before the Old City.
It's completely changed.
As I left Ohr Somayach the other afternoon, I glanced across the gap into East Jerusalem and another world. A group of European tourists were boarding a bus that bore the emblem – "Muhammad's Tours".
I thought to myself, it's amazing how many different realities can exist in the same physical space. This is also the Cultural Land of the Deer.
"Muhammad's Tours" had no doubt shown its tourists as much of Jerusalem as they could cram into a day; and yet the Jerusalem they had seen was an entirely different reality to the one in which I exist.
They probably visited the Dome of the Rock, which I call Har HaBayit and to which I am forbidden by the Torah to enter until the Mashiach comes.
They probably went to Ramallah, from which I am forbidden to enter by the Israeli Defense Forces for fear of a lynch – probably until the Mashiach comes.
I'm sure they walked the Via Dolorosa, visited the Church of the Sepulcher and the numerous other churches that have been built over the last two millennia and that I have never visited, and will probably continue to be churches – until the Mashiach comes.
On the other hand, there's another Jerusalem that I've never seen. There's apparently a "night life" here that, while it cannot rival the hedonism of Tel Aviv, probably is amusing enough for your average tzfon-bon (upper-class North-Tel Avivian) to check out once in a while.
Yes, Israel is a very small country divided by a vast cultural no-man's land.
It truly is the Land of the Deer.