In November 2006, I set out with a pack on my back to walk the Land. I knew that before I enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces, I wanted a more intimate relationship with the country that I had made my home. I wanted to feel the topographical diversity, the geological variety, and encounter the bucolic terrain of this Land. Following the biblical mandate to "Rise, walk about the Land through its length and its breadth, for to you I will give it" (Genesis 13:17), I began my journey.
Shvil Yisrael (The Israel Trail) is a 1,025-kilometer (636.9 mi) series of hiking trails, going from Tel Dan in the north to the shores of the Red Sea, south of Eilat. Since it was built in 1995, the "Shvil" has become increasingly popular. Many see walking the entire trail as a rite of passage, though many more take it in strides and break the trek into 2-3-day segments or weekly trips.
I embarked on this adventure with the hopes of discovering a Land, a people, and a bit more of myself. Into my (too-full) pack, I stuffed four books: a Tanach and siddur, the Israel Trail Guidebook, and Meir Shalev's 1988 debut historical novel, "Blue Mountain." Shalev's masterpiece provided poetic captions for the scenery before my eyes and under my feet. This lyrical novel transcended time and place, touching on issues of universal relevance, showcasing Shalev's skill as a storyteller who seamlessly wove his social commentary into his work.
In April 2023, a few months shy of this 75th birthday, Meir Shalev passed away. He was not only a great novelist, masterful Hebraist, and author of dozens of children's books, he was also a symbol of the State of Israel. Shalev was a combat soldier in the War of Attrition (1967-1970) and the Six-Day War in 1967 while also a pioneer of modern Hebrew literature. Shalev, a liberal Zionist, never held back with his political commentary. President Yitzhak Herzog eulogized him as, "a man with a spirit, whose homeland and our history as a society, as a people, and as a nation, pulsated in each of his words."
For some, myself included, Shalev's passing symbolizes the passing of his generation and the start of a new Israeli ethos.
Meir Shalev represented one prototype of the Israeli spirit. He was the quintessential farmer-warrior-poet whose life spanned Israel's first 75 years. He was a secular Jew who knew the Bible inside and out but abhorred religious coercion.
He took up arms to defend the country but acknowledged that he would not want his service to contribute to the defense of Jewish settlements in the West Bank or the occupation of the Palestinian people.
This makes me wonder, is the Israel represented by Meir Shalev slowly fading into oblivion? Is there hope that liberal Zionists still have a future?
The hundreds of thousands of people coming out to protest the coalition government's radical legislative proposals over the past three months, unequivocally fighting for the liberal, democratic Israel they believe in while safeguarding basic human rights and dignity might be a hint that liberal Zionist sensibilities are alive and well - despite it being threatened.
Shalev was representative of just one part of the complex fabric of Israeli society. Diverse ethnic, religious, and ideological groups each advocate for their own vision of a Jewish State. As Israel turns 75, the country begins a new chapter in its history. Without a constitution, there is no guidebook to tell us which path to travel. The current crisis has revealed the many contradictory visions of a Jewish State.
Seventy-five years ago, we witnessed Israel's leaders transition from revolutionaries to bureaucrats. Those who stood up against the British and the neighboring Arab countries that called for Israel's destruction now had to worry about health care, welfare, education, and urban planning while competing for their rightful place in Jewish discourse.
This is, no doubt, a moment for celebration of all that Israel is - a celebration of those who left their mark on us as a Free People in Our Land. It is also an invitation to those living outside Israel to invest in the Jewish State. Invest your time, energy, intellectual capacity, curiosity, and financial resources in the richness that has enhanced the Jewish identity of communities around the world.
In a 2019 admonitory speech at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, Meir Shalev called on the public to make a choice. He said, "These are days of decision, days of choice. Whom to vote for? The answer is in the Book of Deuteronomy: 'Choose life'" (Deuteronomy 30:19).
On this Yom HaAtzmaut, let us all discover the Land, people, and State of Israel in new and creative ways.
The shvil, or path, is there for you to discover. Now, go!