In this week's Torah portion, when Moses gives instructions to the spies, he asks them to bring back samples of the fruit of the land (Numbers 13:20). The spies return with pomegranates, figs and a huge cluster of grapes. The Texas-sized cluster of grapes is so large that it must be carried by two men.
This bountiful sample of the fruit of Eretz Yisrael is a display of the fecund and blessed nature of the land. An icon of the two men carrying the grape cluster is the symbol of the Ministry of Tourism in Israel today.
There is a long history in Judaism of the special religious significance attached to the fruit and produce of Eretz Yisrael. For example, the rabbis decreed that a special blessing should be recited after eating food made from one of the seven species identified with Eretz Yisrael (Deuteronomy 8:8): wheat; barley; grapes; figs; pomegranates; olives; and dates.
During Talmudic times, when faced with a choice between eating cheaper fruit grown in the Diaspora or more expensive fruit from Israel, the rabbis encouraged the people to eat the products of Israel.
On Tu B'Shevat, the New Year of Trees, it became a custom long before the advent of modern Zionism to eat fruits associated with Eretz Yisrael. This was no easy task before modern refrigerated shipping.
My father-in-law, born in Poland, remembers eating hard, dried carob on Tu B'Shevat, a fruit that figures in the Elijah story in the Bible, hardly a tasty treat for a child. Yet it was important to have that physical connection to Eretz Yisrael. In my own childhood, I remember my mother shopping for Jaffa oranges as a Tu B'Shevat treat.
Fruit is indeed an apt metaphor for our relationship to our homeland, for our sense of belonging and connection, and in times past for our yearning for the land. You could take the people out of the land, but you could not take the land out of the people. We can still maintain our connection to Israel today by enjoying the fruit of the land.
While we can still shop for Israeli produce in our supermarket, we can expand the definition of "fruits" to include all products of the Israeli economy. Today, we are more likely to utilize instant messaging, which was invented by Israelis, than Jaffa oranges, or an Israeli security system for our computers than kibbutz olives. High tech is the leading export "fruit" of Israel today.
It is our duty to support the Israeli economy in whatever way we can. For example, there is an amazing variety of Israeli Web sites where you can shop for B'nai Mitzvah, wedding and other gifts for special occasions. But the best thing you can do for the Israeli economy is to go there yourself, where you can taste firsthand the sweetness of the land. You will surely agree with Caleb and Joshua, the two spies who proclaimed that "the Land is very, very good" (Numbers 14:8).
Rabbi Alan Iser is the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Shalom in Berwyn.