October 26, 2012: Israel (Lech Lecha)

Lech lecha mei’artzecha umimoladetcha umibeit avicha el ha’aretz asher ar’ecka, ”go forth from your native land, from your birth place, from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1) With these words, our ancestor Abraham launched his epic journey some 3500 years ago. With these words, the Jewish people, our people, were born. With these words, we simultaneously acquired our homeland. The bond between the People of Israel and the Land of Israel has endured ever since. Indeed, people and land are so closely bound that the name Israel, by itself, could refer to either.

This week’s Torah portion labels Abraham ha-ivri, “the Hebrew,” (Genesis 14:13) meaning the one who crosses over. Every Passover, we begin the Seder narrative with the words: arami oveid avi, “my father was a wandering Aramean,” (Deuteronomy 26:5) again referring to the patriarch, Abraham. Like Abraham before them, countless Jews throughout history have set out from “the old country,” leaving behind familiar surroundings to courageously begin new lives in a land they had never seen. Indeed, the divine directive to Abraham still resonates today and prompts each of us to examine our both our identity as Jews and our relationship to the Promised Land.

Discussions with non-Jews, and even among Jews, often ignore the uniqueness of the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. It’s different from the patriotism that an American might feel for the United States, or the loyalty that a devout Catholic might vow toward the Vatican, or the warm nostalgia that an Italian American immigrant might retain for Tuscany. That’s because Judaism is not simply a religion, and not simply a nation, but an amalgam of both. If you want to become Muslim, you submit to Allah. (Islam means “submission.”) If you want to become Christian, you accept Jesus as your lord and savior. But to become Jewish, you are espousing a religion, but also a shared culture, a shared history, a shared language, and much more.

In the Introduction to Judaism class that I co-teach with Rabbi Sue Silberberg at IU Hillel for those considering conversion, students tend to discuss Israel in political terms only. I explain to them: “you’re marrying into an extended family.” The Torah’s declaration, “my father was a wandering Aramean,” implies that Abraham is the personal father of every Jew, and, consequently, Abraham’s place of residence is our personal home. We are all brothers and sisters, and we are all stakeholders in the Land of Israel. When the Biblical Ruth establishes kinship with her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, first Ruth declares her affinity of place: “wherever you lodge, I will lodge,” then family bond, “your people will be my people,” and only at the end, she adds almost as an afterthought: “your God will be my God.” (Ruth 1:16) Ruth subsequently makes good on her promise by following Naomi—where? To Israel.

For every nation, the land and its inhabitants are inextricably intertwined. No nation can survive as a distinct entity for very long once it has been exiled. It’s almost unimaginable that a people could retain its territorial affiliation based not upon actual sovereignty but merely upon the longing to return. Incredibly, the people of Israel have spent a far greater portion of their three thousand year history outside its borders than within them.

I have been travelling to Israel countless times since age twelve. Invariably, I get butterflies in my stomach the moment the plane begins its final descent after long hours of flight and from my window seat I first make out the shoreline. I feel similarly, say, when I reunite with my partner after being apart. What I am at a loss to explain, however, is that I had the same reaction of homecoming the first time as a child, when I had never been to Israel before. I know many of you share what I am describing. Our attachment emanates from a place within ourselves that is deeper than concerns for safety and security, deeper than political ideology, deeper than religious belief, deeper than cultural identification, deeper than historical continuity. As Rabbi Harold Kushner writes in the chapter “Why We Love Israel:” “Our love for Israel, like all love, is irrational and does not lend itself to being explained and understood.” (To Life, page 245)

Lech lecha mei’artzecha umimoladetcha umibeit avicha el ha’aretz asher ar’ecka, ”go forth from your native land, from your birth place, from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” God’s directive to the first Jew sets forth our relationship to each other as Jews and our relationship to our land. Each one of us, those born Jewish and those who are Jews by choice, must define the nature of these relationships for ourselves, but we cannot ignore them. The most extraordinary aspect of Abraham’s call is that he departs without knowing where he is going, and certainly without knowing that he is about to found a new dynasty. God only reveals the destination to Abraham later on, but at this point in the narrative, he must set out on faith. So it is today with us. We cannot foresee our ultimate destiny as individuals or our ultimate destiny as a people. Nevertheless, we must continue our journey in the footsteps of Avraham avinu, Abraham our father, with courage, faith and conviction that we too are building a future for those who come after us and we too are on our way home.