Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
May 21, 2011
The Torah along with the book of Joshua can be summed up in the following way: While we begin the Jewish journey outside of the Land of Israel the goal is to establish Abraham's family in the Land of Canaan. Isaac never leaves. Jacob goes on condition to return. Joseph's brothers go to Egypt only to get food and must return. Jacob is again permitted to leave but tells his sons: "You are eventually going back. Take me too." After the exodus from Egypt the rest of Torah is about getting back to the Land. Moses will lead them to its doorstep, see it from afar, and his successor Joshua will lead the people back. The land is used as the platform for our origin and initial history. The enslavement is but a detour in the journey. We have to get back and there establish the people covenanted with God. It is the platform for the existence of our religion. The syllogism is simple: no land, no people, no faith :: no faith, no people, and so the land is irrelevant.
This morning's Torah portion is also focused on the Land of Israel. Like individuals, the land is to be respected through observance of the Sabbatical year which is essentially a moral issue. If we treat both the people and the land immorally, we will lose the land. Loss of land is a punishment for sinning. The chastisement section of Behukotai explicitly connects the exile from the land and our terrible existence as the consequence of breaking the covenant with God and calls into question its existence at all. The books of Genesis and Joshua make evident that other people live on the land of Canaan. In the Torah God enunciates a theology and ideology that permits the Israelites to have this land instead of the original inhabitants: their idolatry was essentially the basest immorality. In Torah language, the land "spit them out" because of their idolatrous immorality which then permitted the Israelites to possess it as their own. The book of Leviticus with its Holiness Code is the substance of the contract that enabled this ideology. As long as Israel will live morally, they are entitled to live on that land. I think that this is matchless in the annals of human history. Which people have ever used moral behavior as the basis for acquisition of the land of others? Was that what manifest destiny in America was about? Was that the basis for Nazi Lebenstraum, living space? Were Greece and Roman moral empires? I don't think so. This is the unique, exquisite Jewish philosophy, to link the right to exist on a specific piece of land with obedience to a moral code which then enables certain claims; one was to the land of Israel.
Yet it is also clear from the Prophets that the land is not to be an idol to be worshipped. Confronting the paganism of its ages, prophet after prophet demanded from Israel obedience to the covenant which required complete faith in the One God, and moral behavior according to the standards in the Torah. The land was not to be worshipped. Possession of the land by Israel was conditional and not absolute. The ultimate Prophetic vision had less to do with the land than it did with fidelity to God and living holy lives, which could be done anywhere in the world. Ezekiel in Babylonia foresaw that the exile from the land might last a long time and that they needed to reinforce themselves as Jews covenanted to God without the land. While they might dream of returning, they would only warrant that if they atoned for their sins of idolatry and immorality. The prophets created a new era in our journey: people in faith and obedience to God remained covenanted with Him no matter where they were.
After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.C. and the defeat of the Bar Kochba rebellion in 132 C.E. the Rabbis extended the Prophetic vision as they created the Judaism that we live out of the Temple-based cult. Especially for Babylonian Jewry, Judaism was not a land-based faith. It was rooted in the people, the family, the synagogue, the Torah, the Bible. We could go anywhere, anytime and be 'in faith' with God. As the years extended, the land remained a vision, a history, a memory and we lived in the Anatevkas, in the Richmond's of our lives, vibrant, meaningful, faithful, and moral. We read the Torah and for the most part oriented our synagogues eastward. Our journey lasted two thousand years with a growing, deepening, expanding faith without a land. The Rabbis created the mythology of the land intertwined with the ideology of faith.
Zionism was born fifty years before the Holocaust as Herzl and others understood that the past 2,000 years had been filled with physical danger, and would continue to be so, because of our landlessness. It was not connected to faith, God and covenant. It was a political movement that recognized our existential condition of persecution. They believed that if we could have a homeland and, for the most part, get out of everyone else's, they wouldn't hate us any more. It would end the pogroms. It would end the church forced conversions. It would end persecutions.
Perhaps if the State of Israel existed before the Holocaust, either it would not have happened or at least there would have been a place to which to run. We will never know. The leaders of Zionism wanted to build a country like any other country, but where the Jews could be safe. There were arguments over what kind of country it would be, what would be its language and the role of religion. I wonder what they would think of Israel if they could rise from the grave today. With all that has been achieved they would still bemoan the truth that Jews are not safe. That has not changed.
There are three pressing questions for the global Jewish people today:
Will Jews define their identity with religious content or enable its crumbling away through secularism and amphorphousness? Will there be specificity to the title "Jew?"
Will Jews feel a sense of peoplehood in a world that stresses the autonomous self, independent and unattached? Will Jews feel in their lifeblood the need of community, or will they use bits and pieces wherever and whenever they wish, in effect destroying the broadcloth of Judaism and the Jewish people? Will the Jews of the world care about Israel?
Will the leaders of the State of Israel insure the destiny of the State of Israel or make their political parties and the land into idols? In our history, that approach insured our destruction. What will be holy? The people? Our destiny? The land? Our moral fiber? How will now the largest part of the Jewish people in the 21st century be safe? Or in our idolatry will we miss the mark, miss the boat and miss the moment to insure that the State of Israel, the Third Commonwealth of the Jewish People, will last until the coming of the Messiah?
With my life I believe that I have the right to say these words. Our daughter lives there. I have walked the land, east to west, north to south. I have lived there. I give my money there. I think of Israel every day. My computer homepage is the Ha'aretz newspaper. It is the first thing I see, the first thought I have. I cannot imagine my life, our lives, the Jewish people without the State of Israel. In my dreams I rewrite history by shooting Hitler dead before he could implement the Holocaust, or that the State already exists with open arms to embrace every Jew. Those dreams are of the past. They are dead.
I want our leaders, I demand of our leaders, of America and of Israel to forgo their idolatries, relinquish blindness and secure our destiny. Make our people truly safe! Make all peoples safe!
I want to dream of the future.
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
3330 Grove Avenue
Richmond, VA 23221