A Dvar Torah for last week's parasha, "Matot-Masei." Delivered at Congregation Beth Judah, Ventnor, NJ.
V’horashtem et haaretz vishavtem ba. Ki lachem natati et haaretz lareshet otah.
“You shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have assigned the land to you to possess.” Numbers 33:53.
It’s a pretty specific order.
Nachmanides, Ramban, the medieval Biblical exegete, legalist and one of the first Kabbalists, lists this pasuk as the basis for one of Biblical imperatives — to dwell in the land and inherit it. Both Maimonides and Nachmanides cull the Torah and create a list of the 613 Biblically prescribed commandments — but Maimonides does not list a commandment to live in the land of Israel. Nachmanides does in his gloss to Maimonides’ list in Sefer HaMitzvot.
It’s another part of the chain in a centuries-long rabbinic argument about the place of Israel in the life of the Jewish people.
We find the aforementioned pasuk in Chapter 33, verse 53 of B’Midbar. But take a look at the previous 52 verses, beginning with the very name of the second of the two parshiot we read today, Mas’ei, from the Hebrew root to travel. It is a chapter of motion, of marching from place to place. Each detail matters. There is a story at each location in the journey.
From Ra’amses to Sukkot. To Etam. To Pi-hahirot. To Marah. To Aleph. To Bet. To Tav.
And finally, enough of this wandering. You’ve gone far enough. Stop here. Go settle.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the current chief rabbi of England, describes this journey in these terms:
“The paradox of Jewish history is that though a specific territory, the holy land, is at its heart, Jews have spent more time in exile than in Israel; more time longing for it than dwelling in it; more time traveling than arriving. Much of the Jewish story could be written in the language of today’s sedra: “They journeyed from X and camped at Y”.
Hence the tension. On the one hand, monotheism must understand G-d as non-territorial. The G-d of everywhere can be found anywhere. He is not confined to this people, that place – as pagans believed. He exercises His power even in Egypt. He sends a prophet, Jonah, to Nineveh in Assyria. He is with another prophet, Ezekiel, in Babylon. There is no place in the universe where He is not. On the other hand, it must be impossible to live fully as a Jew outside Israel, for if not, Jews would not have been commanded to go there initially, or to return subsequently. Why is the G-d beyond place to be found specifically in this place?”
All of this, of course, I am saying during the week following July Fourth, the anniversary of American Independence. This is a land that has given room for the Jewish people to grow unlike any other country in history. Without any doubt amidst tribulations, it is simultaneously a haven which has welcomed the tired, the poor and at this point in history, provides the opportunity for social mobility, for expression of autonomy.
This year was only the second time in the past 17 years that I have seen the fireworks on July Fourth. I’ve either been at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, in Israel or in a different country. After a year of studying in Israel, celebrating American Independence Day earlier this week reinforced the absolutely unique place in history in which all of us sits today. I am an American Jew, dedicated to my home community, my multiple communities here. And simultaneously I feel indelibly tugged toward a land and people across an ocean.
I spent this past year thrusting myself toward an Israeli experience of life. Speaking Hebrew was my entrance to Judaism; I raced through the work books during my fourth grade Hebrew school class and asked my parents to go to Solomon Schechter the following year. And they agreed. I continue to find Israeli music to be one of the most authentic engagements with contemporary Jewish life, living lyrical expression of centuries’ old themes. Modern rock and roll painted with the brush strokes of ancient stones.
On May 31, I jumped and sang along with three generations to the 25th anniversary concert of the rock band Mashina. During sukkot, lights and sounds bounced off a wadi by the dead sea as both “secular” and religious Jews bounced up and down to Gidi Gov’s version of Yaaleh v’Yavo. This can only happen in Israel. As the refrain of another rock song goes, “Rak B’Yisrael.” Only in Israel.
We have autonomy in America. It is a home.
Israel represents the building of Jewish civil society, the religious and cultural dream of a nation.
And because we have these multiple opportunities, these two nations of growth, of depth, along comes tension. And it’s one we should relish.
It’s fundamentally a tension which has been a part of our condition from the outset.
Complexity is the authentic position of our tradition. Certainly about this particular case of our relationship with Israel.
We find two polar statements in the writings of our Rabbis about our case at hand. From the Tannaitic Midrash Mekhilte d’Rabbi Ishmael: “Wherever the Israelites went into exile, the Divine presence was exiled with them.” Clearly, God’s presence is not tied to a particular place. After all, God is God.
In turn, virtually the opposite from Massechet Ketubot of the Talmud (110b): “One who leaves Israel to live elsewhere is as if he had no God.”
Entrenched throughout the Rabbinic cannon there is conflict. Between the rationalism of the school of Ishmael and the irrationalism of the school of Akiva. Between describing an immanent and a transcendent God in peoples’ lives. And here, between God who is with the people Israel in all places and at all times and who has a special seat in Jerusalem.
“Can one find God, serve God, experience God, outside the holy land? asks Rabbi Sacks. “Yes and No. If the answer were only Yes, there would be no incentive to return. If the answer were only No, there would be no reason to stay Jewish in exile. On this tension, the Jewish existence is built.”
As Jews sitting along the coast of America, the mandate in turn must be how we acknowledge and endorse the fundamental tensions in our lives and don’t reduce them to platitudes.
Complexity is not a vice. The tradition authentically articulates that this very struggle of identities is part of who we are as individuals, as a nation.
Chapter 53 portrays the wandering from place A to place B to place Z. And finally a chance to rest. It’s here we’re supposed to settle.
Yet it’s clearly more complicated than that, as well.
Let us not reduce our ideologies to black or white. We must live the paradox. Again, complexity is not a vice.
During this week of celebrating the country where we live, let us continue the conversation of defining the meaning of Judaism in a melting pot, one where we wear multiple hats of identity, where we pledge allegiance to more than one flag.
Indeed this is both the American dream and the Jewish vision for life, one of complexity, of depth. Of constant struggle not because of insecurity or angst.
But because living a tension is the authentic expression of our people.