Shabbat VaYetze

Shabbat VaYetze brings us parashat VaYetze, the Torah reading for this week, which includes mysterious visions of G-d, looming intimations of exile, and a couple of verses which have caused the Jewish people two millennia of hope and difficulty.

“The land upon which you are standing right now, this land I give to you and your offspring forever; and you will flourish and spread out to the West and East, to the North and South.” (Gen.  )

This promise described in our Torah gave our ancestors the hope they needed to survive terrible years of exile; the difficulty began when, in the late 1800s, in response to horrific pogroms in Eastern Europe, they began to find their way toward that promise. This human seeking of shelter in an ancestral home, expressed by Jews through the socialist utopian movement which came to be called Zionism, brought first hundreds, then thousands, of the People of Israel to the Land of Israel.

In the political and social upheavals of 19th century Europe, other peoples were seeking their own shelters in what came to be called the rise of nation-state-ism. It was a time when peoples began to define national borders by some sense of ethnic and cultural, as well as historical, belonging. 

And there we find the difficulty. The Jews, holding on to the promise made to our ancient ancestors, sought to return to the land of their historical and ethnic and cultural origins. But we (many of us, although there have always been some communities of Jews living in Israel) had been away from home for a long time. Others were living there, some the descendants of those who had moved in not long after we left, or perhaps had shared the space with us just as long ago. These Arab inhabitants also made the claim of ethnic, cultural, and historical belonging in the Land we call Israel and they call Palestine.

There are two rights here, and painfully, terribly, they are adding up to make a wrong: conflict, hate, and murder, all over the deep human need to belong and to be safe. That wrong is exacerbated by the choice by some on both sides to cite G-d’s word to them. Some Jews quote the verse which appears in our parashah this week, as well as others, and expect that simple word to end the argument. They seem to believe that they are bringing an irrefutable claim by quoting our sacred text. 

But they have forgotten one small detail: our text is sacred only to us. It is not a ground for common understanding any more than the Koran is. It is nothing more than an expression of our own sense of belonging, and therefore necessarily limited to us. 

In asserting this I am placing myself firmly on one side of another divide: that between Jew and Jew. To talk about our relationship to Israel is to make claims regarding history, ethnicity and culture, certainly – but it is also a religious declaration. And religion can become the single most divisive aspect of human relations, because it speaks to the deepest heart of human existential uncertainty. 

I do not believe that our religious beliefs and our sacred texts must lead us to this difficult place. After all, the sacred text which promises us the land of Israel also promises us that the land will spit us out if we do not live upon it ethically. And that same text also insists that we treat our neighbors with compassion, dignity, and respect.

How much more so must we remember and try to practice this same ethic while we talk about the Land of Israel and its fate here in the United States.

I urge you: don’t feel anxious to rush to easy clarity. We should feel confused and torn; it is only our unease at feeling unsettled that makes us opt out of learning and choose a belief based on shallow, second- or third- hand information. There are many tangled feelings and much difficult history here, and no good, easy, satisfying answers. Keep asking questions, keep reading from many different sources; keep asking yourself: where is the mitzvah here, and what is the best way to perform it?

May you learn in the best spirit of Jewish openness, “with all your mind, with all your heart, and will all your being”, and may you come to trust in your ability to hold partial clarity, and to stay open to further learning, rather than closing your eyes and taking refuge in an easy, but ultimately false, partial truth. There’s no blessing in that. If we keep talking, sharing our feelings and our pain, we will wrest the most Jewish of blessings from our struggle.

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