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August 28, 2014 | 2nd Elul 5774

Teaching Israel I

Galilee Diary #323, February 4, 2007

Marc J. Rosenstein

And when you enter the land that the Lord will give you, as He has promised, you shall observe this rite. And when your children ask you, “What do you mean by this rite?” you shall say, “It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord…”

-Exodus 12:25-27

Encamped at Gilgal, in the steppes of Jericho, the Israelites offered the Passover sacrifice on the fourteenth day of the month, toward evening. On the day after the Passover offering, on that very day, they ate of the produce of the country, unleavened bread and parched grain. On that same day, when they ate of the produce of the land, the manna ceased. The Israelites got no more manna; that year they ate of the yield of the land of Canaan.

-Joshua 5:10-12

For several years now we have been involved in a project of the Jewish Agency, called “MAKOM – Israel Engagement Network,” seeking to respond to the perceived decline in “Israel engagement” on the part of North American Jews. While it may be somewhat difficult to define “engagement,” nevertheless, whatever definition you use, it does not seem far-fetched to say that both research and intuition supports this perception. As the generation who experienced the world-shaking events of the 1940s passes leadership to the baby-boomers; as Israel’s social and geopolitical reality seems more complicated than it did in the shadow of those events; as Israel becomes more a part of the global economy and culture; as American Judaism turns inward to an identity that is more spiritual than ethnic – Israel wanes as a core element in North American Jewish consciousness.

Interestingly, I don’t think we’re the first to deal with this particular problem. According to the original plan, the children of Israel were to leave Egypt, get the Torah, and march straight into Israel to implement it. Unfortunately, the episode of the spies (Numbers 13-14) derailed this plan, and a 40 year delay was introduced. Apparently, as the above texts suggest, during those years, Passover was not observed. The Jewish educational event par excellence, known for its power in binding the generations to a common consciousness – the seder – was unknown to the entire generation born in the desert. They themselves missed the events of exodus and revelation – and suddenly, on the threshold of their new life, were invited to their first seder – which signaled the beginning of a national life in the land of Israel, to be governed by the Torah. I wonder if they were impressed – or bored. I wonder if they preferred matza to manna. I wonder if, after unpacking, they felt nostalgia for the desert – where they had no political power and hence none of the responsibility that power brings, where they didn’t have to work for a living. I wonder if their parents had succeeded in transmitting to them, over the years, some echo of their own formative experience. I wonder if the generation of the desert rebelled against going to Sunday school – and if they misbehaved when they finally attended that first seder. And I wonder what connection they felt to Israel: all they had were distant family memories of the patriarchs’ experiences – and promises of milk and honey. No teen tours. No Independence Day festivals. Not even post cards. What they did know, if they were listening, was that more than once their ancestors had fled Israel for Egypt in times of famine, and that more than once their own parents had suggested to Moses calling off the whole venture and returning to Egypt; and that the spies had been freaked out by the terrifying locals (terrorists?) they had encountered in Israel.

The wise child and the wicked child ask the same question: what does all this mean to you? Apparently there never has been a time when we have been free of the burden of this question – and there never will be.

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