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August 27, 2015 | 12th Elul 5775

Israel in the Torah IV

Galilee Diary #267
January 8, 2006
Marc J. Rosenstein

Eretz Yisrael was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books…

-Israel Declaration of Independence

After Joseph brought the whole family down to Egypt, the sojourn ended up being longer and more momentous than he had expected. Instead of a quick trip to load up on grain, Joseph granted his father and brothers land and security and they settled in. This voluntary settlement turned into enforced slavery, and generations were born and died who had never seen Eretz Yisrael. What kind of identity we brought with us to Egypt is not clear: we hadn’t received any kind of constitution yet; all we had, apparently, were family traditions based on the revelations of the Patriarchs. The contents of these are unknown to us, except perhaps for the concept of monotheism and the promise of Eretz Yisrael. And then, suddenly, God acted in history, in public, overturning Egypt and displaying His might before all of our people (and many more). With the Exodus, accompanied by miracles in Egypt and at the Red Sea, we entered history, we became a political entity, a people, with a common historical memory. God had acted to redeem us, to save us, to bring us out and start us on our path as a distinct nation.

A few months later, after a somewhat stormy romance, God cemented His relationship with us by the revelation at Sinai. Again, a public act, experienced by the entire people. Not just miraculously freed from slavery and brought out into the desert, but committed to a constitution, we were now a fully-formed nation – all we lacked was a homeland, and we knew that that was just around the corner (more or less).

All of which raises the question: was Eretz Yisrael the birthplace of the Jewish people, as stated in the Declaration of Independence? Unlike other peoples who believed they had some kind of primeval rootedness in their homelands, we freely admit that we came from elsewhere (Abraham from Ur [Iraq], later the whole nation from Egypt), and that our most significant experience of intimacy with God was in an unclaimed desert, before we arrived at our homeland. It is interesting to consider what the authors of the Declaration of Independence meant by their opening statement. It is more interesting to consider what the authors (if there were authors) of the Torah had in mind when they described our birth as a nation – both as a community of fate through our redemption and as a community of purpose through the revelation – occurring in Egypt and Sinai, not in Eretz Yisrael.

Perhaps the purpose of this anomaly was to emphasize that for us, the land is an important part of our identity, but not the foundation of it. After all, ours is not a god who is territorial, whose power is limited to the homeland. As a universal God, who makes universal demands, it was important for us to meet Him in no-man’s-land, in a universal space belonging to no one except Him. First, the text seems to be saying, get a life. Then, get a law. And only then can you get a land. So He gives us life at the Red Sea, and law at Mt. Sinai – and then He brings us to the land where we are to live out that law, implement it, adapt it, make it the law of the land. Implicit in this sequence is the uncomfortable thought that our connection to the land is not absolute, but conditional – that as the Canaanites before us were driven out for their sins – so too might we be (and, according to the prophets, we were).

It would be a lot more comfortable to believe that we are simply organically rooted in our land, that our possession of it just part of the structure of the universe. It would have been a lot easier to get the Torah in Tel Aviv, where we could have had latte with our manna. But we were born in the desert and cannot shake the memories of signs and wonders amidst the desolation. That’s why this land is such a precious gift – and why we must watch over it so carefully.

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