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October 7, 2015 | 24th Tishrei 5776

Israel in the Torah I

Galilee Diary #264
December 18, 2005
Marc J. Rosenstein

The Torah is, of course, a book about God's relationship to the world in general, and to the Jewish people in particular. It is a book of prehistory, and history, a book of dramatic family dynamics and a book of law. And it is, more than we tend to realize, I think, a book about the development of our relationship to the land of Israel – even though for much of Genesis and all of the rest of the books, we were not present here.

Consider the terse description of the earliest years of our connection to this place in Genesis 12:

1) Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
5) Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan.
10) There was a famine in the land [Canaan], and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land.

Within ten verses, Abram is commanded, "out of the blue," to make aliyah - to a place about which he knows, it would seem, absolutely nothing; he does so, with his entire extended household; and then, shortly, he leaves due to the poor economic situation. His experience becomes a model for the remainder of Genesis, a book filled with comings and goings. One would expect that the book that is supposed to serve as evidence of our unquestionable claim to this land would depict a myth more like that of the Athenians:

We did not become dwellers in this land by driving others out of, nor by finding it uninhabited, nor by coming together here a motley horde composed of many races, but…we are sprung from its very soil…
-Isocrates, Panegyricus

It would make things a lot simpler if we had just sprouted from the soil of Israel like the native vegetation, if our roots here were eternal and organic. It seems strange that we have perpetuated a narrative in which so many of our formative experiences took place outside of our land, and in which one of the recurring themes is leaving home. And even if you don't believe that the entire Torah is the word of God, Bible scholars date the text to the period of the monarchy – around 1,000 BCE – a time when we were an independent nation-state with good reason for insisting on an unshakable claim on our land. Why didn't we censor Genesis?

Could it be that within us, within Judaism, there are two world views that coexist in some kind of creative tension? If Abraham's revolution was the discovery of a universal God who rules everyone and everywhere, then it was a disconnection of gods from places: pagan peoples had their particular patron gods who dwelled in and protected particular places, and fought battles in heaven that paralleled their people's battles on earth. Abraham's God was the only One, who ruled the universe and shared His power with no one – and who battled no other gods, as there weren't any. He was not bound to any place, as He was in every place. And it was He who made – and makes – assignments of which people shall inhabit which land. The narrative has Him assign us our land. And yet, this implies that the presence of any people in any land is arbitrary, subject to God's will, conditional, not part of the nature of the universe. Landedness is a gift from God, not a phenomenon of nature. There is a conflict here between God's power to move the pieces around on the board – and our longing to have absolute and eternal possession of our particular square. This theme echoes through the prophets and down to our own time.

Just as in the family stories of Genesis, there is a conflict between the Way Things Are Done (i.e., the inheritance goes to the first born son) and God's plan, so too there is a conflict between the Way Things Are (peoples-lands-gods are organic units) and God's plan ("Go from your country… to the land that I will show you"). Abraham's experience teaches, perhaps, that there is no such thing as holy land; the holiness resides in God's plan for the land and our fulfillment of it.

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