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A sojourner in my own land

Israel was never promised as an unconditional bequest -- the land's owners must ensure they deserve it

I am standing on a flat hill, and I’m looking down onto the valley of Shiloh. The sun, high in the pale sky, makes me drowsy and warm. It also brings out the golden hues in the hills around me, and shines on the vineyards bellow.

This feels familiar. I’ve never been here before, at the site of the ancient Tabernacle, but I know this place. I don’t need to look up to know the shade of the sky. I don’t need to look down to know that the vines, in their neat long rows, bring regularity to the landscape. I simply know.

“Lift up thine eyes,” God said unto Abraham in Genesis 13, “and look from the place where thou art, northward and southward and eastward and westward… Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for unto thee will I give it.”

This promise, I think as I look around me, must echo in my soul. For here I am, on this hill, and I know that this is my home.

Call it genuine collective memory, or Zionist indoctrination, or religious self-delusion if you wish. I don’t care. Right here, where history is thick in my blood, Abraham is close, and I belong.

I’m closing my eyes, and the land is singing in my veins.

***

But then we drive back to Jerusalem, and there is no time to feel comfortably at home, and no time for thoughts about Abraham, for there are check points to pass and Palestinian cars to watch warily and stone-throwers to look out for and distressing news on the radio to absorb —

And I’m thinking to myself, we can’t go on like this. The current reality is not about to disappear. We may belong to this land, but it doesn’t belong to us alone.

In my soul, I am tied to every inch of this land, to every rock, to every tree.

In my mind, I acknowledge that the Palestinians belong here, too. And I know that we must find ways to coexist. Even if it means giving up lands.

Even if it means breaking our hearts, bleeding our dreams, tearing our souls.

After all, Abraham acknowledged reality too. God promised him the land, but Abraham didn’t simply take possession of it. His sheep didn’t graze in other people’s fields. When Sarah died, Abraham didn’t simply bury her in the cave of Machpelah. “I am a stranger and a sojourner with you,” he told the children of Heth in this week’s Torah portion. And then he payed for the very land that was his own.

***

But was he truly a sojourner and a stranger? Why did Abraham belittle his connection to the land?

As I stood over the valley of Shiloh, I thought of the Tabernacle’s destruction. I thought of the Temple’s destruction. I thought of our millennia of exile. And the answer to my question became suddenly clear.

Abraham saw himself a sojourner, not because the land belonged to the children of Heth, but rather because it belonged to God. God may have promised it to him, but it was never an unconditional bequest. Abraham had to uphold his part of a brit, a treaty, with God. He had to deserve the land if he was to own it. He had to be a blessing unto others, and a follower of God’s truth.

And so, even though the land was promised to him, Abraham remained a sojourner in his own eyes. He remained a man forever traveling in pursuit of God’s greatness, a man whose possessions are not fully his own.

Whenever we strayed from Abraham’s path, God withdrew his side of the brit.

Abraham generously shared his possessions with his guests, and refused to enjoy the spoils of war. When the priests in Shiloh extorted possessions and sexual favors from the Israelites, God brought about the Tabernacle’s fall.

Abraham discarded his father’s idols, and valued life. He argued against the destruction of Sodom. When the Israelites mired Jerusalem in bloodshed, adultery, and idolatry, the first Temple was destroyed.

***

I am a daughter of Abraham, and therefore I feel at home here. I belong.

I am a daughter of Abraham, and therefore I won’t let God’s promise blind me to the reality around me, nor to the others that belong here as well.

I am daughter of Abraham, and therefore I know that God’s promise depends on my own obligations. I have a brit to uphold.

I belong to every inch of this land, but at the same time, I am a sojourner in God’s land. And so, I must earn the right to belong.

About the Author
Rachel is a Jerusalem-born writer and speaker who's in love with her city's vibrant human scene. She writes about Judaism, parenting and life in Israel for the Times of Israel and Kveller, and explores storytelling in the bible as a teacher and on 929.
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