Frederick L. Klein

Behar-Bechukotai: Israel at 75, but Is it Our Land Anyway?

I have just returned from the Greater Miami Jewish Federation’s mission to Israel, in which over eight hundred Jews went en masse to celebrate the gift of 75 years. Much has been written about the struggles being waged in Israel concerning its continued identity as both a democratic and Jewish state, and how to hold both of these ideals simultaneously in such a way that it affirms the State’s Jewish identity and at the same time affirms the individual rights of all its citizens.  As the State of Israel claims to be the heart of the Jewish people worldwide- and I wholeheartedly agree- this is a conversation that is not simply about Israelis but transcends the geographic boundaries and is relevant for all of us.  As such, our voice in this critical conversation must be heard.

However, without being naïve about the challenges which are significant, I would like to share other feelings which also emerged for me as we celebrated 75 years, and that is immense gratitude.  Perhaps some of you have never been to Israel, and others have been going for over half a century.  My first time was in the 1980s and the country I went to then is simply a different place from the country that I go to now.  The explosion of ‘start up nation’, the ingathering of exiles from all over the world, the development of the Hebrew language and culture, the flowering of religious life, and the strong sense of social bonds to reach out to others in ways I do not see here, all indicate to me that the divisive battles being waged are also indicative of a people deeply invested in the future of the country.  What we now feel as a given – the continued existence of the State itself, only fifty years ago was not assured.  For most of Israel’s history, both pre and post 1948, the fact of Israel was at stake; who had time to discuss its character?! The very debate of the State’s character reflects a developmental stage of history in which we say the State of Israel is a given; many younger American Jews expressing ambivalence towards Israel forget this truth. Both demonstrators on the left and the right came to the streets with Israeli flags in hand; both feel this is their home and demand that their home express the values which they hold sacred.  The ultimate challenge will be to create a home that can embrace all its citizens. Like one of the hundreds of billboards I saw in Tel Aviv quoting the HaTikvah, l’hiyot am chofshi b’artzeinu, to be a free nation for all its citizens.

Like the debates raging in Israel today about the nature of the State, our parashah develops a complex and nuanced theology about the nature of the Land of Israel, and the Jewish people’s place within it.  While there is certainly not one theology, one voice within the Tanakh, our two parshiot offer a model of the Jewish people’s place within the Land of Israel which in some ways is at odds with mainstream formulations of Zionism.  In essence, our parashah questions an ideology which claims a natural right of ownership in the land of Israel.   Of course, the mitzvot teluyot ba’aretz, the commandments incumbent upon one who settles in Israel, implies that the very settlement of Land obligates one in a host of covenantal obligations.  Parashat Bechukotai, the second of the two parshiot we read, is clear that the Jewish right of settlement is not absolute but conditional; the fulfillment of the covenant brings blessings and prosperity, while its neglect leads to suffering and ultimately exile.  For most contemporary Jews, that message is unsettling, because the claim which is being made is that ultimately the right of the Jewish people to the Land is not an absolute right, but conditional.  In essence, the Jewish people’s right to the Land of Israel is not like the rights of the French people to France, or the Russians to Russia.

The unique nature of the relationship between the Jewish people and the Land is underscored in the commandments of shemittah and yovel, the sabbatical and Jubilee years.  Like every seventh day in which a Jew must rest, every seventh year the land must rest.   After seven sabbatical cycles, in the fiftieth year, there is a land reform in which all land automatically returns to its original owner, the original tribe and family assigned to that piece of land when the land of Israel was apportioned.  Thus, when buying and selling land, our parashah insists that one must not sell land in perpetuity, but rather purchase the land based upon its economic potential through the Jubilee year. (In essence, one is not buying the land itself, but investing in a lease of the land.)[1]  The reason for this prohibition is instructive, and the philosophical implications should give us pause.  We will only highlight a few aspects:

The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land is mine (1); for you are strangers and live as foreigners with me. (2) (Lev.25:23)

(1) What is at the heart of the prohibition of making a permanent sale of my land to another?  Abravanel explains ‘reasons dictate… that one cannot sell that which is not his to sell, as the land is God’s and not yours.’  In the words of Rashi, “You shall not begrudge this for it is not yours.”  If this is true, in what sense do we take hold of the land at all?  Here one midrash expands on the final words of the verse, atem imadi, you are with me.  “It suffices the servant that he emulates his master. When you are Mine, it (The Land of Israel) will be yours.”[2]  In a sense, just as a master can give settlement rights to his servants from the land he owns, so one can settle the land and reap its fruits.  Upon the settlement of the land of Israel, God’s land is apportioned to God’s servants, i.e., the Jewish people.  (Take away the connection to God, from this Biblical text -but not necessarily others, the Jewish people lose any independent right to the land.)

If one considers this theology extreme, as it denies the very existence of any absolute title to property, in truth the nature of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel in microcosm is an extension of the relationship of all humanity to the earth itself in macrocosm.   The weekly shabbat, a day in which we desist from the active working of the land, is predicated upon the notion that everything within this world belongs to God.  When we mark weekly the fact that God created the universe, we are in fact testifying to the fact that everything around us is a gift.  Even if we build and produce, the very capacity to do so is not our own, but from the Divine.    In both the Shabbat of days and shabbat of years, we confront the truth that all which we have is the blessings of the Divine, and therefore the ethical response is one of gratitude.

(2)  If the theological claim is that in fact the Land of Israel ultimately belongs to God, how are we to consider our own relationship with the Land?  Here the Torah provides two descriptors, gerim v’toshavim, best translated as resident strangers.[3]  Curiously, the word ‘stranger’ is the very same word that describes Israel’s experience in the land of Egypt and implies one who is uprooted, dispossessed.  For the Torah to describe the people’s disposition vis-à-vis their own inheritance as one of strangers is startling to say the least.  How many American citizens call themselves resident aliens?!

Yet, this phrase ger v’toshav, a resident alien is not simply invoked here.  It is first invoked by Abraham himself.  Despite God telling him that the land will be given to him and his offspring forever (Gen. 15:18), Abraham finds himself seeking a burial place for his wife Sarah.  In his negotiations with the Hittites to purchase the Cave of Machpelah in Chevron, he states the very same thing, ger v’toshav anochi imachem, I am a resident stranger among you.[4]  On the one hand he is a resident, with rights of settlement and part of the society.  At the same time, he is an alien, who must ask for a place in which to bury his wife.  For one who was seen as a prince among the people of the region, and one promised the land by God, this self-identification is striking.

However, if Abraham’s supplications before the Hittites is startling, even more striking are the words of David, the King of Israel.

Hear my prayer, O Lord;
give ear to my cry;
do not disregard my tears;
for like all my forebears
I am an alien (ger), resident (tosahv) with You (Psalms 39:13)

In a moment of despair, the King of Israel calls himself a resident stranger.  If one thinks this is poetic hyperbole, in the book of Chronicles, David blesses God as he dedicates the materials for the Temple.  In his blessing he considers the irony of a mortal donating materials for the House of God, as if those materials are his to donate.  “It is your gift [to us] which we are giving to you!”  He continues, “For we are stranger (gerim) with You, mere sojourners (toshavim) like our fathers; our days on earth are like a shadow, with nothing in prospect: (I Chronicles 29:14-15).  In all these instances, it is as if the experience of being uprooted, the experience of the sojourn in Egypt, is carried forth into the land itself.  Most nations in the ancient period try to erase periods of national disgrace; in Israel not only does the Torah constantly remind the citizens of their lowly beginning as resident strangers, but the political leadership invoke these same sentiments.

Ultimately, the theology of parahat Behar-Bechukotai teaches the Land of Israel is not something to be owned and controlled, but rather a gift to be respected.  We are not owners, but in possessing the land we are stewards of a land which is at its heart, both part of us but separate from us.  The Land is not our property to do what we wish, but is holy, demanding of us a vision of society which is consistent with our historic values.  As such, our parashah asks us to consider that we are not the masters of the land, but resident strangers upon it.  Far from the arrogance of excessive nationalism and even jingoism, we are sensitized to the gifts we are being given.  Moreover, how we treat the other, the strangers in our midst, must be informed by a Zionism that is bound with the sacred obligations of living in ‘God’s land,’ as well as the ethical commitments informed by a people who sees themselves at heart as strangers.

For me, the reality of Zionism, the national will to power, was a necessary outgrowth of the Anti-Semitism and historic vulnerability of our people.  Zionism and the State of Israel brought the Jewish people into the family of nations, and for the first time in two thousand years, ensured that we had not only the capacity to say Never Again, but the agency to prevent it.  At 75 years, Israel has done that, despite the challenges we still face.  The challenge of the next 75 years will be of a different order; the question of what the dream for the State of Israel is for itself and for humanity.   Our parashah lays out a spiritual and ethical vision which while utopian, should inform our present debate.  We came home not just to preserve the Jewish body, but to expand the covenantal vision started eons ago in new directions which even if transformed by the modern reality, stays true to our idealistic visions of what a society can be.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] Rabbinic literature does allow one to create financial deals for set leases beyond the Jubilee year, but again this is not an outright purchase of the land itself.

[2] Sifra Behar, 3

[3] It is unclear whether these are two separate descriptors- strangers and settlers, or one- a stranger who settles.

[4] Unlike the Sinaitic covenant in which possessorship of the land of Israel is conditional, the covenant God makes with Abraham seems more absolute.  These two covenantal moments stand in dynamic tension and are never resolved in Tanakh.

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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