Essential Israel

The Bible’s overall story is driven by a journey to the land.  Abraham and Sarah’s arrival in the land launches our Jewish story.  Their descendants’ return to the land under Cyrus the Persian ruler brings the Bible to a close.  Within this week’s portions of Torah, we encounter the injunction to settle the land of Israel. “Taken possession of the land and settle it for I have given you the land to possess” (Num. 33:53).  Yet land does not promise cohesion or quietude.  From the outset and until today, statecraft is replete with reversals.

Today’s volatility on the Temple Mount and around the Western Wall capture the relentless challenges of balancing religious fervor with civic order.  Even when calmer times prevail, there are inevitable tensions between lofty aspirations and terrestrial disappointments.  How can we retain fidelity with Israel’s enduring blessings?

A lesson from Moses’ adroit handling of the wishes of two-and-a-half Tribes to settle outside the land can guide us.  He instructs them to join the rest of the Children of Israel in crossing the Jordan to conquer the Promised Land.  Only after successful settlement is realized, may they return to establish their homes in the cattle-rich lands on the east bank of the Jordan.  If you do thus, concludes Moses, then “you will be free and clear (v’ha-yitem n’kiim) before God and Israel” (Num. 32:22).

One commentator (Or HaChaim) stresses the centrality of proper intent.  They must execute their responsibility for heaven’s sake (l’shem shamayim) not for their own benefit (hana’atam).  Indeed, the phrase “in front of God” (lifnei Adonai) recurs seven times in this passage.  The implication of such repetition is telling.  Right things should be done for their intrinsic rightness – for heaven’s sake (lifnei Adonai) – rather than because they may be personally rewarding.

Paraphrasing our Sages (Avot 5:19) “If goodness depends upon a favorable outcome, when the outcome diminishes, so will the goodness.”  Yet elsewhere our Rabbis encourage, “Doing good at first for the wrong reasons might eventually lead a person to align with the intrinsically right reasons.”  There is nothing wrong with personal benefit.  Congratulations can be pleasant and are often deserved.  Perhaps the key is remaining faithful to the belief that personal benefit is not the only arbiter which determines an endeavor’s success.   Asking only “What’s in it for me?” confines humanity under too low a utilitarian ceiling.

Political or religious wrongs can vex our attachments to our homeland.  But they should not eclipse our visualization of what is essentially blessed about Israel.  Some soil is fertile for growing wine.  Israel’s terrain has been good for growing prophets.  Today, as ever, Israel is where commitments are born, nurtured, and deepened.  It is a land of promise where promises are made and kept.  May this realization remind us of the expansive spaciousness of non-utilitarian living in all arenas of our lives.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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