Parshat Lekh Leha – Abraham, like us, didn’t grasp the difference between ‘land’ and ‘real estate’

Thoughts on Parshat Lekh Lekha


The Parsha opens with G-d’s famous and seemingly contradictory command to Avram, “Leh leha” – go to yourself – from your land and your birthplace to the land which I will show you.

At this point in his life, Avram does not yet really know himself intimately, nor can he while living outside his natural turf. To be anywhere other than Canaan makes him a mere sojourner, an itinerant traveler who must move on. Indeed, when one is an alien to the prevailing society and culture, one is by definition alien to oneself. This is the definition of ’galut’ – exile – when one is inassimilable in his surroundings and hence uncomfortable in his own skin.

It never occurred to Avram to move until he was told to do so, even though he may have felt like a fish out of water, incapable of relating to the pagan beliefs and values of his birthplace.

No doubt Avram was viewed by others as a queer fish as well, in light of his personal beliefs and his rejection of idolatry.

Yet, it is one thing to feel out of place, and quite another to know what to do about it. Or perhaps, Avram was like so many Jews both before the Shoah and today, who actually felt then, and feel now, entirely secure in their surroundings — clueless to the fact that only they see themselves as such, unlike their neighbors who see them as what they really were and are — Jews.

(I attended a lecture by the brilliant British novelist Howard Jacobson in which he said; “Since the time of Oliver Cromwell British Jews have avoided mentioning the fact that they are Jewish, hoping that nobody would notice”. And apropos I bring this brilliant excerpt from Daniel Deronda in which the hero Mordecai laces it into an ultra assimilated Jew. George Eliot is utterly brilliant here. And her words are absolutely spot on today:

“You cannot follow them. You are one of the multitudes over this globe who must walk among nations and be known as Jews, and with words on their lips which mean, ‘I wish I had not been born a Jew, I disown any bond with the long travail of my race, I will outdo the Gentile in mocking at our separateness,’ they all the while feel breathing on them the breath of contempt because they are Jews, and they will breathe it back poisonously. Can a fresh-made garment of citizenship weave itself straightway into the flesh and change the slow deposit of eighteen centuries? What is the citizenship of him who walks among a people he has no hardy kindred and fellowship with, and has lost sense of brotherhood with his own race? It is a charter of selfish ambition and rivalry in low greed. He is an alien spirit, whatever he may be in form; he sucks the blood of mankind, he is not a man, sharing in no loves, sharing in no subjection of the soul, he mocks it all. Is it not truth I speak, Pash?”)

Once in the Promised Land, G-d assures Avram “V’avarha mevoraheha, umekalelha a-or” (Gen. 12:3) I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. This is a geography-specific promise, valid only while Avram and his progeny are in the Land. Anywhere else, they are on their own.

Avram obeys G-d, yet clearly he doesn’t quite get the message.   He arrives in Canaan as a wealthy man with abundant possessions – “Vayikah Avram … et kol rehusham asher rahashu v’et hanefesh asher asu be’Haran” (Genesis 12:5) And Avram took… all the possessions they had acquired and all the people they had acquired.

Yet, no sooner does he arrive in Canaan and off he goes to Egypt because of a local famine. This famine should have made no difference to a wealthy man like Avram who could easily afford to buy whatever he needed even at inflated famine prices – assuming he was even in need of anything. Surely the entire population of Canaan at the time did not relocate to Egypt, choosing instead to stay where they were and weather the dry spell.

Ironically this is a truism; as soon as a given country’s economy goes sour the first people to flee are the rich. As much as they have, they want more. And if more isn’t possible where they are, they don’t hesitate to pull up their stakes and head to greener pastures. Greed has few sentiments, no altruism and zero loyalty.

But Avram cannot be blamed entirely for abandoning Canaan at that time. After all, up to now G-d had only promised the Land to his descendants: “Le-zaraha eten et ha-aretz ha-zot” (Genesis 12:7). Hence Avram has no compelling moral obligation to remain in the Land, not that there would have been any harm had he done so.

Things change when he returns from Egypt loaded with massively increased wealth and possessions. But he only returns because the Pharaoh evicted him. Otherwise there is no reason to assume he would have left Egypt of his own accord.

Once he is back in Canaan, G-d finally tells Avram unequivocally; “Ki et kol ha-aretz asher ata ro-eh, leha etnena …” (Genesis 13:15) For I shall give you the entire land which I show to you. Now the promise is no longer a vague vision of the distant future. Now it is Avram himself who is being promised the Land.

But there is a catch.

In order for Avram to lay claim to the land there is one thing he must do: “Kum hithalekh ba-aretz le-orkah ule-rohba ki lekha etnena” (Genesis 13:17) Rise and wander the length and breadth of the Land for I shall give it to you.

The words “lekha etnena” (I shall give it to you) are identical in verses 15 and 17, making it abundantly clear that possession of the land is contingent upon walking the land.

And here is embedded a universal truth. Mere legal title to a property does not establish a genuine sense of ownership, nor does it establish the perception of one’s ownership on the part of others. Until one has walked its length and its breadth, the property in question remains an abstraction. It is “real estate” – a commodity to be bought and sold – it is not one’s land, something precious and meant to be cherished as a legacy for the generations.

Unfortunately Avram ignores this command, and immediately pitches his tent: “Va-ye-ehal Avram va-yavo va-yeshev b’Eilonei Mamrei asher b’Hevron” (Genesis 13:!8) And Avram pitched his tent and arrived to and settled in the Plains of Mamrei which is in Hebron.

It appears Avram did not make the slightest effort to survey the Land which G-d was offering him on a silver platter. And it isn’t until word reaches him that his nephew is in trouble, that Avram rises from his comfort zone in order to rescue Lot.

One can only wonder what might have happened had Avram postponed domesticity and taken the trouble to explore the length and breadth of Canaan as G-d has requested of him. Conceivably, had he done so, his claim to the land – and by extension ours – would have been established then and there. Having surveyed his property and bonded with it, there would be no possibility of further self-exile, and Avram and his descendants would have become the rightful owners of the Land from that moment on.

It is only after Avram has missed this opportunity, thereby forfeiting the chance to really feel a sense of proprietorship, that G-d seems to change his mind, and plans the exile of the Israelites in Egypt. It is during the Brit bein ha-b’tarim that the Almighty first condemns Avram’s progeny to 400 years of torture and slavery; “Va-yomer le-Avram yadoa teida ki ger yihye zaraha b’eretz lo lahem, v’inu otam arba meot shana” (Genesis 15:13) Know that your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and they will be made to suffer for 400 years.

It seems G-d is punishing Avram mida k’neged mida, measure for measure, for his having detoured to Egypt when he should not have, and for his having failed to survey his

G-d-given legacy when told to do so. And so, in due course, the Israelites would become intimately familiar with Egypt, a land that was decidedly NOT theirs, the very land Avram opportunistically visited when he should have remained in Canaan, the land to which G-d had sent him in order to find himself.

Which brings us to our own times.

The status of Judea and Samaria is precarious. The world does not see it as belonging to Israel. Yet the world is not entirely blameless. After all how many of us have ever bothered to survey the land for ourselves? Indeed an astonishing majority of young Israelis have never even been to Jerusalem. Let alone to Hebron. Should we be surprised that there is talk – even among Jews – of dividing Israel’s capital?

For too many of us, Israel has become all about real estate rather than land. None of us is blameless. We are obsessed with property values and the luxury and location of our homes. Land that until recently was dedicated to agriculture and enhancing the beauty of the country is being feverishly transmogrified by kibbutzim – newly converted to unbridled capitalist greed – for residential and commercial development.

For most Israelis, Judea and Samaria are indeed foreign territory for which few Israelis within the so-called Green line feel any sense of attachment or ownership.

In this we are behaving exactly as Avram did. Instead of making the land emotionally and viscerally ours, we treat it like an expendable space on the Monopoly board, — Yehuda and Shomron are Baltic Avenue and Mediterranean Avenue, cheap real estate that is readily sold or abandoned without sentiment. All eyes and bank accounts are focused on prime properties where the big bucks and the big hotels are concentrated such as Boardwalk/Tel Aviv and Park Place/Ramat Hasharon

One can only wonder how things would look if every one of us would make it our responsibility – and a requirement for every school – to explore the “West Bank” the way a Texas rancher might explore the borders and interior of his property.

Clearly we would then see things through a very different lens. And so would the world, which senses our indifference Because actions speak louder than words, and inaction speaks even louder than that.

After all, if we don’t care why should they?


About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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