Whose Land is it? a year for us to get things right in the Holy Land

My people are at war. My people, once again, are dying.


But it’s more complicated this time. Throughout history, with the exception perhaps of our earliest days, we have much more clearly been the victim, been the undeserved object of abuse, containment, murder.


And now? Now it’s not so straightforward. Who is to blame for the current violence? Is it them? Is it only them? Is it us? Is it only us?


For years I’ve been arguing with my father about this ongoing conflict. For years, the summary of my position has remained the same: both sides are right, and both sides are wrong. While this may seem glib, it still feels deeply true.


We are right. History has shit on the Jewish people for long enough. We can’t trust the world to have our best interests at heart—at least not yet, not with rockets flying and rallies around the world carrying placards calling for the end of us. Our longing for a home to call our own, our demand for refuge and security is real, necessary. This is our land.


And they are right. The Arab populations of Palestine have been shit upon by us. We did not, as we like to think, find a land without a people for a people without a land. We came into a land with villages and towns, with families, tribes and customs. We came into a land where people’s sense of connection and belonging, while perhaps different from our own, was nonetheless strong. Many were forced to leave their homes and villages; many fled from fear. Many were uprooted and cast out. Many still feel that sense of dislocation, that sense of injustice, of living a life not freely chosen. Many are simply not free; they live under the thumb of another. They are contained, constrained, controlled. They cannot move about as they wish, are not free to build homes, lives and livelihoods as they choose. We control many of those freedoms in much of what they feel, claim and hope to be their land.


As far as many of them are concerned, they were here first; and in many respects, they are right. When we came back, they were already here. What does it matter to them that we ourselves had been forced to flee in a time before any of them can remember? This is their land too.


But they are wrong. Wrong to think they could or should drive us out to the sea. Wrong to think that killing is the way. Wrong to think that we don’t belong here; for we do belong here. This place has been in our blood and souls for millennia, forever. Our connection to this land is eternal. To remove the Jewish people from the land of Israel, they would have to remove the Jewish people from the earth itself. We are not foreigners. We may have returned from long sojourns in far flung corners of the earth, but we are not aliens. We are native. And while our physical occupancy of the land may have been suspended for thousands of years, our spiritual presence has never waivered. We have been here the whole time. Jerusalem has been our temple and heartland, the land our home and fields, since the day we left, since always. Every day, for two thousand years, we have remembered Jerusalem and the land. Multiple times each day we have prayed, formally and in our hearts, to return.


And now we’re back. Now we’re here, physically. But are we here spiritually?


Has our situation reversed? Have we spent millennia living in the spiritual ideal of the land, only to return and get trapped in our mind’s projection of what should be, what we want? In large part it seems we’ve gotten stuck in ensuring our physical control of the land, at the expense of manifesting what it truly means to spiritually dwell in it; for though our physical settlement of the land has been strong, the spiritual occupation of Israel has been woefully inadequate. And for this, we are wrong, deeply wrong. For this, we are to blame.


To live in the land spiritually is not to ignore the physical reality; to live in the land spiritually is to elevate the physical reality.


God gave us what we have been given. Every year, when we celebrate our own freedom from slavery, we sing “Dayeinu.” ‘If you had taken us out from Egypt, but not given us the Torah, it would have been enough for us; if you had given us the Torah, but not brought us into the land of Israel, it would have been enough for us.’ Now, it seems that nothing is enough for us. We want it all.


Can we find it in our hearts, souls and minds to live by that song of freedom? Can we harmonize with what is and accept what we have been given, rather than focusing on taking what we want? Is not the only way to truly inhabit the land, to dwell in Israel with safety and peace, to live in it spiritually?


What does that mean? The Torah tells us of very few things that we must do to live in peace and security on the land. Primary among these is a commandment that faces us only once every seven years. And it faces us now. In two months, we will once again inaugurate the seventh year, the year of release. During this year, our fields lie fallow, the produce of the land becomes sacred and ownerless, food is free to all, debts are released.


In the Torah, the seventh year is referred to as Hashem’s Sabbath, the Sabbath of the Earth and the Year of Release, of Letting Go. The seventh year is the spiritual counterpoint to our physical settlement of the land. In ancient times, when we were still a principally agrarian society, the seventh year would be a time of contemplation, study and inner growth. The exquisite dimensions of this yearlong mitzvah seem to simultaneously strengthen and release our sense of attachment to the land. Properly observed, the seventh year leads us to elevate our experience of Israel, of life itself. Fully kept, it shows us how to not only work and control the land, but to let go and accept what is, to be satisfied with what we’ve been given.


Getting things right, finding the proper balance between the physical and the spiritual, is no easy task. We want, perhaps even need, a Jewish state. We have neighbors who have lived here, some of them, for more than a thousand years. They are not idolaters; we are not meant to wipe them out. They worship the true God. They are neighbors—legitimate, rightful neighbors. They belong here, just as we do. Along with whatever portion of the land has been given us to build, live and grow, so too have they, in a sense, been given to us—not to control, contain, oppress, but as an opportunity for us to learn how two peoples can live together, distinct but as one in God’s light, as an opportunity to do God’s will and fulfill our role as a nation.


Our failure to do so, to find the ways to live together, is the same failure that keeps us from truly keeping the Sabbatical year. Just as there are deep challenges in keeping the seventh year—what will we eat, how will we earn our livelihood, what will happen to the system of credit upon which we depend—so too are there challenges in learning how to live together—what do we do about those, on both sides, who refuse to live with the other; how do we maintain our sovereignty while preserving and upholding the dignity, freedom and agency of the other?


Our failure to meet these challenges is our failure to look beyond our smallness and fear. This failure drives our attempts to gain what we want and think we need, and stifles our acceptance of and gratitude for the gifts we have been given.


If we do not face these questions, if we do not devote to them as much attention as they deserve—which is considerable—then we will fail to live in the land securely, then the snake will bite at our heels, while we strike at its head.


Let us take this coming year as an opportunity, an opportunity and a challenge, to devote our energies to true, sustainable security, to learning how to live on the land with safety, peace and dignity for all.


Let us take the opportunity in the coming year to, once again, grow and learn. When this current flare up of violence and hatred ends, God willing, let us not sink back into apathy and placing false hopes in political maneuverings; rather, let us take matters into our own hands. Let us see beyond fences and walls and realize that the fields of peace are, for the year, ownerless; let us realize that we all may enter and reap the fruits, that we are all responsible for what we harvest. Let us understand that we all are invited to make the land our own—but not in the narrow, small, self-oriented sense; rather in an elevated manner—expansively, collectively. Let us come to realize that the land, yes, is mine—but the land is also yours. But above all, let us ultimately come to see, know and live, as the Torah tells us again and again, that the land belongs to God.

About the Author
Yonatan Shefa facilitates interactive dialogue sessions between Israelis and Palestinians, between religious Jews, Christians and Muslims. He also studies at an orthodox beit midrash in Jerusalem.