KiTavo, our Parasha for this week starts with the words:
VE HAJA, KI TAVO ET HA’ARETZ ASHER ADONAI ELOHEICHA NOTEN LECHA –
When you enter the land that the Eternal, Your God is giving you.
What follows are instructions to the Israelites regarding what they have to do, after they have entered the Promised Land. This is not the only time in the Torah, that some commandments are strongly linked to “the land”. Remember that all the Mitzwot, dealing with the Sabbatical Year for agriculture are commandments linked to the land.
According to the traditional interpretation of the Halachah, these Mitzwot are still bound to the land of Israel, or more precisely, only within the border of the biblical land of Israel and Judah. This means, that our friends on the progressive Jewish Kibbutz Lotan in the South of Israel are not obliged to follow the regulations of the Sabbatical Year. The Arava and Negev Desert don’t belong to ancient Israel.
Reading the bible very literally, one could argue these commandments are not relevant to us in South Africa. We are neither going to enter the land of Israel, nor are we living there already. One may even be tempted to say that even a lot of Israelis are not really observing the laws that are presented in our Torah portion.
But, I wouldn’t be raising this topic, if I agreed with this point of view. There is another way of looking at it, that – in my opinion – makes more sense. I would argue and say that Mitzwot, connected exclusively to “the land”, bear an absolute relevance for us all, even though we are not living in the land of Israel.
The laws we find in our Torah portion, and in other places as well, are loaded with ethical values that are vital to every society. These include the sharing of a tenth of our harvest or income with the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and the appreciation of the land, and our natural recourses, by keeping the idea of a sabbatical year. I truly believe that the intention of the Torah by telling us this is – as mentioned in Verse 26.18 of our parashah – to create a “Holy Nation”, a nation that is struggling for a better world in the path, God has designated for us.
Actually, I think that all these Mitzwot, which on a superficial level are connected to the land, have a broader, and deeper meaning – that of connecting us to each other and the Eternal through the ethics they represent.
Therefore, the connection of the Mitzwot with “the land” can be understood as being of great help and greater importance. The land of Israel may be seen metaphorically as an eternal flame, reminding us not to forget to thank the Eternal for what we have achieved, and that every one of us has had a moment, a time in their lives where they are brought out of a “very personal” Mitzrayim. Every one of us overcomes challenges in life. It could be leaving home, entering into a partnership, discovering one has a serious illness. The list is endless. Israel, in this sense, is a symbol of the well-being of the Jewish people because it reflects our relationship with God.
I would like to very briefly raise another point relating to the issue of “the land”. I can understand that a lot of people are troubled by the politics, and realities connected to the modern State of Israel. I, too, am very often troubled, and I would consider this to be a normal reaction. We need to be concerned, but I think our Torah portion also teaches us, that we, as Jews living outside of the land of Israel, are in a relationship with Israel. Like the other Mitzwot I referred to, Israel has a relevance for us all.
I believe, Israel reflects our eternal relationship with God. If we think, that things in the State of Israel are not going well, then our relationship with God also needs some improvements. Guided by shared values – like gender equality in public spaces, the “western wall” as a place of worship for all Jewish streams, and a human treatment of all people, irrespective of their background, – we should seek to find ways, in which we can change the current situation. Israel is too important for us as Jews to be left alone and on its own. Ignoring it, or even boycotting it, won’t change anything. After all, Israel is our Jewish homeland.
As progressive Jews, we have a responsibility for Israel in the same way as every other Jew has – whether they are living in Israel or not. In our Torah portion Moses repeats that the land of Israel is part of our heritage. Not only OUR heritage today, but the heritage of EVERY generation of Jews. Those who have gone before us, our generation today, and for the generations that will come after us. I think, it is worth taking on this responsibility.