Parashat Lech L’cha 5777

Rabbi Lea Mühlstein, 11 November 2016


A future still to be fulfilled – Israel [and] the Promised Land

“Did you have a nice time in Israel?” I have just returned from a week in Israel so the question is certainly an obvious one to ask, yet the answer is in no way as straightforward. Taking the British approach, I replied to the first questioner “Yes, it was lovely. Thank you.” But as I was asked the second, third and fourth time, my response gradually became more nuanced: “Yes, but…” and eventually got to “Well, it’s complicated…

I was in Israel as a participant in the delegation representing progressive Jews from around the world at the meetings of the World Zionist Organisation (WZO). As well as discussing the daily business of the WZO and its daughter organisation Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (the Jewish National Fund), the meetings focused on two big anniversaries, which the WZO marks in the year 5777 (2016-17): the 120th anniversary of the first Zionist Congress in Basel and the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration. Neither of these anniversaries can be recalled without political controversy; yet both events form important parts of a puzzle, which depicts the complicated reality of the Jewish people in the land of Israel.

In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, God promises the land of Canaan to Abra(ha)m not once but four times:

1. “The Eternal now appeared to Abram and said, ‘I am giving this land to your descendants’” (Genesis 12:7)

2. “The Eternal One now said to Abram . . . , ‘Look around . . . for all the land that you see I am giving to you and your descendants, forever. . . . Get up and walk about the land—its length and its breadth, for it is to you that I am giving it’” (Genesis 13:14–17).

“3. [God said] to him, ‘I am the Eternal who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land as an inheritance’” (Genesis 15:7)

4. “[God said to him], ‘I will give you and your descendants after you the land where you have sojourned, the whole land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession . . . ’” (Genesis 17:8)

Quoting these four passages out of context gives the false impression that the Bible describes the journey to the Promised Land as simple and straight forward. To the contrary, as Rabbi Jonathan Blake highlights, “The actual path from promise to possession, from oath to occupation, turns out convoluted and painful. While Abram and his progeny do dwell in Canaan, their descendants escape famine in Egypt, where later generations are bound in slavery. Even after liberation they wander, often hopelessly, for forty years until a new generation arises to inherit the land. The repeated promise, to inherit and inhabit Canaan, belies the dominant state of the Israelites throughout the Torah: they are in a constant state of exile.” Rather than inheriting a state, the Jewish people inherit the state of exile.

Considered in this light, we may wish to read the four-fold promise of Lech Lecha and the subsequent wandering of the Jewish people as a warning that the reality is always more complex than the dream. It is a warning that can also be applied to the interpretation of the two big Zionist anniversaries of 5777.

It is too easy to suggest that Herzl’s dream of a “Judenstaat” and the promise of Lord Balfour to “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” have both come to fruition considering the State of Israel came into existence in 1948. This view belittles both the very real existential struggle that the State of Israel still faces today and at the same time ignores that neither the promise of the Balfour declaration nor Herzl’s dream have been entirely fulfilled. Herzl considered the foundation of a Jewish State to be the solution to the “Judenfrage” and had hoped that it would bring about the end of antisemitism. But, sadly we know today that the existence of a Jewish State did not result in decreased levels of antisemitism. Similarly, we must also recall the second part of the Balfour declaration, which asserted that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. It is this forgotten part of the Balfour declaration that is yet to be delivered.

The philosopher Harold Fisch speaks of the Jewish imagination as shaped by “the unappeased memory of a future still to be fulfilled.” With that in mind, let us celebrate the achievements of the Zionist dream during this Jewish year. But, just like we remind ourselves anew each year about the power of the unfulfilled promise while reading Parashat Lech Lecha, I hope we will also be able to draw attention to the unfinished tasks of Zionism and the work that lies ahead so that one day, we might be able to return from a visit to Israel and truly declare that we have been to the Promised Land.

1 For his full commentary see http://www.reformjudaism.org/journey-interrupted

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