These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[PEP Student] The Land and State of Israel

Posted on October 31, 2010 by Tamara Frankel

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Dear Friends,

It’s that time of the week again! Hopefully the coming week will be filled with lots of optimism, more rain (we need it here!), productivity, smiles and love for all of us!!

In Israel, the Shabbat of Parshat Chayei Sara is often highly politicized. Since the Torah reading talks about Avraham’s purchase of a burial cave for Sara, known as Ma’arat HaMachpela in Hebron, many young people–especially students from the Diaspora studying in Israel in post-secondary programs–travel to Hebron to spend Shabbat in the city, to show solidarity with the minority of Jewish residents currently living in Hebron, to support Jewish control of Ma’arat HaMachpela (the cave) and to pray at this religious site on the “anniversary” of its purchase.

In Jerusalem, however, there are many young people who also gather this Shabbat to discuss alternative ways to stake their claims on holy sites like Ma’arat Hamachpela in Hebron, to express their love for the Land and/or State of Israel and desires for peace while avoiding any potential provocation of Arab residents in Hebron and the surrounding villages in visiting this site and city en masse.

CAUTION: Let it be clear that the purpose of this d’var torah, however, is not to declare my political views on this particular matter or on related issues of land swaps, the sanctity of holy sites in Israel and the like. Nevertheless, I do want to share a fascinating comment rooted in the parsha that pushed me to confront some of these issues.

When Abraham goes to the people living in the Hebron area to buy a burial plot for his recently deceased wife, Sara, he says:
‘I am a stranger (ger) and a sojourner (toshav) with you: give me a possession of a burying-place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.’ (Gen. 23:4)

Rashi, a medieval French commentator, explains this verse by quoting a passage from the Rabbis, a midrash, which paraphrases Avraham’s conversation with the people of Hebron, saying:
If you (the people of Hebron) wish, I (Avraham) will be a stranger (ger).
And if not, I will be a resident (toshav), and I will take it (i.e. the cave, maybe the entire land?) from the law, as the Holy One Blessed Be He said “To your descendants I will give this land”.
(Genesis Rabbah)

I find this midrash incredibly puzzling and at the same time eye-opening. If I understand the Rabbis correctly, it seems they are suggesting a nuanced understanding of Avraham’s (and the Jewish People’s) claims to Ma’arat HaMachpela specifically and the Land of Israel, in general. The midrash posits that Avraham can approach the current residents of the Land of Israel and live among them as a stranger, i.e. without dominating them, so long as they allow him to live in peace. Alternatively, if they do not allow him to live on his own—as a “stranger”, someone different from the mainstream community and culture in Canaan–Avraham will assert himself to live as a permanent “resident” and collect what is owed to him (i.e. the land), on the grounds of God’s promise to him to inherent the Land of Israel.

It would seem that this text articulates a rabbinic position which implies that Avraham isn’t necessarily committed to ‘cashing in’ his rights to the Land of Canaan and kicking out those populations already living there. According to this midrash, Avraham might have been satisfied to live side by side with the Canaanites, as a stranger, as long as they could agree to mutual respect and safety. Nevertheless, the Rabbis continue that if Avraham cannot reach such an agreement with the residents of Hebron, Avraham will in fact collect the land by right–this right being God’s covenantal designation of the Land of Israel to Avraham’s descendants.

Reading this midrash, I am both enlightened and further confused by the political and religious significance of the Land of Israel. I have more questions than answers about my relationship to the Land and State of Israel because of this midrash.

And yet, in the words of Sarah Jessica Parker, “Sometimes I Wonder”:  If the Rabbis of the midrash could propose this nuanced vision of how Jews might live in the Land of Israel with other populations, while still staying true to its religious significance, shouldn’t we be encouraged to do the same and infuse our political and religious action with this kind of nuanced vision?!

And, let’s suppose we adopt a nuanced vision like the midrash suggest.
How do we actualize this vision?

I leave these questions for our serious consideration….

Shavua tov,