These and Those

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

[PEP Student] Sojourn in the Land

Posted on November 7, 2010 by Tamara Frankel

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Dear Friends,

Last week I went on a day trip exploring East Jerusalem, specifically the Mount of Olives, Silwan (neighbouring the City of David), Sheikh Jarrah, Damascus Gate and the Old City. The objective of the trip was to explore a side of Jerusalem many of us don’t often see or interact with, and therefore, to become familiar with its residents, culture, challenges and the like. Personally, I found this trip to be really exciting, especially meeting with Palestinians and learning about what their lives are like and how they experience this incredibly beautiful, complex and holy city. Naturally, this trip compelled me to consider my personal and spiritual relationship to Jerusalem.

Thinking about my relationship to Jerusalem and reflecting on that of Palestinian communities in Jerusalem, my mind wandered to the beginning of the parsha when the Torah describes the relationship Yitzchak has with the land of Israel. To me, there is something very true (in the existential sense) and instructive about Yitzchak’s relationship with Israel and which very much spoke to me. And so, I’d like to explore this relationship with you this week.

The Torah recounts that there was a famine in Cana’an (i.e. biblical Land of Israel). Just as Avraham did a generation prior, Yitzchak thought it might be necessary to go down to Egypt. God, however, preempts this impulse to leave Israel amidst the famine and says to Yitzchak:

ב וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו יְהוָה, וַיֹּאמֶר אַל-תֵּרֵד מִצְרָיְמָה: שְׁכֹן בָּאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ2 And the LORD appeared to him, and said: ‘Go not down to Egypt; dwell in the land which I shall tell thee of.
ג גּוּר בָּאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, וְאֶהְיֶה עִמְּךָ וַאֲבָרְכֶךָּ: כִּי-לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ, אֶתֵּן אֶת-כָּל-הָאֲרָצֹת הָאֵל, וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת-הַשְּׁבֻעָה, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לְאַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ3 Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for you, and for your seed, I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath which I swore to Abraham your father;
(Genesis 26:2-3)

God instructs Yitzchak in 3 ways:
1. DO NOT GO DOWN to Egypt
Rather…
2. DWELL in the Land
3. SOJOURN in the Land

Why does God instruct Yitzchak with some redundancy? Wouldn’t it have been enough to say either “Don’t go down” OR “Dwell in the Land” OR “Sojourn in the Land”? Why is it necessary to speak so superfluously about not leaving Israel? Do these instructions come to teach us something unique beyond their simple meaning?

I’d like to suggest that the text is aware of the redundancy and is not being poetic or repetitive. Rather, each of these instructions that God gives Yitzchak teaches us something about his relationship to the Land of Israel.

First, God wants Yitzchak to recognize that leaving Israel is not as simple as just jumping on a donkey (or plane) and getting out of town. There is some kind of decline — a physical and/or metaphysical “GOING DOWN” — that one experiences when leaving Israel (I personally believe it to be the latter) and removing one’s self from those ‘spiritual heights’ should not be taken lightly.

Moreover, God wants to teach Yitzchak that he should make a point to settle permanently (sh’chon – dwell) in this place. More than that, in dwelling in the Land of Israel God urges Yitzchak to recognize it as God’s dwelling place (here, there is a clear linguistic connection to the word sh’chinah – God’s presence). Thus, Yitzchak is called upon to capitalize on the potential spiritual (and maybe physical) plenty he can gain here and tap into its sanctity, beauty and depth.

These commandments to Yitzchak seem reasonable enough. But the Torah continues with a third language which seems to contradict or undo the previous two expressions of “don’t go down” to Egypt and “dwell” in the Land Israel. In addition, God commands Yitzchak to “sojourn” (gur in Hebrew) — this implies a temporary residence, a passing through almost. Didn’t God just tell Yitzchak a verse ago to permanently establish himself in Israel and not to leave?!

La’aniyut daati (in Hebrew that means, in my humble opinion) I think God is preempting the natural progression of the reader, stemming from the languages of “Don’t go down” and “Dwell”: A person might think that s/he deserves to live in the Land and more than that, s/he might feel too comfortable living in this place, either becoming desensitized or unaware to the beauty and spiritual energy of Israel or mistreating members of one’s community and/or neighbours who live in the Land.

Therefore, God commands Yitzchak to “sojourn” (gur) in the Land: he must live in Israel as if he is just passing through, like he’s a tourist who will, of course, revel in its uniqueness. Yitzchak must train himself to remain sensitive to the complexity, metaphysical greatness and blessings of the Land of Israel and not take it for granted or as a given.

God’s threefold instruction to Yitzchak to preserve and cherish his relationship and living in the Land of Israel really speaks to me, particularly after our trip to East Jerusalem last week. I have been blessed to live in Israel for four years (not consecutively) and three of those in Jerusalem. Although there are times when I feel quite at home and comfortable in this city, the words of God to Yitzchak serve as an important three-fold reminder:

1. There is a powerful difference not living in the Diaspora (symbolized by Egypt) — it is lowly and spiritual lacking.
2. Living in Jerusalem now, I am called upon to sink my teeth into its sanctity, complexity and beauty.

And maybe most importantly…
3. Even as I settle in Jerusalem and feel at home here, I must live as if I’m a tourist; I must remember that I am both blessed and challenged to sojourn in this extraordinary city.

As some of you may know, this parsha marks the anniversaries of my siblings’ bar and bat mitzvahs. As such, I’d like to dedicate this dvar torah to them:

Noah and Talya — I bless you that you continue to develop and deepen your relationship to this incredible land and that you are able to simultaneously revel in the loftiness and beauty of Israel while taking responsibility for its future. May you always remember, as God instructs Yitzchak, that Israel — especially Jerusalem — and its greatness are not a given, but rather that they are filled with treasures and challenges from on High.

Shavua tov,
Tamara