Parashat Lech Lecha: Recalculating Our Route
Never over the duration of thousands of years of exile have we ever renounced our faith in the Holy One, Blessed Be He or stopped yearning to return to Zion. Today, when most Jews live in the Land of Israel, we face complex and unprecedentedly intense challenges.
by Rabbi Ronen Ben David, Principal
Neveh Channah High School for Girls, in Memory of Anna Ehrman
Anyone setting out on a long journey must determine the place he is leaving, where he seeks to arrive and for what reason. Two main types of errors may be made, one of which is tied to losing sight of the destination. When we find ourselves stumbling in the dark, not knowing how to go on, we must redetermine our destination and chart the rest of our path more accurately. The second error, slightly more complex than the first, can occur once we have already reached our destination, whereupon we forget why we set out on our journey to begin with. In such cases, we must recall the reason by returning to our starting point.
All of this is true for both individuals and nations. Various cultures that had existed over the history of mankind have ceased to exist simply because they never bothered to revisit their origins and their destinations.
Never over the duration of thousands of years of exile have we ever renounced our faith in the Holy One, Blessed Be He or stopped yearning to return to Zion. Interestingly, it is today, in our present reality, when most Jews live in the Land of Israel, that we face complex and unprecedentedly intense challenges. Israel’s religious Zionist population seems to greatly embody manifestations of those challenges. The ideological gaps, alongside the existential gaps, coalesce to form a common ground fundamentally tied to questions of identity. Over hundreds of generations, we have focused on the goal of yearning to live in the Land of Israel, and we are finally here. Now what? Why have we come here? What do we do now?
For third and fourth-generation Israelis, the experience of having been saved from the diaspora doesn’t evoke too much enthusiasm. The protests over the price of cottage cheese or “milky” snacks, the promise of a new life in Berlin, and work visas granted to young Israelis are only a few examples of a wider phenomenon. Moreover, Israeli educators can tell us how complicated it has become to teach the subject of Israel’s chosenness in a classroom at a religious high school. Teenagers are simply less open to hearing this kind of language (undoubtedly, far less than what their educators would be prepared to hear during youth group activities, lessons, and discussions at various educational institutions only a few decades ago). Add that to the religious-existential dialogue in the world of 20 and 30-somethings from this social group, who aren’t prepared to relinquish their religious identities, while other broad existential issues have evolved beyond recognition (such as Shabbat, Kashrut, relationships between men and women, and more), and we have a real crisis on our hands.
Despite the formidable challenges, we mustn’t forget how great these times are. In all of Jewish history, the Holy One, Blessed Be He has granted us the privilege of entering the Land of Israel as a nation at only three points in time: at the time of Joshua Bin Nun, during the reconstruction of the Holy Temple, and now. This turning point in history is inextricably tied to our search for our path and questions of identity. What do we do once we reach our destination, only to discover that everything has become muddled, and that our vision is now cloudy? We re-chart our path, by returning to our starting point, and asking ourselves why we set out in the first place.
By reading the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis each year, we can return to this starting point. Our formative story, which we have passed on to all of humanity, charts out a “road map” in which Hashem oversees the beginning of the entire universe (the Parashot of Bereishit and Noah), and He lays out His divine goal concerning the creation of our nation (beginning with Parashat Lech Lecha). Lech Lecha begins with an answer to these fundamental questions:
“Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you… (this is the promise of the special land, but what will happen there?) and I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing (OK, but what is this process for?) and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you (this is a blessing for the entire world, a universal message).”
Something about these verses ties into the redemption of the world, which hinges on Israel’s return to its land. That is the main purpose.
Moshe says something similar to the Jewish people as the nation prepares to enter the land:
“Behold, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, as the Lord, my God, commanded me (this is the system of commandments we are instructed to follow), to do so in the midst of the land to which you are coming to possess (the place where the commandments acquire their intrinsic significance – the Land of Israel – but what is this significance?) … and you shall keep and do [the commandments], for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the peoples”.
Again, the message of tikkun olam – fixing the world – is the greater purpose behind the return to Zion. To suggest a model for tikkun olam, we must live in a reality in which we are independent, where we deal with universal social and ethical issues and speak a universal language. It is about falling, getting up, reassessing ourselves, and most of all, moving on.
It is commonly said that we are part of a generation that is only concerned with the individual, not society as a whole. That isn’t entirely true. Social networks, social protests, and other pressing social issues are commonplace in our revived culture. To put it more accurately, we can no longer speak to young people in terms of lofty ideals. Rather, we must deal with the individuals, their desires, their aspirations, and how complex their lives are. This is how we can start creating an exemplary society in our times, a society that will convey a message to the entire world. A crisis in times of redemption can be a great blessing, if we can exploit it correctly.
Will we be wise enough to understand how fortuitous these times are, and how formidable our task is? Shall we see eye to eye when Hashem returns to Zion, and address the question of why we even set out on our journey in the first place? Will we manage to recalculate our route?