Parshat Pinchas: “Talking Aliya”
Rabbanit Nitza and Rabbi Yair Spitz were Straus-Amiel shlichim in Memphis, Tennessee, where they served as community rabbinical couple, and then in Toronto Canada where Rabbi Yair was principal of Ohr Chaim Yeshiva High School and Nitza was vice-president of the Mizrachi movement
Regarding education to promote aliya, and the connection to this week’s parsha, Pinchas:
Approach A: “Step 1 – Step 2”
This approach is based on the assertion that the first step in Jewish education is forging a strong connection to Torah and mitzvot on a general level. Only once this is established can one step to the next phase, which focuses on the connection to Israel and the idea of aliya.
Pros: This is a logical sequence. After all, how can one expect any person to make aliya and uproot themselves and their families from their familiar surroundings for the sake of an ideology advocating the sanctity of the Land of Israel, if there does not exist an inherent faith in the Torah and its values?
Cons: This approach is quite popular among rabbis and educators who work with Ba’alei Teshuva, people who seek to become more deeply connected to their Judaism, and are in different stages of discovering or rediscovering their Jewish tradition. However, what happens if these people never get beyond that first step? Or, alternatively, if they feel comfortable enough remaining in phase one, with no desire to progress further? The opportunity to introduce the concept of Israel might be missed altogether, let alone the chance of encouraging such people to make aliya.
Approach B: “All-in-good-measure”
This approach is based on the idea that every topic must be tackled in good measure, or, to word it differently, in proportion to its prevalence in traditional sources. For example, when we teach the portion of Lech-Lecha, we can expect to focus on the issue of Eretz Yisrael and aliya; however, when learning the portion of Noach, the focus will be on different topics altogether.
Pros: This approach tries to give a true and accurate account of the Torah, in which the Land of Israel, as central a topic as it may be, is only one of many. This approach also makes it possible for the messages one wishes to convey to seep in gradually, which turns the learning process into a more efficient one. Furthermore, the shaliach is not perceived as a demagogue, or one attempting to “brainwash” his listeners. Rather, he is seen as one who simply teaches the Torah as it is, with its myriad of themes and focal points, one of which happens to be the importance of aliya and the Land of Israel.
Cons: This approach might leave one feeling that Eretz Yisrael is just another topic mentioned by the Torah, no more nor less important that all the other topics discussed therein. However, we, as Zionist shlichim, believe this topic to be paramount and of the greatest relevance, and, as such, should constantly be discussed with our Diaspora communites: the recognition that an essential component is missing from their Jewish world – Israel.
Approach C: “It-all-boils-down-to-Israel”
This approach tries to connect everything, no matter what it is, to Israel. Every topic discussed, every Torah portion learned, or any event deliberated – all are connected to Eretz Yisrael. In other words, the central theme and main lesson of any Torah lesson, lecture or presentation will, by definition, evolve around the uniqueness and sanctity of the Land of Israel, and will lead to some sort of discussion on the political situation in Israel and the advantages of living in Israel.
A good example of this approach might be when one who teaches the first Rashi on the Torah, focuses primarily on Rashi’s fist two lines, in which he talks of the Land of Israel, while ignoring all the other important things Rashi has to say on the verse.
Pros: The central message does not get lost among all the other bits of information. In fact, if one single message is reiterated time and time again with great fervor, it is more likely that the listeners will take heed to the ideas conveyed, and these will ultimately become rooted in their hearts.
Cons: People may become desensitized to the message. Furthermore, those using this approach are risking Torah credibility. How many people are likely to believe that the central theme in every Torah portion is the importance of Eretz Yisrael and aliya? The shaliach might be perceived as a demagogue not worth listening to.
Let it be pointed out, though, that it is only in rare cases that shlichim adopt one of the above approaches exclusively. In most cases they use a unique blend of their own, whether this is done intentionally or not. As mentioned already, most people working in the field are well aware of the fact that the impact these strategies may have in promoting aliya is minimal.
Approach D: “It’s-all-about-identity”
This approach takes the bird’s-eye view and is based on the assumption that no matter how strong the claims are or how logical, they still won’t drive people to take action, especially when it comes to making a very dramatic move. People tend to make big decisions only when the following two conditions apply: They have no other (or hardly any other) choice, or when they strongly identify with the values associated with the decision in question. If we want people to choose aliya as their “first choice” – i.e., because they strongly identify with the idea that the People of Israel share one fate and the ultimate goal is for Jews to live in the Land of Israel – then we must help them develop this ideology and identity. For this to happen, one must first cultivate a strong sense of national identity instead of the community and individual-oriented cultures so typical of life in the Diaspora.
A comparison of Israeli youths and their American counterparts illustrates these differences remarkably well. How many young American Jews are aware of, let alone involved in, political affairs? How many of them discuss immigration laws? How many of them have forged an opinion about American foreign policy? How many recognize the name of a congressperson other than the President himself or the VP? I don’t blame them, of course. I am simply pointing out that the lives of these young American Jews are pretty much confined to their own community (with the exception of social media and online shopping, which may delude some into thinking they are very globally connected). On the other hand, it is hard to find an Israeli teenager who cannot tell you which political party s/he supports, who the Minister of Finance is (and, yes, whether he does his job well or not), and what his/her opinion is on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although Israeli youngsters are exposed to the same culture (if it can be called such) and the same influences as their counterparts around the globe, they are unable to detach themselves from Israeli reality which, by its very nature, produces people of strong identity and a sense of belonging to broader social circles such as nation and state. When one compares these two population groups, it becomes very clear that when it comes to “overseas” youths, an entire dimension is missing from their personality – that of national or collective awareness.
It is no surprise then, that fragments of ideas – as lofty or intriguing as these may be – do not suffice in making people give up their personal comfort, leaving behind family and friends, relinquishing their financial security, parting from their embracing community – and all for the sake of some national ideology they hardly know.
If this be the case, then in order to encourage aliya, we must first create persons of national awareness. This, in turn, can lead to a greater openness when it comes to embracing the idea of aliya. The way to go about this is to teach Torah, with its myriad of topics and dimensions, in the context of national identity and public awareness. Let me give some examples to illustrate this.
Shabbat. When teaching about Shabbat in the manner mentioned above, greater focus should be placed on the national perspective than on the individual one. In other words, instead of highlighting the fact that Shabbat is a day of rest (be it physical or spiritual) for every individual, or that Shabbat is a family day etc., the focus should be Shabbat’s singularity as a day that preserves and gives expression to the uniqueness of the Jewish People Furthermore, it should be emphasized that the concept of a Sabbath day has had a profound impact on human culture at large, as well as on human ethics; so much so, that all of humanity adopted the idea of a day of rest in some form or other. Of course, during the next phase of learning, one can talk about Shabbat from a personal perspective. However, first and foremost, Shabbat must be perceived as a sign and covenant between God and the Jewish People. All other dimensions are contingent upon this principle.
Prayer. Prayer should be discussed through the prism of community needs, emphasizing the collective aspect. Furthermore, the Amida prayer should be explained in the context of the loftiest national ideals – national repentance, the ingathering of the exiles, the building of the Beit Mikdash, Jewish Kingdom, the Sacred Service, the Shechinah and so forth. In no way do I wish to belittle individual prayers, and certainly these have a place of honor – as part of the official prayer service, and beyond it. However, the prayer of the individual must not be allowed to swallow up or push aside what is called Tefillat HaKellal, the prayers of the public, for it is the latter that connect all the People of Israel to each other three times a day. Moreover, the prayer of the individual is reinforced when it is founded upon the prayers of the entire community.
General observance of mitzvot. When explaining this aspect of Judaism, the focus should be on continuity – the fact that we are a link in a long and meaningful chain which has always (and still does) impacted the world, moving it forward, improving it ethically and culturally. This could only have been achieved by our very existence as a unique nation with an extraordinary culture, way of life and morals. It goes without saying, that upon these foundation stones, one can, and should, add one’s individual layers, personal experiences and inspirations, which become all the more powerful as a result of the collective foundations upon which they are built.
The Land of Israel. This topic should be broached with minimal reference to Israel as a “safe haven” from persecution, or a land in which the observance of mitzvot is better. Rather, the Land and the State should be contextualized as the fulfillment of the visions of the Prophets, and the realization of the Jewish nation’s historical destiny and mission. Living in Israel should be thought of as the materialization of the dreams, desires, hopes and prayers of millions of Jews as expressed over millennials. It will naturally follow that Israel, by its very nature, is also the best place to live in terms of safety, and is also the place where mitzvot can be observed in the best possible way.
But how does all of this relate to the portion of Pinchas?
To revert to the various approaches mentioned earlier, when teaching Parshat Pinchas using Approach A, focus will be placed on the topic of assimilation or the daughters of Tzelofchad through a feminist-religious prism.
Approach B would highlight the fact that Moshe only got to see the Land of Israel from afar, but did not merit to enter the Land etc.
Approach C might broach the subject of animal sacrifices, emphasizing the concepts of self-sacrifice and national sacrifice, and how crucial these will be when entering the Land of Israel and conquering it.
Approach D, on the other hand, will depict the portion of Pinchas as a milestone on the road to Eretz Yisrael: preparing the People to deal with national impacts upon entering the Land and conquering it; educating the People to be aware of how the Land must be divided and then settled; a lesson in how the leadership must adapt itself to the current generation; an elaboration of the sacrifices as public offerings etc.
I can attest to the fact that every Torah portion, every mitzvah, every Jewish holiday and every tractate of the Talmud can be taught and explained through the prism of national awareness. I am certain of this because I know it to be a Torah Truth, just like remembering the Exodus from Egypt runs like a leitmotif throughout the Torah because it expresses the perpetual encounter with God and the ongoing reciprocity between God and His people, which began with the Exodus and continues ad infinitum. This is the true context in which the Torah was given and how our identity as a nation was born; this is also why the Torah was given – so that we might be unto Him “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Only by adopting a collective point of view with regards to our very existence and identity, can we truly understand the Truth of Torah. And it is because Torah is Truth, our chances of succeeding are high, even when it comes to individuals who have long forgotten that they are a part of the Jewish nation. Our job is to remind them.
Those whose spiritual world has been built in this fashion, be they young or old, will be drawn to Eretz Yisrael quite naturally, not because they are convinced that the ideology is a truthful one, but for the reason that they will identify themselves as being a part of this collective, national ideology that is materializing before their eyes in our own times; taking form and shape in the blessed Land of Israel and the State of Israel.
Situated in the southern part of the USA, the Jewish community of Memphis, Tennessee is a small and warm one, comprising some 8000 members.
Albeit small in size (compared to other communities in the USA), the community has firmly rooted foundations due to its long-standing and unique history. Many of the community members have been living in the city for four, or even five generations, and many have family ties. The city boasts two Jewish elementary schools, a yeshiva high school, an ulpana (girls’-only yeshiva high school), a Torah Mi’Tzion Kollel, five synagogues, two JCC youth movements and many more organizations and institutions. The community, with its typical “southern” characteristics, is very family oriented, warm and tranquil.
For many a year, the Jewish community of Memphis served as an important center of leadership for all the Jewish communities of southern USA, being home to a few district schools, summer camps, a central yeshiva and more. The community has strong ties with Israel and numerous Zionist organizations, and has brought in shlichim from Israel to serve in educational and rabbinical positions.