Taking Part in the Most Exciting Project of Jewish History
by Josh Weinberg
Making major life decisions can be difficult. The notion that a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ can have an irreversible effect on one’s destiny is nothing short of daunting. Sometimes we look for external signs or circumstances that point us in the right direction to ease our decision-making angst, and sometimes we avoid them altogether. For Avraham, in this week’s portion, the directive was clear and the decision appears to have been easy. “Go,” he was told. Leave your land, your home, and your father’s house, and don’t worry about the future—it will all work itself out and you’ll be taken care of. He seemingly went without any drawn out goodbyes or outward struggle with his decision. He received a calling and, according to Genesis chapter 12, he never looked back. Would that it were that easy.
It was ten years ago that I also received such a calling. I am not Avraham Avinu nor was I approached directly by God; my calling was more of an invitation than a directive. For me, moving to Israel was always more of ‘when’ than ‘if.’ Nonetheless, I was torn about having to leave family and friends as I grappled with the unanswerable question, “Where can I make a more significant impact, here or there?” In 2003, I was offered a position to teach Jewish History for NFTY-EIE, and within two weeks I folded up my life and was on a one-way El Al flight. I reflected often on the words of Lech L’cha—the quintessential Zionist text for me—and while I could never fully come to terms with the way in which we are told that Avraham got up and left, I found solace in a commentary of the RaMBaN. Writing in 13th century Spain, RaMBaN offers the following comment on the opening verse of Ch. 12:
“וטעם להזכיר “ארצך ומולדתך ובית אביך”, כי יקשה על האדם לעזוב ארצו אשר הוא יושב בה ושם אוהביו ורעיו וכל שכן כשהוא ארץ מולדתו ששם נולד, וכל שכן כשיש שם כל בית אביו, ולכך הוצרך לומר לו שיעזוב הכל לאהבתו של הקב”ה:”
“In discussing [the verse] ‘Your land, your homeland, the house of your father,’ it may be increasingly difficult for a person to leave the land of his/her residence, where his loved ones reside, and the land of his birth, his homeland, his parent’s home, and therefore it is necessary to explain to him that he is leaving [it] all [behind] for the love of the Holy One Blessed be He.”(translation my own)
The Ramban brilliantly captures the great challenge of making such a move. He succinctly articulates the hesitations many of us may have of leaving family and loved ones, and of abandoning the comfort of one’s community. While he puts the tradeoffs and rewards in theological terms, I like to interpret his message personally, as one of striving towards a greater goal to take part in something that is bigger than me and my community. When I left for Israel I was not seeking to escape a perilous situation. I was taking part in the most exciting project of Jewish history—to live in the Jewish State and offer my humble contributions to the greater national collective. The moment I arrived, my romantic idealism was challenged, leaving me to work towards weekly, if not daily, affirmations of why I had made this fateful decision. As I dealt and contended with the challenges, both large and small, it became more and more clear that living in Israel provided answers for my Jewish identity in ways that could not be done elsewhere.
Before I left the U.S., as I made my rounds to say goodbye, the oft-repeated questions posed to me were simply, “Why?” “Why you?” “Why now?”
The answer was and still is, “Why not me? And if not now when?” It occurred to me that the obvious response is offered later in the parashah in chapter 13. Twice we are given a short assurance that we have been given this land as God states: “Ki L’cha Etnena–For YOU I have given it.” This couldn’t be more direct. It’s for you—and for every Jew everywhere all the time. How often do we read these words, or hear them in synagogue, and easily dismiss them as meant for someone else. They are not. They are meant for you, and it is upon us to do something with this gift. Whether we choose to live in Israel or not is hopefully one of life’s great struggles, but that does not change our clearly stated obligation.
For some, this obligation is seen as a blank check to do whatever they want, and as a license to exert our manifest destiny over controversial territory. Some see it as a deed to the land—a claim over ownership. Others may see it as a call to action to safeguard the earth from our own damage. For others it serves as a reminder that this land is also their own and, therefore, they themselves must be involved in what happens there.
For me, this was a calling to entrench my connection to the land and the society in new and challenging ways. This week marks seven years since I set out with a pack on my back with the hopes of fulfilling this verse, “Rise up, walk through the Land to its length and its breadth; for unto you I have given it.” (Gen. 13:17). The Israel National Trail or Shvil Yisrael is a 600-mile concatenation of trails weaving its way through Israel’s length and breadth. It covers mountains and valleys, and even winds through Tel Aviv’s beachfront. After a 30-day stint walking this trail, I felt a renewed sense of knowledge, familiarity, and satisfaction from fulfilling the biblical injunction to rise up and walk. With this renewed sense of ownership and belonging I also felt a responsibility, which I came to realize is what Zionism is all about. It is about the realization that when the Torah says “for you I have given it,” that it actually means you. We are all Avraham. We are all told to “Go”—and we are told that the land of Israel is for us. The hard question is, what are you going to do about it? As I mark ten years since Aliyah, I invite you to make a tough decision—and go to Israel, get involved, and participate in building our State. Contribute to making the Jewish State one that we can be proud of and that reflects our values. I welcome you to join me in creatively working towards a renewed relationship with Israel and to remember that “for YOU it was given.”
Joshua Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).