Connecting to an Ancient Text

Lekh Lekha By :  Daniel Nevins Former Pearl Resnick Dean of The Rabbinical School and the Division of Religious Leadership Posted On Oct 31, 2009 / 5770 | Torah Commentary

A wondrous quality of Torah study is that you can link the parashah to nearly any time, place, or subject. This puzzle is enjoyed by rabbis every week—how can I connect the ancient text to our contemporary context? I embrace this challenge, yet sometimes it makes me wonder: how much are we gleaning from the text, and how much are we interpolating?

Historiography is the history of history—that is, it examines what a presentation of history says about the author who presents it, and the cultural, political, and personal context in which he or she works. The same is true in our study of biblical interpretation. When reading a commentator it is often possible to discern the context of his or her work from comments made on diverse subjects.

What do our divrei Torah teach about us? What will future historians of biblical interpretation discern about our religious, cultural, and political motives? I expect that one thing they will notice is the divide between those teachers of Torah who lived in Israel from those of us in the various Diaspora communities. This divide is particularly apparent in Parashat Lekh L’kha.

This Shabbat in thousands of synagogues across America and other Diaspora communities, rabbis, congregants, and b’nai mitzvah will speak about the journey made by Abraham, Sarah, and their family. Just a few decades ago, many of these sermons would have reflected upon the immigrant experience—the journey made from Europe to America, for example. Today, the journey is often viewed in spiritual terms—a passage from ignorance to awareness of one’s purpose in life. American speakers will note the journey from Haran to Canaan, and perhaps even the multiple promises God makes to Abram of his inheritance in the land. But the key components of the story will be the universal themes of providing for family and entering into a relationship with God.

In contrast, many Israelis view Parashat Lekh L’kha as the great Zionist narrative. The spiritual awakening of Abram is linked directly to his decision to uproot from his homeland and make the perilous journey to the Promised Land. Arriving in Canaan, like the early Zionist settlers, he finds circumstances challenging: There is famine, and, like many Israelis to this day, he must leave the land to fundraise. There is war in the land, and Abram, like countless Israelis, must take up arms to defend his family while also preserving his integrity. Most of all, there is the promise of the land.God promises the land to Abram and his descendants four times in our portion: 13:15, 15:7, 15:18, and 17:8. For a Diaspora Jew, these references blend into the background, but for an Israeli, they are the very core of the portion.

The Israelis have a good point. The climactic blessing, 17:8, reads, “I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I will be their God.” Rashi, citing a famously Zionist statement in Talmud Ketubot (110b), comments on the final clause, “but one who lives outside the land is like one who has no God.” That is, the land of Israel is not only a nice place to live and to leave as an inheritance, but it is also the essential theater for the covenant between God and Israel. Indeed, the great codes of Jewish law by Maimonides and Joseph Caro both cite this idea to prove that a person should, whenever possible, live in the Land of Israel, even in less comfortable circumstances than those possible in the Diaspora (M.T. Ishut 13:19, Melakhim 5:12, and Shulhan ‘Arukh E.H. 75:3).

As a teacher of rabbis, I am sensitive to the different flavors of Torah in New York and in Jerusalem. This year, nearly a quarter of our student body in The Rabbinical School is studying at our sister school, the Schechter Rabbinical School. The year of Israel study has been a fixture of the JTS curriculum for decades, and rightly so. Extended exposure to the land, and state, of Israel, with all of its blessings and challenges, is an essential experience in the formation of a Jewish leader. It is tempting for Jews in America and other Diaspora communities to disengage from the historical dramas being played out between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Too often we either idealize the country, turning it into a Jewish Disneyland, or demonize it for its well-documented shortcomings. Doing so, we miss the insights available to those for whom Judaism is not just a personal spiritual journey, but a great collective undertaking.

I have not read Israeli insights about Parashat Lekh L’kha for this year, but I suspect that some of them will focus on the video recently released by Hamas of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Given his nearly three and a half years of captivity, Gilad looks remarkably composed, which is of course a blessing. Yet the horror of his captivity is somehow magnified by the calm surroundings of his message. I will admit that, living in comfort here, it is easy to forget the anguish of this young man and his family. Having watched the two-minute video, I won’t forget again, and the image of Gilad Shalit will also affect my reading of the portion.

In chapter 14, there is a regional battle in which the King of Sodom is defeated, and Abram’s nephew Lot is taken captive. Old Abram doesn’t hesitate; his response is immediate and decisive: “When Abram heard that his kinsmen had been taken captive, he mustered his retainers . . . and went in pursuit as far as Dan.” That is, Abram chased the captors across the entire length of the country from Hebron to the northern border, and then beyond to a town north of Damascus, where he surprised the enemy and rescued his nephew.

Judaism lifts up this example of Abram and identifies the commandment of redeeming captives (pidyon shvuim) as one of our greatest obligations. Israelis—secular and religious—have accepted responsibility for this mitzvah on behalf of all Jews, and they have been forced to bear the heavy psychological burden of captivity in a fashion that American Jews find impossible to understand.

I anticipate criticism of my wading into a political subject in this devar Torah. Surely there are many Palestinians being kept captive without due process by Israel. For that matter, the United States is also holding captives who have not been convicted of any crime. I welcome such observations. Only when one becomes accustomed to attaching religious values to the great and terrible power of statehood does this feature of biblical narrative emerge from the shadows. Captivity is a nightmare, and it is often unjustified. It is the obligation of all free people to inquire about the welfare of all captives and, if there is cause to consider them innocent, then to act legally and decisively to help free them. Without the reality of Israel, this feature of the biblical story would be just another narrative element rather than a message for our own lives.

My purpose in this column is not to lionize Israeli-inflected exegesis or to fault our own. Rather, I think it productive to consider how our cultural context influences which features of the biblical text we focus on, and to encourage us to study the Torah from other points of view. For American Jews, it is good to step outside of our self-referential universe periodically and to consider the collective implications of the Torah portion. This Shabbat, I hope that your study of Lekh L’kha will include thoughts about the significance of the land on Jewish identity, and I ask that your prayers will include sincere petitions for the safe release of Gilad Shalit.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.