July 24, 2003
Settling the Land
Parshat Mattot-Masei (Numbers 30:2-36:13)
My first trip to Israel was a six-week summer program for high school students. I have very clear memories of my first Shabbat in Jerusalem, especially the afternoon program conducted by our counselors. The program was a mock talk show where the host would interview three different individuals all leading Jewish lives. After the interviews, we were divided into three groups, each having the dubious task of presenting one of the three positions as being "the best and most useful way of life to the Jewish people."
The first interview was with a young Israeli named Koby. A son of Holocaust survivors, Koby grew up on a secular kibbutz, where he learned the Zionist values of working the soil of Israel. On his 18th birthday, Koby enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces' (IDF) elite paratrooper brigade, where he served as a company commander. Asked how he understood Judaism, he responded, "My parents are Holocaust survivors. They came from a place where nobody defended them. My entire Jewish identity is wrapped up in my obligation to defend the Jewish State."
Asked if he or his family observe any elements of Jewish tradition, he answered, "We live in Israel, we work the land and I now spend my life defending our right to be Jewish. Is there any greater reflection of Jewish tradition?"
The second interview was with a young lady named Rachel. Also a daughter of Holocaust survivors, Rachel's life took a very different direction than Koby's. Rachel, 24, was married at the age of 18 and settled in B'nei B'rak, a city with a heavy concentration of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Rachel was the mother of five children and looked forward to building an even larger family. Her husband, Moshe, was a full-time Yeshiva student and, having received an exemption from IDF service, studied Torah day and night.
Asked to explain her Jewish identity, Rachel responded, "Being the child of Holocaust survivors, I know what happened to our people in Europe. We were alienated from Jewish tradition, seeking secular European lifestyles instead of maintaining Judaism. My husband and I fear this trend toward secularism again here in Israel. That is why we have committed ourselves to living a strictly observant lifestyle, building a large family and studying Torah." Asked how she felt about her husband's exemption from military service, Rachel said, "My husband defends the spiritual heritage of the Jewish State. Without active Torah study, we have nothing to defend here."
The third and final interview was with Abraham Schwartz. He was a successful businessman who lived with his family in New York City. Active in his synagogue, Abraham considered himself a "traditional Jew." His financial success in business afforded Abraham the opportunity to support many Jewish causes. His most generous giving was toward Israel.
Asked how he felt about living in the Diaspora vs. Israel, Abraham responded, "I feel very blessed to be able to support a variety of causes in Israel. I believe that my philanthropy toward Israel, and my leadership positions in many organizations that motivate others to support Israel, are equally, if not more important, than my actually living in Israel."
Asked if he intended to move to Israel, he said, "As long as I am in the financial position to help Israel from abroad, I believe that it is my obligation to stay here and continue my fundraising activities on behalf of Israel."
We were then asked to choose between three positions: physical survival, spiritual continuity or financial realities.
Both parshot Mattot and Masei raise these dilemmas by focusing on the mitzvah of "settling the Land of Israel." This mitzvah, a unique commandment that centers our physical existence and identity on one small geographic locale, raises numerous halachic, philosophical and practical issues that occupy thousands of pages of Jewish literature. The discussion has become more intense in the past 55 years, because the mitzvah of living in Israel is no longer a theoretical construct.
So who's the "best Jew?" Realities teach us that building a Jewish State is a complex project, one that requires military strength, spiritual vitality and financial security. So rather than choosing among the three, I would prefer to say thank you to Koby, Rachel, Abraham and the populations they represent. Each one, in his or her own unique way, is contributing to the mitzvah of settling Eretz Yisrael. The challenge of contemporary Israeli and Diaspora Jewry is to recognize that the continuity of the mitzvah and privilege of settling Eretz Yisrael is contingent upon the creation of an atmosphere where Koby, Rachel and Abraham learn to respect each other's differences, and learn to recognize each other's contributions toward building Jewish life.
Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.