This past weekend, I was honored to give a D’var Torah (sermon) in front of my fellow congregants at Beth David Synagogue. The week’s Torah portion covered some of Moses’ speech to the Tribes of Israel before they took possession of Eretz Yisrael. I took the opportunity to evaluate modern day Israel through the eyes of Moses.
What follows is an excerpt from my full remarks. I’ve spared you the re-hashing of the text, and just included my insights and thoughts.
The Repeating Themes
What stood out to me after several readings of the parsha were three repeating themes.
First, Moses hammers home the need to follow God’s word. Chapters 8, 9 and 11 all begin with Moses emphasizing adherence to the rules and laws that God passed down to the Jews. In fact, Moses uses the hard sell: “Bear in mind that the LORD your God disciplines you just as a man disciplines his son,” he says. Meaning that if we don’t act according to the rules God sets before us, we are to expect God’s punishment.
A second repeating theme is the covenant made between God and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Moses brings this up again and again to remind us that this is when God promised the Land of Israel to the Jews.
The third repeating theme is Moses’ criticism of the tribes of Israel. Moses call us a “stiffnecked people.” He recalls the many times that the Jews have refused to follow God’s laws, even after witnessing some of God’s miracles.
Through these repeating themes, Moses sets forth the charter for Jewish ownership of the land of Israel. In doing so, Moses creates Zionism.
Summary of Moses’ Zionist case
It is not because we are righteous that Jews get to inherit the land of Israel. In many ways and many times throughout the Torah, we’ve acted counter to what is held to be moral or right.
It’s because of the covenant God made with Abraham, which essentially contracted the Jewish people to obey God’s laws in exchange for God’s favored treatment – through the fertility of the land He is to give us and the growth of our population.
The idea behind God’s laws is to have a just, moral society – to show no favor and take no bribe, to uphold the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and to befriend the stranger.
Jews are to receive the land of Israel in order to live out God’s commandments – in order to create a moral and just society. But, the mere existence of such a society should not be taken as proof that it is inherently just and moral. Moses warns several times (almost ad nauseum) that deviation from God’s laws will have disastrous results.
The meaning seems to be that we get to keep the land for as long as we are able to maintain a just and moral society. Have we done so throughout our history? The subsequent destruction of two Temples and the casting out of our people throughout the Diaspora seems like an indication that we haven’t always.
And, there’s nothing to indicate that Moses expects us to always succeed, either.
In fact, Moses really doesn’t seem to hold us in very high regard at all. He says that we, as a people, can be just as “wicked” as the nations that God will drive from the land of Israel for us. He makes the point that the only thing that makes us special is our relationship with God. And yet, we repeatedly flaunt the covenant our forefathers made for us that assures our prosperity as a people.
I suppose I can see how leading a bunch of us through the desert for 40 years could lower Moses’ expectations and support his somewhat pessimistic view. We squabble, we fight among ourselves, we deliberately turn away from God just as he’s giving us his greatest gift – the laws that enable us to create and live in a society that benefits everyone. We reject God, even after we witness his miracles. As God’s messenger, and someone who holds the “long view,” Moses, rightfully, is afraid that we’ll waste God’s gifts and our opportunity for prosperity and greatness in the Land of Israel.
I wonder how Moses’ skepticism, if he was our contemporary, would be received today. If Moses went before the Knesset and delivered the same sermon, calling out our “wicked and stiffnecked” nature, would he be celebrated? Would he still be respected? Listened to?
I ask this because it seems that today almost any criticism of present-day Israel is viewed as an attack, and not an opportunity to address a problem or make things better – and that’s no matter if it comes from our own camp, or from the outside. Sometimes, legitimate concerns or problems that are brought up by our friends receive the reflexive label of “anti-semitism.”
Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of negative stories about Israel in the media. And anti-semitism is on the rise, once more, in Europe. Just last summer we heard the chants of “Jews will not replace us” a mere couple of hundred miles down the road from here. There’s plenty to be worried about if you’re concerned about the future of the Jewish people.
Why shouldn’t we focus on the positive things we as a people are doing? Why shouldn’t we offer our full-throated support for Israel, no matter what?
I think this parsha offers some wisdom to help us answer these questions.
Are We Ignoring Moses?
Moses doesn’t view his flock that is about to cross over into the Land of Israel for the first time as any better than the nations we are about dispossess. And, those nations aren’t so great themselves – in fact, God views them so harshly that he wants them gone from his favored land. We are commanded to erase the names of their kings and to burn their places of worship. To erase them from history. Presumably, this is because the nations are incapable or unwilling to create a moral society.
But, as far as Moses is concerned, again, we really aren’t any better. We are only given the CHANCE to be better, to follow God’s laws, to create that just and moral society. We’re given an OPPORTUNITY to be a light to other nations.
Do we always live up to the expectations? Are we doing it better than the other nations today?
To know that, we have to continue to examine ourselves, our behaviors, our actions, and especially our thoughts. We have to look honestly within and without and compare our present Jewish society to what God decreed for us to do. We have to look at our actions collectively, as a people. And, yes, that means taking a critical eye to our communities, our group actions and the actions and policies of the only Jewish state around – the country that speaks for all Jews.
We have to be willing to recognize behavior and actions that run counter to a just and moral society. We know that we’re not perfect. Moses, certainly, recognized that. If we’re not perfect, then the possibility certainly exists that some of the thing we do are wrong… some of the things that Israel does may be wrong.
We can admit personal wrongdoing. It’s hard. No one likes to do it. But, we at least have one day out of the year when, even if just to observe tradition, we reflect upon the righteousness of our actions. We look inside, we identify which of our actions may have hurt someone, and we make up our minds to do better.
Those are personal reflections. But where is there a mechanism to examine how we’re doing collectively? What tells us that what we’re doing today and what we plan to do tomorrow as a people will support the continued presence of a just and moral society?
As American Jews, our support for Israel in the last 50 years has been automatic. We’ve created powerful lobbying organizations to ensure that American support for Israel is enshrined in law. We raise money for Israel directly and for organizations that do work in Israel. We send missions. We send our kids on summer learning trips and young adults on Birthright. America guarantees Israel’s military advantage in the Middle East and shields Israel on the world diplomatic stage. We do all this because… well, because we’re supposed to. We’re supposed to support the Jewish homeland.
But what we don’t do nearly enough of, is engage in a healthy, realistic evaluation of Israel as a nation state, as a government, and as a representative of who WE are. We prefer to give Israel the benefit of the doubt, even if she hasn’t always earned it.
More than that, sometimes, people who do engage in the types of reflections we tend to avoid are shouted down. Legitimate criticism of Israeli policies in American Jewish communities is often met with resistance… if not outright denial. The lack of a safe space to discuss Israel honestly has pushed our younger generations to more radical means of expression.
This summer we’ve seen Birthright trips interrupted by attendees seeking to better understand the reality of the situation for Israelis and Palestinians. We’ve seen Jewish camp alumni seek to educate fellow campers on a broader, more open and multicultural view of Israel. We’ve seen our children out in streets, publicly protesting controversial actions that Israel takes in their names… in our names. What we also ended up with is Jewish kids saying Kaddish for Palestinians, some of whom were reported to be Hamas operatives. And I honestly don’t know how to feel about that.
I do know that, today, our communities threaten to split at the seams, with the fault line being how we view Israel. We seem to be on the verge of losing a large portion of young American Jews to antipathy, or worse, anti-Israel bias. But that doesn’t have to happen. We’ve built our communities strong, and they are strong enough to withstand honest and open conversations on important issues.
I challenge us to do so. I challenge us to be a little bit more like Moses. To have the best interest of the Jewish people at heart, and still maintain the ability for objective reasoning. I challenge us to not treat Israel as a Golden Calf, as some suitable replacement for God’s laws — which require us to live justly and morally.
Nationhood is a tool to accomplish the goals of our people. It is not an end upon itself. We can’t rest just because we’ve recreated a country on God’s promised land. We have to continue to be worthy of it. And that means evaluating what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.
It means thinking like Moses.
Thank you and Shabbat Shalom.