The Purpose of Jewish Existence, Why Enter the Land | Parashat Ki Tavo

Ki Tavo – When you enter. When? May we ask Why?

In this portion we find the people of Israel told what to do when they finally enter the land of Israel after wandering in the desert for forty years.

After they settle in they are told to make another entrance, into the field or orchard and choose the first fruits and bring them to Jerusalem.

And yet another entrance is demanded of the people of Israel in this portion, entering into the covenant. An elaborate ceremony is described to be done immediately after crossing the Jordan river into the land of Israel.

How do we enter Israel? How do we leave Israel for many of us who do not live in Israel on a day to day basis? How do we live in Israel? How do we love Israel?

These are big, important, powerful, existential questions which I cannot answer in 800-1000 words…


I believe all these questions are connected to the larger question of belonging. The people of Israel are going to be new in the land. They are new immigrants and they are asked to feel at home, but also to feel grateful and not take anything for granted.

From the earliest period of its history, the Jewish people refused to take its existence for granted. Martin Buber has stated this very clearly: “The Jewish people differs from all the other nations in that the supernational task was not imposed on its national at a later period in its history, not in a movement for liberation, but during an early epoch.”[i]

It had a function to perform which was expressed vividly in the several encounters between Abraham and God, that formed the first stage of the covenant idea. However, here we need only mention the purpose of the Jewish existence, as set forth in the reflection attributed to God: “For I have singled him out that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him” [Genesis, 18:19].

The purpose of Jewish survival is to embody God’s will for justice on earth; its justification lies in the extent to which the Jewish people lives up to this charge. Whatever reward is to accrue to this people hinges upon its loyalty to this simple but infinitely difficult mission. Nonetheless, even at the dawn of Jewish civilization, this clarity of purpose was already bound up with other objectives which were equally both rewards for carrying out God’s will and part of the rationale for Jewish survival. Thus, “All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you” [Gen 12.3] came to be a challenge to the Jewish people rather than merely an indication of the reputation that would be theirs if they would be true to the covenant. Similarly, the promise that the land of Canaan would be the homeland of the Hebrews contained at the same time the conviction that the Land required the children of Israel to redeem it. In this way, the Land became an end in itself for which the people existed.

Equally important, an historical norm cannot compel compliance. A people must always relearn the norm, accept it or reject it. The Jewish people, today especially, is in the unique position of having so altered the conditions of its life that only now will it really be in a position to prove to itself whether the norms, which it has assumed to be operative in Judaism, are sufficiently rooted in the Jewish psyche as to be effective under the challenge of power. For in the possession of majority status, autonomy and high degree of military prowess in Israel, the Jewish people must now demonstrate how it defines the norm of justice and how it sees the relationship between the norm and the manner of achieving it. Does justice mean that Israel’s borders must extend as far as the biblical borders or will the Jewish people see its purpose as creating a model, rather than a powerful state? On the other hand, will justice now be defined so as to include that measure of security and freedom which was denied the Jewish people for two millennia precisely because it lacked the power to secure and insure these blessings for itself? Until the rise of the State of Israel, these questions could not have been poses in this way. Now we cannot avoid raising them and thereby realizing that normative Jewish purposes cannot automatically be embraced by Jews living under the revolutionary circumstances of today.

Has the time come, then, for proposing new purposes for Jewish existence – perhaps, for example, the pursuit of justice through power rather than through the lack of it? Or perhaps the power possessed today is illusory and distorts the role of the Jewish people in the world? Put bluntly, is Zionism a heresy or, in its understanding of the creative connection between the Jewish people and Eretz Yisrael, the courageous confrontation with the challenge of power that the Jewish people has been successfully and tragically denied for two thousand years?

[i] Martin Buber, Israel and the World, New York, p. 156


About the author:

Benjie Gruber serves as the Rabbi of Kibbutz Yahel and the Arava Region. He lives on Kibbutz Yotvata with his wife Tovi and their children, Yair, Ella and Anna.