Torah from Around the World #4

By: Rabbi Lawrence A. Englander,


, Mississauga, Ontario Canada

In most of our congregations, we say a prayer
for the State of Israel. One popular version refers to Israel as reshit
tz’michat ge’ulateynu, “the first flowering of our redemption.” This phrase is
commonly understood to mean that the creation of the Jewish State has signalled
the dawn of the Messianic Age.

A reading of Parashat Bo would seem to bear
this out. Exodus 13 twice mentions: “When the Eternal has brought you to the
land of the Canaanites … which God promised to your ancestors …” (verses 5
and 11). In other words, after gaining freedom from slavery, the next step in
our liberation is to inherit the Land of Israel.

In our own time, our return to Israel has
taken on political significance for the settlers’ movement. Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda
Kook, one of the spiritual founders of Gush Emunim, proclaimed: “This land is
ours; here are no Arab territories or Arab lands, but only Israeli territories
– the eternal land of our forefathers.”(1) To these settlers, the promise in
the Torah is unconditional and it is a mitzvah for them to bring the Messianic
Kingdom to fruition by establishing Jewish hegemony throughout Greater Israel.
It is ironic, however, that the early Zionists were mainly secular. They viewed
Medinat Yisrael as nothing more – and certainly nothing less – than a national
liberation movement brought about by people working together for a common
interest. In the Declaration of Independence, they included no direct mention
of God, settling instead for an equivocal reference to the “Rock of Israel.”

Is there a middle way between the
ultra-Orthodox and secular Zionist positions, a way that we Progressive Jews
can espouse? I believe that another look at our parasha may point us to an
answer. It describes Israel as “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 13:5),
a phrase repeated by two biblical prophets. To Jeremiah(2) and Ezekiel(3),
however, our inheritance of the land is conditional on our observing the
obligations of the covenant. In more recent times, Yeshayahu Leibowitz
presents a similar outlook regarding the State of Israel: “To speak of the
divine promise to Abraham and his issue as a gratuitous gift, to ignore the
conditions of the promise, and to disregard the obligations it confers on the
receivers is a degradation and desecration of the religious faith.” (4) I see
this position as one expressing our love for Medinat Yisrael while also
remaining true to our core Jewish values. A Jewish presence on the soil of
Israel – and, for that matter, anywhere in the world – is dependent upon our
upholding the ideals of freedom, justice and compassion for all its

Next time we say the prayer for the State of
Israel, we might be tempted to add a single word: she-tih’yeh reshit tzmichat
ge’ulateynu (5). Whether we live in Israel or the Diaspora, let us create a
Jewish Homeland that “may become the first flowering of our redemption.”

(1) Cited in Ehud Sprinzak, The Ascendance of
Israel’s Radical Right (Oxford University Press, 1991), p.46.

(2)  See especially Jer. 11:5 and 32:21.
The possession of the Land of Israel, “flowing with milk and honey,” is
conditional on observing our covenantal obligations.

(3)  See Ezek. 20:6 and 15. Although our
people were promised the land, their rebellion against the covenant caused them
to lose it.

(4) “A Jewish State of an Unpartitioned
Eretz-Israel,” Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State (Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1992), p.236. Emphasis is mine.

(5)  See Michael Meyer, “Toward a Reform
Jewish Vison for Zion,” CCAR Journal, Spring 2007, p. 108.

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