For over a decade now, I have had the privilege to lead Taglit Birthright-
Israel tours here in the homeland.
Birthright-Israel offers a free
all-expenses- paid 10-day trip to Israel for every Jewish youth between the ages
of 18 and 26 who has not been on a peer experience to Israel before.
funding for the trip is provided by the State of Israel, the local Jewish
Federations in the Diaspora and a group of philanthropists led by Charles
Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt. I can personally attest to the impact this
program is having on both Jewish demographics and Jewish engagement.
what has always amazed me is that there is no parallel for this trip anywhere in
the world. Why is it that President Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Michael
Jordan don’t get together to offer a Birthright-Africa trip to every African-
American? Each African-American would be taken to Africa to meet the people of
Africa, to get to know the land and its customs.
In one of the largest
crimes against humanity, Africans were forcibly taken from their homeland and
robbed of their religions, languages and cultures, and yet 350 years later, the
descendants of those slaves lack the widespread consciousness of a need to
return to Africa and reinsert themselves as Africans into world
Why is there no Birthright-Italy, in which Italian-Americans are
given a free trip to Rome? They could visit the Coliseum and pray with the pope
in St. Peter’s Square. It’s been about 100 years since the largest waves of
Italians migrated to America; isn’t it about time for them to visit their
homeland? What about a Birthright- Ireland? Irish-Americans could learn about
their rich heritage and culture while searching for the proverbial pot of gold
at the end of the rainbow.
But there is only Birthright-Israel: a free
trip for Jews who left their homeland over 1,942 years ago. What is this
connection Jews have to their homeland even millennia after they were forcibly
exiled from it? From where does this consciousness of a return “home” come from
while others, who left their homeland a short time ago, have “forgotten”? We can
begin to understand the connection when reading this week’s Torah
During the first 11 chapters of Genesis, the Torah takes a
universal approach to man. Now, in the 12th chapter, the story begins to focus
on one man and his family.
The parsha opens with a conversation between
Abraham and God. Having grown up with all the midrashim, we forget that God
never spoke to Abraham in his youth.
All of those stories we grew up
hearing about Abraham destroying the idols in his father’s store, or being
thrown into the furnace, happened in the absence of any communication between
God and Abraham.
During much of Abraham’s life, God was silent. And it
was Abraham’s faith alone that propelled him to believe in God even though God’s
voice was absent. The greatness of Abraham began not when God first called to
him, but during the 75 years of God’s silence, never vindicating Abraham’s
belief in Him.
In this week’s Torah reading, God shatters his deafening
silence and breaks into Abraham’s life to tell him, at the age of 75, to go to
the Land of Israel. As if to say, “Abraham, you are great, and what you have
done was great. But for our relationship is to continue to the next level, you
need to get to Israel. Only in the Land of Israel can this relationship fully
This first communication between God and the first Jew begins a
cycle of “introductions” of God to the Patriarchs. Interestingly enough, the
first time God speaks to each and every one of the Patriarchs it is in
connection to the Land of Israel.
God opens up by telling Abraham, “Lech
lecha!” – Go to the Land of Israel. His first conversation with Isaac is the
demand not to leave Israel. God speaks to Jacob in order to promise that he will
return to the land.
We are told that “the deeds of the Forefathers are
signposts to the children.” So let us then look at each one of the introductions
God makes as a lesson to a different type of Jew. To the Jew who is able to make
aliya, he is told, like Abraham, “Lech lecha!” Go home, to the Land of Israel!
To the sabra, the native-born Israeli, like Isaac, God says never to leave
Israel. And finally, the Jew that is here in Israel and is forced to leave, like
Jacob, is promised that God will be with him in the Exile and that he, too, will
one day return home to the land of his fathers.
This connection between
the Land of Israel and the Jewish people is a central bedrock of Judaism. If one
were to look at the entire Hebrew Bible as one literary unit, one might surmise
that the central theme of the is a romance between God, the Jewish people and
the Land of Israel.
This bond with the Land of Israel is so deep that
thousands of years later, it is the one thing almost all Jews can agree on. I
would venture to say that there are perhaps more Jews who believe in the Land of
Israel than who believe in the God of Israel. While this is not the forum in
which to dwell upon the theological implications of such an assertion, I can at
least offer our connection to our ancestral homeland as a paradigm for other
nations that might want to boost the notions of peoplehood, engagement, pride
The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy
and currently teaches in many post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot.