Just A Thought: Our birthright

For over a decade now, I have had the privilege to lead Taglit Birthright- Israel tours here in the homeland.

Birthright mega event 311 (photo credit: Koteret Public Relations)
Birthright mega event 311
(photo credit: Koteret Public Relations)
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.
The 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.
Yet 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 history.
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 portion.
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 blossom.”
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 and community.

The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot.