What happens when grand visions meet harsh realities? For hundreds of years, the Land of Israel was a shimmering dream buoying the spirits of an enslaved nation. Once that dream became a reality, however, everything seemed to go sideways. The scandal of the spies wrecked our first opportunity to achieve this dream, and we were condemned to an agonizing 40-year desert odyssey. Having recovered from that disaster, we stood at the doorstep of history, ready to convert those grand dreams into reality. Unfortunately, reality leaves a lot to the imagination; and dreams, when they finally materialize, lose much of their luster.
Just prior to our entry into Israel, two tribes petitioned Moses, asking to remain in the eastern bank of the Jordan River rather than enter Israel proper. Shocked by their request, Moses recalls the trauma of “spy-gate” 38 years earlier. Evidently, this nightmare is happening again. Additionally, Moses can’t justify the moral calculus through which most of the nation battles for Israel, while two tribes sit on the sidelines, watching idly.
After failing to dissuade these tribes, Moses offers a compromise solution. He effectively contracts them to battle alongside the rest of the population. Once they hold up their end of the bargain, they can return to their homesteads in the lush green pastures of the east bank.
Given everything that has happened, Moses is understandably skeptical about the intentions of these mercenaries. Fearing their betrayal, he painstakingly stipulates the conditions of this arrangement, repeating the terms of the agreement and crafting a tightly wound verbal contract. Fascinatingly, Moses’s stipulations serve as the template for any conditions in halachic legal sales and transactions. As the Talmud repeatedly remarks, “Any conditions that aren’t crafted in the same fashion as these original stipulations aren’t legally binding.” Moses’s bargaining with these two tribes becomes the model for all future transactions.
How tragic! A land of faith and vision has now become a clause in a legal contract. A land of history and heritage has become an addendum to a legal transaction. Instead of being bound to Israel through common destiny, these tribes are now obligated by a diplomatic treaty. This transactional relationship cannot last long.
Soon after we settled the Land of Israel, suspicions surfaced about the loyalties of this satellite population. Through last-minute statesmanship a civil war was narrowly averted, but distrust lingered. Unfortunately, these tribes were first to be exiled and to be amputated from Jewish history in the mainland. Ironically, by forging a purely transactional relationship, these tribes severed themselves from our common narrative and launched their own mental exile. To them, Israel was nothing more than a transaction.
A transactional culture
Our own society is quickly morphing into a transactional culture. The shift is largely due to the disproportionate influence of capitalism. Free-market economics have altered our world, empowering each individual with economic rights and unlimited potential. Fortunately, capitalism has dramatically improved our standard of living and has all but eliminated hunger and poverty as a cause of death. We so deeply revere it that we seldom question its impact on other facets of the human imagination.
Capitalism is pivoted on financial transactions between two individuals, each seeking maximal value for minimal expenditure. Each individual party to a transaction acts purely out of personal interest and not altruistically. The other party in a transaction possesses no inherent value but is merely a trade partner helping to maximize one’s own profit. Transactions are faceless; and the market, by definition, exhibits no moral values, no altruism, and certainly no respect for human dignity. Transactionalism may work well in the isolated world of free markets but is corrosive to other areas of human identity.
Regrettably, modern democracies are becoming transactional. Citizens of modern democracies view themselves as clients, paying taxes to receive government services. As in any transaction, a client seeks to pay as little as possible and receive as much as possible. Likewise, governments view themselves as service providers, receiving votes in exchange for the benefits they deliver. As transactions are always short-term interactions, transactional politics encourage short-term policy-making rather than long-term programming. Additionally, transactions occur between individuals, not between communities. Transactional politics casts each citizen as an individual customer rather than as a member of a larger unified group. Transactional politics fosters individualism rather than collectivism and common experience.
Over time, transactional democracies will wither, and we are witnessing the first warning signs of this deterioration.
Our relationships have also become transactional. We ask ourselves how a relationship or affiliation benefits us and how much it will cost. Transactional relationships focus on what we get and not on what we give. Genuine relationships are centered on generosity, compassion, and selflessness, not taking benefit. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote (Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, Basic Books, chap. 23), “In a contract, two or more people come together, each pursuing their self-interest, to make a mutually advantageous exchange. In a covenant, two or more people, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of loyalty and trust to do together what neither can achieve alone. It isn’t an exchange; it’s a moral commitment.... Contracts are about interests; covenants are about identity. Contracts benefit; covenants transform. Contracts are about Me and You; covenants are about Us.”
Transactionalism has even wormed its way into religious consciousness. Of course, Jewish belief acknowledges reward and punishment, both in this world and the next. Yet, the Torah never explicitly mentions the afterlife, precisely to avoid casting religion as transactional. We don’t adhere to divine will merely to receive reward or to avoid punishment. Religious experience is self-sufficient, and we should, as Maimonides claimed, “do what is right because it is right,” without need of any external incentivization. By muting any overt mention of the afterlife, the Torah presents religious life as the highest and most noble lifestyle, even if there weren’t any reward and punishment. Religious duties are not divine transactions but acts of devotion and piety to a God who loves us and chose us for lives of commandment, commitment, and covenant.
A start-up nation
Like politics in other democracies, Israeli politics have become transactional. Additionally, during the past 20 years, Israel’s emergence as a technological superpower has shifted our cultural narrative. A well-known book titled Start-Up Nation captured the spirit of our age and the dizzying pace of Israeli innovation, scientific discovery, and technological progress.
However, sadly, this story about “start-up” entrepreneurial Israel is replacing our original story about historical Israel. We didn’t come to Israel to invent technology or to receive lavish financial buyouts, as beneficial as these may be. We gathered from across the globe, fleeing persecution and antisemitism hoping to construct a common Jewish homeland. History is our narrative, not entrepreneurialism. Entrepreneurial connection is transactional and fades once the costs outweigh the benefits. Historical connection to our homeland endures and outlasts hardships and adversity.
Watching Israelis abandon our country when the political winds shift is deeply troubling. In a transactional society, these decisions make sense: if a political policy is bad for profit or personally inconvenient, the overall transaction of living in Israel isn’t worth it. However, we are not here for profit; we are here for history. We are not a start-up nation but a renaissance nation. Commitment to live in this country must transcend cost-benefit analysis. Not everything in life is a transaction. Israel certainly isn’t. It is our heritage.
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.