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Parashat Mattot-Masei

July 7, 2010

By Rabbi Danny Horwitz

My wife wasn’t planning to marry me. She was back from kibbutz, saving up money in order to make aliyah. Although I had spent a year studying in Israel, as a newly ordained rabbi I was not a good candidate for aliyah and we both knew it. I loved Israel, but I believed my future was in America. Something changed her mind, and twenty-eight years and four mostly grown children later, we are still together and back in the region where we both started out.

Maybe I should have changed my plans. Maybe I should now. That’s the challenge of the Torah, at least if one takes it personally: …And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it. (Num. 33:53) I do accept that it is the land of our ancestors, that there are powerful reasons for us to return; some of the many commentators understood it to be one of the mitzvot which a Jew was obligated to follow if at all possible. The rabbis put it as follows:

God said to Jacob: Return to the land of your fathers where you were born, and I will be with you. (Gen. 31:3) He is telling Jacob…your father is waiting for you, your mother is waiting for you, I Myself am waiting for you.” (Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 74:1)

In other words, as the verse in our sedra suggests, God EXPECTS us. God awaits us.

But is the land today the same land discussed here? God, is it really the land to which You called us? And do You still call us to it? More to the point, are You calling ME to it? And if so, if You really wanted us to be there, why were we forced to be away for so long?

The same Torah that beckons us to the land also tells us that just as those who lived there before the Israelites were expelled–perhaps in some measure because of their own misdeeds–so did the land cast out the Israelites because of their own practices. Nechama Leibowitz (Studies in Bamidbar,p. 402) calls attention to the teaching that “The Divine gift of the land was not unconditional, but, as stated at the end of our sedra (35:33-34): You shall not pollute the land in which you live…You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I Myself abide, for I the Lord abide among the Israelite people.” We sometimes complain that Israel is held to a double standard, but it seems God also insists that we live up to a higher standard; the flip side of being “a light unto the nations” is the possibility we might defile the land. Perhaps I’m better off avoiding the challenge.

We’ve had many trips back to Israel – enough that I’ve lost count – some as brief as a mission, some as long as a summer. They’ve affirmed and reaffirmed our love for the land and our connection to the people, and helped us to assess what we might gain by being there. But they haven’t resolved the deepest questions for me: what does it mean to settle in Israel? What are its sacred qualities? How do those qualities affect me as a Jew? And most of all: is this a mitzvah that I am compelled to observe?

I can only admit that I haven’t felt compelled to make aliyah, just because the Torah says I must. There have been other mitzvot I forced myself to do at some point because I believed in my core that they were mandated. And that, I think, is the very least we rabbis and all Jewish leaders must do: we must ask ourselves, regularly and at moments of transition, what we believe God asks of us, and if we are willing to pay the price.

Most of my generation of the Jewish people takes as a given that Jews have the right to settle in the land where our ancestors lived. But I must not take the existence of this Jewish state for granted; I must recognize and wrestle with the challenge of this mitzvah for me. The next visit, the mizrach in the living room and the drawing of a Jerusalem alley in my office, the daily prayers for a return to Zion, will have to remind me of the challenge…for the time being.


Danny Horwitz graduated from AJR in 1980. He is the Rabbi of the Greenfield Chapel of Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston, Texas, and a doctoral student at Spertus Institute of Judaica.