Sunday, August 29, 2010

Ki Tavo

This week’s Torah portion begins with the rituals we are to perform when entering the land that God promises us.

After harvesting the first fruits of the season the farmer performs a special ceremony.  He brings a basket of fruit to the priest who then places it on the altar.  The farmer then recites the following ritual formula: “My father was a wandering Aramean.  He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there…  The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents.  He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.”  (Deuteronomy 26:5-10)

In this brief formulaic encapsulation of Jewish history, the Torah emphasizes our journey from wandering to landedness.  God brought us from slavery to freedom and from the wilderness to the land of Israel.

It is interesting to note that when we are in the land, as this Torah portion records, we remember our other condition of wandering and when we are in the diaspora we long for the condition of nationhood.

At every Jewish wedding, for example, we sing, “O Lord our God, may there forever be heard in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem the voices of joy and gladness, bride and groom, the jubilant voices of those joined in marriage under the huppah, the voices of young people feasting and singing.”  At every Seder we conclude with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem!”

There are two competing paradigms in Jewish history: on the one hand, wandering and the diaspora, and on the other, landedness and Jewish sovereignty.  Throughout most of Jewish history our center was a diaspora community, as best exemplified in ancient Babylonia or medieval Spain.  There were other times when we enjoyed Jewish independence in Jerusalem, under for example, King David or the Maccabees.

We, however, live in a unique time when there is both a vibrant diaspora community and an equally vibrant, and powerful, Jewish state.  Today we are blessed with both paradigms.  Today it is not the diaspora or Jewish sovereignty, wandering or landedness.  It is both.  And so we lack historical parallels to emulate.  How do we further our unique historical situation when we only know how to remember wandering or long for sovereignty?

How can we live in both the diaspora and the land of Israel?  This is the question for our present age.  How can we both affirm Jewish sovereignty in the State of Israel and assert the vibrancy of the Jewish diaspora?

And it is this question that hides beneath nearly every Jewish discussion, especially those about the modern State of Israel and its policies.

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