The central story of our Torah portion, Lech Lecha, the story of the scouts, is familiar to most of us. Moses was charged with assigning twelve scouts, one from each of the tribes, to go ahead of the people and scout out the land of Canaan, in order to prepare the people for the conquest as they made their way up through the desert. When the scouts returned, two of them, Joshua bin Nun and Caleb ben Jefunneh, were confident that the Israelites could move on and take control of the land. The other ten, however, brought back reports of doom: “There were giants in the land, and we looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and thus we must have looked in theirs!”
Those of us who spent last year studying the Book of Deuteronomy in the Shabbat Morning Hevre will remember that for the Deuteronomic author, this astounding show of cowardice was the worst transgression that the Israelites committed during their entire forty-year trek through the Wilderness; worse even than the building of the Golden Calf. And indeed, according to the Deuteronomist, it was this incident – the incident of the scouts – that ultimately kept an entire generation, including Moses himself, from entering the Promised Land, Eretz Yisrael. It was their lack of faith that did them in – faith in themselves, in God, in their destiny as a people, and their destiny tied up with that land. Joshua and Caleb described the land in all its fullness: “The land that we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land. If the Eternal is pleased with us, the Eternal will bring us into that land – eretz zavat chalav ud’vash – a land flowing with milk and honey. . . Have no fear, then, of the people of the country, for the Eternal God is with us. . . .”
This week we at Union Temple take particular note of the yahrzeit (according to the civil calendar) of one of our own, Colonel David “Mickey” Marcus, known to the fighting forces of the Hagganah whom he helped to unify as Aluf Michael Stone. This level of leadership, “aluf,” had been known only to a few before him in the history of our people. One was Judah the Maccabee, over 2,000 years earlier, as he led the assault against the army of Antiochus V in 165 BCE. The other was Joshua himself, as he led the Israelites across the Jordan to settle the land that God had promised to our people for all time.
Those of us who traveled to Israel together last month stood on the bank of the Jordan River at Qasr ‘el Yahud, the spot which tradition identifies as the crossing point of Joshua and the Israelites. We also climbed down to the very foundations of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, as we recalled the heroism of Judah the Maccabee and his liberating army. And indeed, we visited the town of Abu Ghosh, where Mickey Marcus was tragically killed by friendly fire, the night before the Jewish forces he led made the final push into Jerusalem.
Our history and roots in the Land of Israel are deep and long. It is a land for which we have fought hard and often. Much Jewish blood was spilled there, and no matter how literally or non-literally we may look at the texts of the Bible, we know clearly that this land has occupied a place of centrality within Jewish existence for some 3,000 years.
I believe in the centrality of the land and experience of Israel to the entire Jewish world, wherever we may live on this earth. Whether we speak Hebrew, or English, or French, or Russian, or Ge’ez; whatever our political opinions may be; whatever our religious persuasion may be; to think of Jewish existence without Israel as a central focus is, in my understanding of Jewish history and tradition, UNthinkable.
As you know, the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, with which I am involved, has constructed its programming the past few years around the theme “Engaging Israel.” For the Deuteronomic author, the inclination to stay away, the refusal to engage, was the greatest transgression of all. And indeed, all but two of them did not survive to participate in the building of our people’s future. Whatever our position today: socially, politically, or otherwise, it is incumbent upon us at the very least to engage – in study, in discussion, in cultural familiarity, and on the ground, visiting Israel itself. It is integrally a part of us, and God willing will remain so in perpetuity. And that is up to us.