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Why are Zionists Zionists? Why is having our own state in the Land of Israel a good idea, and what is its purpose?
There are two basic answers to this question. The first is practical: people need somewhere to live, a place of their own. The long, hard history of the Jewish people amply and dramatically demonstrates what can go wrong when a nation lives in a state of statelessness. Their own place in the sun, which serves as a home, a refuge, a place from which one can, if need be, defend oneself, is a sine qua non for survival.
The other reason to be a Zionist has nothing to do with security, safety, or a place of refuge. It is about the right to live and work within one’s own land, culture, language, and history, the right to control one’s own cultural and communal life, in line with the values, beliefs, and traditions of your people. To think, speak, write, sing, paint, govern, get married and raise your children, in a Jewish way, in a Jewish society.
I have always completely understood the first reason, but it has never really resonated for me in the way the second one does. Yes, of course it is foolish and dangerous – immoral, in fact – to be in a position where we are unable to defend and protect ourselves. Diaspora is a crime as well as a punishment. But what I find really compelling, and exciting, about the Zionist project is the opportunity it gives us to create our own culture, using our own tools, within a framework of our own making, and which we as Jews, for better or worse, are responsible for.
This week’s parsha seems to agree with me.
Parshat Va'eira begins at a low point: Moshe has followed God’s instructions, gone to Pharaoh to ask for a three-day vacation for the Israelites to go out into the desert and worship God, and has been refused. Pharaoh piles it on, and worsens the slaves’ situation by demanding that they keep up with their work load but not be supplied with straw with which to make the bricks. The Israelites are angry. They complain to Moshe, who, in turn, complains to God, asking why He sent him in the first place. At that point our parsha begins.
God’s response is to give Moshe a kind of theological pep talk, explaining that the forefathers had faith in Him, and that now that faith will be rewarded: He will take the Jews out of Egypt, free them, and bring them to the Promised Land.
The language that God uses to make these promises features what are known as the “four expressions of redemption”. These are four verbs which describe what God will do for His people: והוצאתי, והצלתי, וגאלתי, ולקחתי. “I will remove them from beneath the burdens of Egypt…save them from their labors…redeem them with an outstretched hand…and take them to me as a nation.”
Different commentators have different explanations for precisely what each phrase refers to. Broadly, they point to the ending of the Israelites’ labors, physically leaving Egypt, removing the Egyptians as a threat by punishing and destroying them, and bringing the Israelites to Mt. Sinai to give them the Torah and thereby transform them into God’s nation. These phrases describe this process, leading up to the receiving of the Torah.
On Passover, there is a reference to these four phrases in the drinking of the four cups of wine at the Seder, understood to parallel each of these promised stages of redemption.
Strangely, however, in the very next verse (Exodus; 6, 8), there is a fifth phrase, which seems to directly connect to the four earlier ones: והבאתי – and I will bring them to the Promised Land. Why is this final, ultimate stage, which, when you think about it, is really what the Exodus is all about, left out? After all, they didn’t want to leave Egypt just to schlep around in the desert, did they? Why don’t we have “the five expressions of redemption”, celebrated by the drinking of five cups of wine at the Seder, to include this final stage of being brought into Israel?
The Sforno explains. The first four stages are a package. The Jews will be freed, leave Egypt, see the end of the Egyptians, and receive the Torah, becoming God’s people. Then, they will have to take another step, on their own; God will not do it for them. As it says in verse 7, just after the four expressions and immediately before the fifth: “And you will know that I am the Lord your God who takes you out from under the burdens of Egypt.” After the four-stage redemption, the Israelites must come to “know” something. The Sforno says that they will need to look deeply at what happened in the Exodus and be transformed by it. It must teach them something, about God, and their relationship to him, and His relationship to them and to the world He created. Only once they have internalized the lessons of redemption, and understood their place in God’s world, and His place in it, will they be worthy of receiving and living in the Land of Israel.
This makes entering the Land of Israel a very different historical event from leaving Egypt. Israel is not a simple gift, given by God to help the Jews out, as the Exodus, and even the giving of the Torah, was. The Land of Israel only makes sense as the land of a people with an understanding of history, a relationship to it and to God’s hand in it, which makes their taking possession of the land a reasonable act. Without a sense of mission, and purpose, and an understanding of who they are, the Jews would create just another country in Israel, which is really not worth God’s time and effort.
This fifth stage of redemption, being brought by the God of history into the land of Israel, is separate from the four stages of the Exodus because it is different. The Exodus was about saving and helping the oppressed. It was about defeating injustice and helping the downtrodden, and giving the formerly oppressed a set of laws – the Torah - which would make sure they would not themselves become oppressors, not forget that they themselves had been slaves, and strangers, in Egypt. This was God rescuing the Jewish people. The Land of Israel could be understood as just the next logical step – a way to stay rescued, free and safe in a defensible homeland, run by the rule of a just and caring law.
But the Land of Israel is much more than that. It is the place where an enlightened nation, which has assimilated and understood the lessons of their slavery and redemption, live and create a society which is reflective of what they have come to know to be true. It is where they take the lessons of their history and create a society which is their living articulation. Israel is a chance to do much more than be safe, and free. It is our chance to be us, and, by being us, be great, by living up to the lessons of justice, compassion, fairness, and the rule of law which God taught us when he took us out of Egypt.
Rabbi Shimon Felix