Zionism: A Call To Awe And Compassion

Abraham's relationship to the land teaches us to use the Land of Israel as a means of building a just and compassionate society.

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Provided by SocialAction.com, an on-line Jewish magazine dedicated to pursuing justice, building community, and repairing the world. The following article is reprinted with permission from SocialAction.com.

Zionism represents a revolution in its aspiration to establish a society based on justice and compassion. On some level, all Zionism relies on an ancient tradition that gives voice to human pathos, calling all to mercy and empathy in spirit and deed. At its most noble, Zionism could be a triumph of each individual's yearning for well being and community.

The complex relationship between Jews and the Land of Israel has yielded a series of moral quandaries. In addressing them, we can choose to develop either a narrow or expansive vision of what "Zionism" is, weighing the relative importance of living in the land per se, and of the way we build a society and conduct ourselves on that land. That choice is shaped by a variety of sources--among them, classical Jewish texts and their multiple interpretations--and has far-reaching political and social implications.

In the Torah, God's promise of the Land to the Israelites was not guaranteed, but contingent on each generation's pursuit of God's justice. The success of that pursuit would be judged by the extent to which God's blessings of fertility and bounty were distributed among the entire society. Therefore, even in the Torah, as well as the remainder of the Bible, the Land of Israel was a means, not an end.

In cultivating a Zionist vision for ourselves that is similarly compassionate and committed to social justice, we need to interpret texts so as to stress the Land of Israel as a vehicle for kiddush ha-shem, glorification of God's name through admirable acts of moral conscience.

In Parshat Haye Sarah, we are given an opportunity to interpret a critical text. Over these past few weeks, we have seen how Abraham, a semi-nomadic shepherd, follows his flocks to a series of fertile parcels of land. Over time, however, Abraham's weary and cyclical existence becomes infused with an awareness of destiny, and the charge to live as a blessing to humanity.

In this emerging divine plan, Abraham's connection to the land becomes essential. He can only thrive morally by having his survival and that of his descendants assured. That assurance comes in the form of God's promise that Abraham will lay claim to particular land, with guarantees of divine protection and prosperity.

Yet is for Abraham to establish this claim himself. As the parashah begins, Abraham purchases the cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite as a grave for Sarah, effectively establishing his first legitimate land claim. The transaction between the two is especially revealing in this regard. Ephron repeatedly offers the land to Abraham for free, expressing that it would be an honor for him to do so. But Abraham flatly refuses the offer, insisting that he pay the full price. By acquiring the land at a premium, Abraham establishes a claim that is uncontestable.

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Rabbi Justin David

Rabbi Justin David is the spiritual leader of Congregation B'nai Israel in Northampton, MA. He was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and is a graduate of Oberlin College. He lives in Northampton with his wife, Judith Wolf, and his sons Lior and Ezra.