Sign In Forgot Password
My title

Rabbi's Week In Review - 7/25/2022

07/25/2022 02:42:19 PM

Jul25

For some reason, a good deal of my time, both within and outside Torah, has lately focused on land and borders.  This week’s double portion, Matot-Masei, provides us with the most extensive, but not the only, delineation of the borders for HaAretz — the land of Israel — in our Written Torah.

This started for me back in Parashat Shelach-Lecha with the narrative regarding the 12 spies who scouted the land. What was the ultimate purpose and goal — i.e., why did we need to conquer the land, and what was this gift from G-d of the land that we just had to possess?

In Parashat Matot, we read of what at least begins as a rather contentious request from the tribes of Reuvein and Gad to settle outside the land, east of the Jordan. Their request is motivated by an economic consideration to settle in good cattle-grazing land. The request is ultimately granted upon their promise to “arm ourselves rapidly and go before B’nei Yisrael.” (Numbers 32:17) This has been described as shock troops — going into the land first and taking the greatest risk in conquering the land, land they will conquer for the other tribes and not for themselves.

My own struggle with, and desire to better understand, the concept of possessed land and borders is centered both in the ongoing and elusive struggle for peace, vis-à-vis Israelis and Palestinians, and here at home regarding the conflicting approaches of various states toward abortion and reproductive rights. Though seemingly very different issues, they both rely on how we see the idea of borders as being a means of protection and/or exclusion.

As to Israel and my deep yearning for a real peace, I presently grapple with a two-state solution — the present policy decision of J Street versus a single binational state centered around equality for all its citizens. (A side note: I understand that this reflects a left-of-center position, a natural position for me as it relates to both politics in Israel and here in the States. I merely express the view here to reflect my approach to the idea of borders and not to begin or engage in a broader debate on Israel’s future. Dare I state the cliché … some of my best friends and family, for that matter, are deeply committed to AIPAC. They are people I love and respect, never doubting their love for Israel or the Jewish people, as I ask they not doubt mine either.)

I think the two approaches boil down to whether we lean into our proclivity to establish borders, whether those borders delineate G-d-given land or we need those borders for our survival. Also, whether survival on its own is a sufficient purpose to establish exclusive rights to the land or the land is a vehicle for a greater purpose. 

If we hold to the idea that HaAretz, the land, is G-d-given to us, the Jewish people, we are still left with the challenge of determining the exact borders of that land.  “[F]rom patriarchal to Roman times, we may distinguish five different conceptions of what constituted the land…” (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. W. Gunther Plaut, at p. 1129) To the extent the description of the borders for the land in this week’s Parashah is an idealized projection, there is a further observation in the above-quoted Plaut essay that this description should not be used as a Torahitic-approved mandate for establishing the borders nor as a basis by Arabs for fearing Israeli expansionism. (Ibid.). It is rather a reflection of a Syrian-Palestine province of Egypt as specified in a treaty between Ramses II and the Hittites.

None of this diminishes our historical and spiritual connection to the land of Israel. Notwithstanding the argument that the land, within whatever understanding of its borders one asserts, is an inheritance from G-d we are not free to deny, most discussions of borders center around issues of security and survival. Dig a little deeper and we get into issues of the survival of “a” or “the” Jewish state. The issues are much more about demography than spirituality.

Nehama Leibowitz addresses our obligation vis-à-vis the land that is more spiritually centered. “This is not just a matter of history but involves for Israel a moral obligation, the responsibility to observe a particular way of life in that land.” (Studies in Bamidbar/Numbers, Nehama Leibowitz, p. 401) “You must not defile the land in which you live, wherein I reside, for I [G-d] dwell among B’nei Yisrael.” (Numbers 35:34) In a sense, how we live in the land and even how we as Jews live outside the land — how we live our Jewish values — presents as somewhat of a litmus test for whether G-d allows us to continue to live in the land. Does our present focus on establishing borders serve the purpose for which we as Jews possess the land?

In regard to abortion and reproductive rights, I am on the board of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, a four-state regional board including Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and the western half of Missouri. In Missouri, where I live, it is virtually impossible for a woman to obtain an abortion. Likewise, Arkansas and Oklahoma have recently passed similar legislation tantamount to completely outlawing abortion services. Amongst my own concerns are whether I can counsel congregants seeking advice on abortion, whether my state of Missouri will allow me to follow Jewish law in prioritizing the health of the mother over the fetus in utero.

Kansas presently has, within its borders, abortion established as a constitutional right. A vote is coming up in Kansas August 2 to take away that right and give carte blanche to the state Legislature to further regulate (regulations already exist) or outlaw abortion in the state. 

I live in Missouri but can walk one block to get my morning coffee in Kansas. It is somewhat mind-boggling that a single block can render a completely opposite outcome for women. Yet, where we stand right now, there are state borders that exclude reproductive rights and state borders seen as last lines of defense in protecting those rights. 

My struggle with borders continues in this arena. Do state or international borders serve to protect or exclude, and are there moral considerations that should not be bound by arbitrary borders?  Do borders place us closer to fulfilling our religious mission, or do those borders serve as an obstacle to fulfilling that mission?

Fri, August 12 2022 15 Av 5782