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To Be a Free People in Our Own Land

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

A commentary on Parshat Vayeitze

published in the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix, Nov. 24, 2023

In Genesis 27:13-14 God speaks to the patriarch Jacob in a dream, “This land upon which you are lying, I give it to you and your descendants. Your descendants will be as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread out west and east, north and south. And all the peoples of the earth will bless themselves by you and your descendants.”

Was this text written by God? Is it divinely inspired? Is it purely a human invention? It doesn’t matter. Whoever the author is, and whenever it was composed, it teaches us one thing. The Jewish people have been in the land of Israel for a long, long time. We are not occupiers. We are the native inhabitants, who have lived in this land for upwards of 3,000 years.

Through the rise and fall of empires, from the Roman Empire to the Byzantines, the Arab Caliphates and the Ottoman Empire, and up to the British Mandate, one thing is constant. A Jewish presence in the Holy Land. It was in the year 1000 BCE that King David established Jerusalem as the capital city. We have been there ever since. And we are not leaving now.

The national anthem of Israel, “HaTikvah/The Hope,” captures the hope of these thousands of years, “To be a free people in our own land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” In 1948 this dream was fulfilled, and Israel was attacked by its neighbors. Peace has been elusive ever since.

We are a peace-loving people. Prayers for peace are at the heart and soul of our liturgy. We have always aligned ourselves with the thought that a cold peace is better than a good war. How many times has the State of Israel offered terms of peace to its neighbors, only to be rejected and attacked?

Yet nothing could have prepared us for the events of October 7th. Warfare among armed combatants has been part of the human story forever. Yet, civilized people have established norms of just warfare that routinely we have attempted to constrain barbaric impulses. The brutal, the obscene actions unleashed by Hamas are unparalleled since the time of the Nazi holocaust.

Cynthia Ozick wrote presciently 20 years ago, “Naively, foolishly, stupidly, hopefully, a-historically, we thought that shame and remorse- world-wide shame, world-wide remorse- would endure. Naively, foolishly, stupidly, hopefully, a-historically, we thought that the cannibal hatred, once quenched, would not soon wake up. It has awakened.”[1] One can only imagine what Ms. Ozick would say about the cesspool into which we have descended. A world in which atrocities are defended on our college campuses and the Jewish community is fearful of publicly asserting our rightful identity.

To bring it home, on Monday November 6, I was appalled to hear, at a panel discussion at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, that chants were heard in the streets of that community, “From Flagstaff to Gaza, Intifada.” And on Tuesday November 14, Jewish students at Arizona State University required police escorts to protect their safety on campus following a student government meeting.

The Torah suggests that the Jewish people will be a blessing, and, indeed, we have contributed to every culture that has opened its doors. From science to the arts to social justice, the promise to Jacob has, indeed, been fulfilled. We have brought blessing wherever we have settled.

The patriarch Jacob lives 20 years with his uncle Lavan, enriching him and faithfully serving him. In Genesis 30:25, Jacob announces that it is time to go home. “I will go to my place and to my land.” Jacob feels the call to return home. We have lived there ever since The Jewish people in the State of Israel are home. We are not leaving again.

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell is the associate rabbi of Temple Chai in Phoenix.

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