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Boundaries and Tough Neighborhoods

Torah Talk on Lech Lecha 5780

This week's Torah portion of Lech Lecha includes the first description of the boundaries of the Land of Israel. At the beginning of our parshah God commands Abram, later to be renamed Abraham, Lech Lecha… el ha’arets asher areka, to “Go! to the land that I will show you.” Abram and his wife Sarai are living in the city of Haran at that time, in Turkey today just north of what is now the Syrian border. Abram moves his household immediately, and relocates to Canaan, and God announces that this is the land which God will give to Abram and his descendants forever.

While the exact borders are left unclear, the general idea is that the Hebrews, Abram and Sarai's descendants—us—will inherit a country that includes the Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee, and the hill country that encompasses Jerusalem, with some of the Negev Desert and a bit of the Mediterranean Coast included. Different dimensions are given for this Holy Land in various sections of the Torah, sometimes including both the West and East Bank of the Jordan River Valley, sometimes going as far west as the Nile, sometimes as far east as the Euphrates. It is a broad promise of a homeland to be given to descendants who are going to be as "numerous as the sands of the seashore and the stars of the heavens." That homeland, with somewhat different dimensions and a very real controversy about its exact borders, is known today as Israel.

What exactly constitutes the sacred Land of Israel in the divine promises given in the Torah is not totally clear. The various boundaries given do not agree, some being much larger and others more modest. No real estate title company or county assessor’s office could possibly issue an unquestioned, specific deed to Erets Yisrael based solely on the Bible’s record. But the concept is there. We are to inherit the land, and live on it in perpetuity.

But there is another aspect to this story. Virtually from the beginning, it is apparent that the land that God has promised to Abraham and Sarah's descendants is in a pretty tough neighborhood, and occupied already. The future Jews, from the beginning, will be surrounded by people who have a very different theology, follow other legal codes, and are usually hostile. Abraham himself has to take up arms at one point to saves his nephew, and often in the Bible that pattern repeats. We Jews brought monotheism to the world, and established the centrality of a moral basis for society enshrined in law and justice. But we also experienced serial attacks and persecution at the hands of the peoples among whom we dwelled in virtually every generation. Many times we discovered that only when we were able to defend ourselves were we able to hold our own lands, or even protect our homes and our families from annihilation.

So it should come as no surprise that a similar state of affairs exists today. Surrounding Israel are the nations of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, as well as the Palestinian Authority territory of the West Bank and the Hamas territory of Gaza. Close enough are unstable Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, with Afghanistan and Libya not all that far away.

In effect, half the Jews in the world today still live in a very bad neighborhood, and one that requires great strength and vigilance in order to protect the people and the nation from damage. Like Abraham, Jews in Israel do well to keep faith in God, but also be well-prepared and ready to defend the only Jewish country in the world, the homeland initially promised to Abraham in this week’s portion.

May the promise of eternal safety and peace in this holy land, whatever its precise borders, finally come true in our day.

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