Israel is of course a lot of different things – a state, a vision, a symbol, the scenery of history – but most basically, it is a geographical entity, a place, with distinct characteristics of topography, climate, flora and fauna, and natural resources. Obviously, traveling in Israel (or living there) is necessary for one to get a “feel” for the place, to “know” it. On the other hand, sometimes even traveling or living in a place runs into the problem of not being able to see the forest for the trees. Through satellite and aerial photos, of course maps, and written descriptions, we can get a sense of the big picture, of the lay of the land. This lesson will present some activities and resources to help accomplish this; however, we hope it will be just the initial experience of an ongoing practice of turning to the map to locate and imagine every historical event and personality connected with Israel.
Just as this course assumes that a fully realized Jewish identity should include feeling at home in the geography of Israel even if one has never set foot there, so too, we feel it is important to be oriented in the “map” of Jewish history: to have a sense of the flow of Jewish chronology in the context of world history, to be aware of major turning points and personalities. Moreover, we believe it is important for a teacher to be involved in the conversation about the historical significance of Israel: did the Jews “leave history” when they lost their national independence? Did we “return to history” in 1948? Are we living in messianic times? How we relate to Israel and how we teach Israel are inseparable from these philosophical questions.
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Clearly, the roots of our connection to Eretz Yisrael are perceived by the tradition to lie in the experiences of the patriarchs. Abraham’s experience was unique, as the first generation – the founder, the immigrant, the progenitor. The next two generations were already “natives” and provide for us a different kind of model, with some different motifs and issues. This lesson will examine the texts describing Isaac’s and Jacob’s links to the land. As with the preceding lesson, the focus here is on peshat, the plain meaning of the text.
The saga of the 40 years of wandering in the desert takes up the better part of two books in the Pentateuch – the Book of Numbers (called Bamidbar – ‘In the Desert’- in Hebrew), and Deuteronomy describe the experiences of the people of Israel in the desert. In this lesson we will try to examine the different ways the desert experience affected and influenced the people and its relationship to thelandofIsrael. We will do so by closely studying two specific episodes – the story of the spies and that of the two and a half tribes that requested the land outside the promised borders. These stories form “bookends” to the 40 years of wandering in the desert. The sin of the spies resulted in the decree that the nation would not enter the land until all the present generation had died and is therefore the beginning of the extended desert stay. The story of the two and a half tribes takes place at the end of the forty years as the new generation prepares to enter thelandofIsrael. As such they provide an interesting contrast to each other and cast light on the entire period. To Full Post
The Torah – given in the desert – contains a number of laws that restricted our freedom to exploit the land upon our entry into it. These include limits on when we may work the land, what we may sow and how we may harvest – and also taxation on the produce. Since these commandments are only binding on Jews living on their land in Eretz Yisrael, the tradition developed a special attachment to them – as long as we are living in exile, we are denied the opportunity to fulfill these mitzvot, so our religious life is incomplete. These laws therefore came to symbolize the specialness of the land, our connection to it, and our longing for it when we are in exile. Of the various land-based laws, the sabbatical year (shmita) is probably the best known example, and one whose restoration has generated interesting debates over the past century and a half, so we will examine it as a case study in this unit. This exploration will touch on questions about the nature of land ownership, about mechanisms of social justice, and about the relevance of biblical precepts in the post-biblical era.
We will discuss the covenantal view of history and its implications for our reading of the biblical historical narrative and rabbinic texts; does God determine history as a response to our merits/sins? Does this imply we should undertake a passive role when national disasters occur, since they are simply the hand of God dealing out our due punishment? Is there a rational way to interpret the same concept of historical consequences for our actions? How do we relate to and teach this concept after the Holocaust? What does this mean for the modern State of Israel – do we have an unconditional right to the Land, or is it dependent upon our actions?
This lesson looks at our relationship to the land through an ecological lens. What can we learn from the Bible regarding the general obligation of humans to care for the earth vs. their right to exploit it for their benefit? And what obligations, if any, do we have as Jews to care for the natural resources and landscape of the Land of Israel? Today it is common in the west to speak of our species’ obligation to use the land without abusing it, to see our benefiting from the land as conditional upon our respecting it. We tend to associate these ideas of integration of human activity into the cycles of nature as vaguely pagan in origin or in spirit. The question is: in an ecological perspective, what kind of relationship to the land do we find in Jewish sources? How does the modern enterprise of reclaiming and settling the Land of Israel relate to Jewish ecological concepts?
As mentioned in Lesson 1, this course is based on the assumption that in liberal Jewish education, the three primary texts are the Bible, the Siddur, and the calendar; thus about two thirds of the course meetings focus on study of these sources, with the last third devoted to modern history and current issues. The emphasis in the first third, the Bible section, has been on helping participants maintain their alertness to the opportunities for teaching Israel in just about any Bible lesson. After all, the Bible is a book about God, the Jewish people, and the Land of Israel. However, in recent generations, the land has lost some of its centrality, at least in liberal Jewish classrooms in North America. So, first of all, this course seeks to refocus the teaching of Bible, to keep Israel always within the field of vision; the Bible must be understood and taught as not only the biography of God, nor only the history of the Jewish people, but as the story of the three-way relationship of God, people, and land.
This lesson seeks to present an opportunity to step back and reflect on some of the underlying questions that must be addressed in our teaching of this relationship.