For the first week of 2016, I had the pleasure to join a rabbinic mission to Israel, sponsored by AIPAC’s American Israel Education Foundation and the Michael and Lisa Leffell Foundation. On the trip, we heard from nearly every voice in Israel: left-wing peacenik NGOs to right-wing settlers, Arab Christians to Jewish atheists, colonels and generals, Palestinian and Israeli government officials, and leading rabbis and journalists. There was a tremendous amount to be learned from all of these voices, and a lot that I took with me. There was one thing though, which became a take-away mostly because of its absence rather than its presence.
That thing is one that I didn’t realize until I had already left Israel – until I was in the air, looking out of the window as Ben Gurion airport retreated into the distance below me. The thing I realized as I sat and stared out of airplane windows over nearly 24 hours of successive traveling was this: the Earth is the Lord’s. This was not some deep insight on my part — rather I found it by looking in the parsha (Torah portion) for that week, VaEra. You see, there’s only so many times one can read SkyMall. Eventually, I opened the Tanakh to take a look at the Torah portion we would read that week. What I found there helped crystallize all that I had learned while on the ground in Israel.
Parashat VaEra tells of the beginnings of Moshe’s campaign to secure Pharaoh’s permission for the people of Israel to leave Egypt. We see plagues 1-6, all the way up through terrible hail and thunderstorms. After the hail has devastated the agriculture of Egypt, Pharaoh finally gives in to Moshe’s request, permitting him to leave with his people (he revokes this permission only verses later). The one condition Pharaoh places on his self-apparent generosity is that Moshe stop the hail and the thunder that is plaguing Egypt. Moshe agrees, and says in Shemot/Exodus 9:29:
וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, מֹשֶׁה, כְּצֵאתִי אֶת-הָעִיר, אֶפְרֹשׂ אֶת-כַּפַּי אֶל-יְהוָה; הַקֹּלוֹת יֶחְדָּלוּן, וְהַבָּרָד לֹא יִהְיֶה-עוֹד, לְמַעַן תֵּדַע, כִּי לַיהוָה הָאָרֶץ
“And Moshe said to him: When I go out of the city, I will spread my hands toward God; the thunder shall cease and the hail will be no more, in order that you know, that the Earth is the Lord’s.”
Why would Moshe say that he is only stopping the storms so that Pharaoh knows that, ‘the Earth is the Lord’s?’ What’s the significance of that – especially when one verse later Moshe acknowledges that he knows Pharaoh probably won’t hold his end of the bargain? Some clue is offered by the Haftarah which our Sages connected to Parashat VaEra. In it, we read one of Ezekiel’s prophecies, including a telling description of Pharaoh:
דַּבֵּר וְאָמַרְתָּ כֹּה-אָמַר אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה, הִנְנִי עָלֶיךָ פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ-מִצְרַיִם, הַתַּנִּים הַגָּדוֹל, הָרֹבֵץ בְּתוֹךְ יְאֹרָיו: אֲשֶׁר אָמַר לִי יְאֹרִי, וַאֲנִי עֲשִׂיתִנִי
“Speak and you shall say: Thus has the Lord God said: Behold, I stand against Pharaoh, King of Egypt, that great dragon who prances in the Nile, he who said, ‘The Nile is mine, and I have made it.'” [Ezek. 29:3]
We see that thing that makes Pharaoh an enemy, a villain, a ‘great dragon’ is precisely that he thinks that the Earth is his. Pharaoh’s great mistake is to believe that he has made the Nile and thus it belongs to him. That is why Moshe tells him that although he’ll fulfill his request, he does it in order to make it known to Pharaoh that the Earth is the Lord’s.
We must take this as a warning. If we wish to avoid the many mistakes of Pharaoh we must remember that we have not made the Earth. The land is not ours to give or take. We, together with all the creatures of the Earth, and the Earth itself — belong to God. The Jewish tradition believes that if we affirm God’s ownership of the Earth, then God actually comes to dwell among us. That was the point of the Tabernacle in the desert and the Temple in Jerusalem. If we act and live and behave correctly, we can actually draw down God to inhabit the Earth. This is not a perspective on Divinity compatible with purely political decisions about borders and land swaps. This is a holy understanding of the Earth — and one that desperately needs to be part of the “Israel discussion.”
The thing I discovered was missing and that I found looking out of an airplane window was the sense of the holy. In all the conversations I had and have regularly about politics and policy, about land and borders and fences and lines — very rarely is it ever infused with a real Torah-consciousness — a sensibility that what is on the table is all God’s, and not ours at all. This does not mean that we should embrace a universalist approach and renounce all claims to land that is in our hands by right and by might. Rather, we should imbue our approach to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) and the efforts to end the conflict with the Arab world through the prism of this idea that stands out so powerfully in VaEra: the Earth is not ours and we have not made it.
So, what do we do? We must forgo the concept of “ownership” and instead commit to sanctifying the land with our behavior and our values. That itself, removed from any political concern, is one part of the solution to the conflict. We must remember always the divinity of the Earth, and return to the message of the Psalm which we read weekly:
לַיהוָה, הָאָרֶץ וּמְלוֹאָהּ; תֵּבֵל, וְיֹשְׁבֵי בָהּ
The Earth and its fullness is God’s; the planet, and all who dwell on it [Ps. 24:1]
My prayer for us is this: May we always remember that the Earth is the Lord’s and that we have neither created it nor own it. May we merit to draw God down into the Earth and to sanctify our land, our debates, and our hearts, and may we, and all who dwell upon the Earth, find peace and security through knowledge of God.
Image of the author, standing at the end of Gilo, Jerusalem with Beit Lechem visible in the background.