Redeeming the Land - Reflections From Israel

Redeeming the Land©
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh

Arguably, the oldest way that people gave to the building of the Modern state of Israel was through the blue pushkas (tzedakah/charity boxes) for the Jewish National Fund, or Karen Kayemet L’Israel.  What were we donating money for?  We thought – trees?  We were giving money to Israel, but what was Israel doing with the money? 

This week’s parashah, Behar-Behukotai, are the last parshiot of the book of Leviticus.  During this book, which was given at Sinai in a span of eight days after the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which is ownerless land in the wilderness, we read about the laws concerning the priests.  But it isn’t just the laws of the priests – this book contains the laws for the nation of priests, bnai Israel.  It’s a book of methods to attain holiness.  The focus is on people, but as we come to the end of the book, we now move to a different focus:  a focus on the land of Israel. 

But if we look even closer, we see that the laws that are given are also about how Jews attain holiness on the land – how we should act on the land.  The parashah begins with the commandments of the sabbatical and jubilee years, where our ancestors had to give the land a complete rest, shmittah, every seven years.  On the 50th year, the jubilee year, the land is released and given back to its original owners.  These laws were given in order to prevent perpetual slavery and a system where people lost ownership of the land.  The question is, who owns the land?  We famously read the following words in our parashah in Chapter 25:23-24:

וְהָאָ֗רֶץ לֹ֤א תִמָּכֵר֙ לִצְמִתֻ֔ת כִּי־לִ֖י הָאָ֑רֶץ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֧ים וְתוֹשָׁבִ֛ים אַתֶּ֖ם עִמָּדִֽי׃
But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.

וּבְכֹ֖ל אֶ֣רֶץ אֲחֻזַּתְכֶ֑ם גְּאֻלָּ֖ה תִּתְּנ֥וּ לָאָֽרֶץ׃ (ס)
Throughout the land that you hold, you must provide for the redemption of the land.

What exactly do these verses mean?  Didn't we assume that the land is ours for the taking?  Why does God tell them that they are Gerim, strangers, on the land? 

Ibn Ezra, a famous Spanish commentator, says the following:  it is to teach us that we are like permanent refugees on the land.  The land is God's, not ours.  But the Ramban, another medieval commentator, adds, as long as the land is Mine (God's), it is your land as well. 

If it is God's land, we have a responsibility to the land, it is never fully owned by us, so we must provide for its redemption. 

What does redemption mean?  A farmer can understand the following verbs regarding land:  "irrigate" "fertilize", and "cultivate”.  But how does one "redeem" land? According to most biblical commentators, this verse is understood as mandating a loving Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. 

The work of the modern day redemption of the land of Israel began on the fourth day of the fifth Zionist Congress in Basel.  At the first Zionist Congress, the delegates debated establishing a fund to purchase land in Israel from the Ottoman Empire.  Theodore Herzl wrote the following after the first congress:  “Were I to sum up the Basle Congress in a word - which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly - it would be this: At Basle I founded the Jewish State.”  That was all well and good, and the idea of land ownership was popular, but no one put their money down on the table.  So on the fourth day of the fifth congress, Theodore Herzl rises to the podium and gives an impassioned plea for this land purchasing program:   "After striving for so many years to set up the fund, we do not want to disperse again without having done anything."  He proposes a fund called the Jewish National Fund (Karen Kaymeth L'Israel) and says the following:  "the fund shall be the property of the Jewish people as a whole."

In the spring of 1903 JNF-KKL purchased its first parcel of land: 50 acres in Hadera thus beginning the modern day redemption of the land. 

So the question is, why the trees?  I learned that answer on Neot Kedumim, a Biblical park in Israel founded in 1924.  We sat on a bench and stared into a valley – on one side, we saw land full of trees, but on the other side, we saw a barren hill.  Our tour guide explained the following:

There was an Ottoman rule that if one bought land, you had to show that you were going to actually use it.  If you did not show this within one year, the empire could take the land back without refunding your money. 

The early Zionists were not a large group.  Many Jews opposed the idea of Zionism, so the Zionists came up with an idea – let's plant trees on the barren land.  And this is how JNF got into the tree planting business. 

The question is, once the land was purchased, once the trees were planted, was the land redeemed? 

Redemption, Geulah, is a difficult term to comprehend.  When were Bnai Israel redeemed from slavery?  Did it happen the moment Pharaoh let us go after the plagues?  Did it happen after we crossed through the Sea of Reeds?  Did it happen when we entered the wilderness?  Did it happen when we received the Torah at Sinai?  Did it happen when we entered the land after the forty years of wandering in the Wilderness? 

Perhaps the answer is that, like Revelation, the giving of the Torah at Sinai, redemption is an ongoing process.  We never fully own the land, but we continue working to redeem the land through our actions. 

The idea that was born by Herzl during the fifth Zionist Congress the JNF, was just the beginning, and the work of the JNF continues today with every project they invest in.  During our four day trip, we saw the gradual acts of redemption:  forests planted, museums that were built to remember historical moments in Israeli history, like Ammunition Hill, the site of one of the pivotal battles of the Six Day War which led to the liberation of the old city of Jerusalem; settlements in the Green Line like Halutza which serves as a border between Egypt and Israel.  I stood at the Beit Knesset staring into the Sinai, just a mile away, a couple of months before, ISIS was there shooting rockets at the settlement which stands in Israel proper.  We sat and ate with the Rabbi Eli Adler, a leader in Halutza, who started his life over after he left Gush Katif in Gaza during the 2005 Disengagement.  He never lost hope for the redemption of the land of Israel. 

From there, we traveled to Be'er Sheva where we saw the JNF projects attempting to bring Israelis from the congested center of the country to the capital of the Negev in order to achieve David Ben Gurion's dream, to make the desert bloom.  Because of the work of JNF's work in funding jobs programs and historical sites (along with the Israeli government), Be'er Sheva is becoming a powerhouse of a city with a growing population.  In the north, the Galil, we visited the site of the Carmel Forest Fire Memorial – a site which honors the memory of the 44 Israeli firemen and police officers who were killed trying to stop the largest fire in Israeli history.  JNF is planting trees everyday to help rebuild what was destroyed.  It will take at least 35 years for the forests to return, but redemption doesn't happen in one day – it's a long process.  We met with HaShomer HaChadash, a volunteer organization dedicated to safeguarding the land in the Negev and the Galilee for farmers who are being attacked, their animals stolen, and their land desecrated by thieves.  The group started with one young man, Yoel Silberman, whose farm within the green line was almost sold because it was constantly being vandalized and their animals stolen.  One night, Yoel said enough is enough, and pitched a lookout tent on a hilltop, and, armed only with a flag of Israel and a passion for his homeland, stood watch, declared a Jewish presence and a claim to his land.  More young men followed him and now thousands of volunteers help their countrymen, and to build a connection to their land and history, something that has been forgotten by many of the youth of Israel. 

With each place we met, we heard one amazing and unbelievable story after another.

I want to take you back to Neot Kedumim, the valley where one side had trees, and other did was barren.  This land is governed by the Palestinian Authority.  The tour guide told us that planting trees for the sake of planting trees is not an Arab value.  They plant trees for produce, but why just plant trees for the sake of planting trees.  The question is, why are we still planting trees now that we own the land?  There are no Ottomans to answer to, so why the trees? 

The answer is, because of the words of this week's parashah:  we answer to God, Ki Li Ha'aretz, because the land is Mine, but we must constantly work to redeem the land. 

Trees are symbolic of what early Zionists wanted to prove to the world - our people have deep roots in this land, and we plant trees to remind us that we must continually plant seeds, and root ourselves to the land, not just through trees, but through projects that help us feel a greater sense of ownership over the land, projects that help not just Jews, but all the inhabitants of the land. 

As I left Israel, I could not figure out what I was more inspired by, the land or the Jews who worked every day to redeem the land in their own unique way.  I left Israel seeing that Herzl's dream is coming tree – if you will it, it is no dream. 

The redemption of our people and the land is not yet complete, may our generation inside and outside the land continue to engage in the task of redemption. 


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