Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Va’etchanan 5763

When I was twenty and still constructing my adult identity, Jewish was just a note, in pencil, in the margin of a very long book. Even after I woke up and noticed that Judaism offered something of immense value to me, Israel couldn’t have been less relevant to my life.

I had never been to Israel and didn’t know anybody who had. I once stopped attending a particular synagogue because the rabbi spoke about nothing but Israel. In those days, for me, Israel was utterly beside the point.

This week’s parsha (Torah reading) is Va’etchanan (from Devarim/Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11). There are four important things to note about what Va’etchanan contains. First, as the portion opens, Moshe (Moses) is in the midst of a long speech, recounting for the Jewish people all that happened to them since the Exodus from Egypt. He begins by reminding everyone how desperately he wants to enter the Land and how God has refused his every request, plea and argument.

Second, in the chapters and verses that make up this parsha, Moshe underscores the importance of Israel to the Jewish people at least 15 times. He refers to Israel time and again as, “the good Land that is on the other side of the Jordan”, “the good Land that God swore to your ancestors”, “the good Land that God gives you as a heritage” and as “a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Third, Va’etchanan contains a restatement of the Aserot Hadibrot (10 Commandments). Fourth, this parsha contains the Shema, which is arguably the most important statement of faith a Jew can make about belief in God.

The beginning of the Shema is generally translated, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” The Hebrew word m’odecha, which is generally translated, “with all your might” may also be translated, “with all your resources”. With all your resources includes the requirement to demonstrate your love of God with everything you’ve got. Or, more accurately, with everything you’ve been given.

If I’ve been given a particular talent, I am bidden to apply that talent in the service of God. For example, if I’m talented musically, it means I have an obligation to create and perform music that brings people closer to loving God.

Loving God m’odecha, with all your resources, also means with your money. How do you demonstrate that you love God with your money? After all, does God need a new SUV? And what does any of this have to do with the irrelevance of Israel to my Jewish life?

Fast forward to 2003. Unlike Moshe, who died without ever stepping foot in the Land of Israel, I’ve been to Israel roughly once a year for the past six years. I spent a year representing an Israeli university to a mostly apathetic, sometimes hostile, American college population and lost a dear colleague from Hebrew University in the bombing there last July 31. I’ve gone from not being able to point out the West Bank or the Gaza Strip on a map to an obsession with books about life in Israel. In a single motion, I closed Jerusalem Diaries by Judy Lash Balint and opened If A Place Can Make You Cry by Daniel Gordis. Most importantly, in my ever-deepening awareness of Judaism, Israel has moved from the far, outer periphery to take its rightful place as a central pillar of Judaism - as close to the center as God, the Torah and the Jewish people.

So how do I, as a Jew who got a late start on Jewish learning but who is now beginning to understand the significance and centrality of Israel, how do I love God m’odecha – with all my resources?

We can’t make aliyah now, but we can do more than buy Osem soup mixes. So, instead of renovating our kitchen in Baltimore (which, believe me, sorely needs renovation!) my husband and I will be traveling to Israel later this month to buy a small apartment there. We’re buying an apartment in Israel as a practical and tangible way to re-affirm our commitment to Israel as a central pillar of Judaism and as a way to love God m’odecha.

That’s putting our money where Moshe’s mouth is!

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