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A Land and a People With a Special Name

October 18, 2007 By:
Rabbi David Gutterman, JE Feature
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LECH LECHA, Genesis 12:1-17:27

After a mere 11 chapters, the sacred story of our people this week takes a more particular and intimate turn. After having spoken of and recorded worldly and global events, the Torah turns to one man, one family and the unfolding drama of that family. Indeed, for the balance of our biblical journey, the Jewish story will be about the covenantal life of that community.

But as my father taught me: "You've got one shot to make a first impression." It is the first impression, the first conversation that merits our attention.

Listen to the words of the first encounter between the Almighty and Abraham, because when we translate it into modern parlance, we will reveal a truth that is not only riveting, but incredibly relevant.

Lech Lecha ... el ha'aretz asher arekha ... v'e'es'kha l'goy gadol, God says: "Go forth and travel to the Land that I will show you, and I will make for you a large nation."

In a word, God speaks and promises to Abraham the blessings of a land and the ongoing blessing of progeny. But, I hasten to add, not any land, but the Land that God will watch over and protect -- a special and sacred land. And not any progeny, but -- as we learn later in the text -- children who will be "a blessing ... and as multitudinous as the stars."

Right at the dawn of the Jewish story there is a prominent emphasis on two things: land and children. In other words, the Jewish identity with a land and the generational Jewish continuity that is ensured via children, are the two sine qua nons of Jewish destiny. And how thoroughly modern.

Is it not interesting -- if not ironic -- that we, the children and grandchildren of Abraham are essentially concerned -- if not consumed -- with these two issues to this very day, albeit in the negative.

To put this in modern speak, the two salient and dominant issues confronting the Jewish people are: Will Israel live with recognition and in safety with her neighbors, and will we have Jewish children and grandchildren?

The latter a question of assimilation, the former a question of affirmation.

This two-fold linkage of land and people is also incorporated into a word, and a word that you know. On May 14, 1948, when the State of Israel was declared, the pre-eminent sage Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik said, more or less in these words: "Divine Providence took the quill of Mr. Ben-Gurion and guided his naming the land of the Jews with the name of Yisrael -- Israel."

An Amazing Truth
So why was this name of Israel so prescient, if not preordained? Because, continued Soloveitchik, contained within the name itself is the sum totality of the mothers and fathers of our people. Try to envision the word "Yisrael" in Hebrew and discover an amazing truth. Each letter of the name, yud -- shin -- reish -- aleph -- lamed, corresponds to one of our patriarchs and matriarchs, as follows: Yitzhak (Isaac), Ya'akov (Jacob), Sara (Sarah), Rivka (Rebecca), Rachel, Avraham (Abraham) and Leah.

Whenever we mention the name "Israel," whenever we advocate on her behalf or show solidarity, we are, in effect, affirming our relationship to the paradigmatic parents of our people, as well. However you understand this, it is linguistically clear, if not literally true, that a land and a people -- this land and our people -- are indissolubly and inextricably linked.

May Israel be blessed with tranquility and peace, and may we, the children and grandchildren of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sara, Rachel, Rebecca and Leah, recommit to the sacred story of our people with intent and purpose -- a story that began with a conversation 3,745 years ago this week -- and that still beckons.

Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.

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