Promises are important. They have the power to instill hope and excitement, and can establish trustworthiness and integrity. Four key promises are noted in this week’s parasha, where we read these words spoken by God to Moses:
Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians, and will deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people and I will be your God. (Exodus 6:6-7)
These key promises—the end of physical enslavement, of mental enslavement, of redemption, and of relationship with God—form the basis for the pattern of four in the Passover Seder. We drink four cups of wine, ask four questions, there are four distinct tellings of the story, there is the tale of four children, etc.
A fifth promise– I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and I will give it to you as a possession, I the Lord (Exodus 6:8)—is represented by Elijah’s Cup, over which no blessing is recited. Tradition holds that when the Messianic Era begins, to be heralded by Elijah the Prophet, we will learn if the Talmudic Sages should have included the fifth promise in the Passover Seder.
Though the “jury is out” on whether the fifth promise should have been grouped with the first four, it still looms very large in our tradition. The promise of the Land of Israel for the Jewish people lies at the foundation of our very existence. Our connection to the Land of Israel makes us unique. Judaism is not only a religion espousing beliefs, customs and a common story. We are also a nation, a people rooted in a special place. It is in the Land of Israel that our nation was born, and it is to the Land of Israel that we have been spiritually connected since Abraham and Sarah walked the earth.
Here’s what one commentator– Rabbi Shalom Isaac Lewitan, 20th century, Norway—wrote about the importance of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people:
The Torah uses the word “morasha” (inheritance) only twice: here, and in Deuteronomy, where it says “Moses commanded Torah as a morasha.” From this we can draw a parallel between Eretz Yisrael and the Torah, and and that our right to inheritance in Eretz Yisrael is strengthened when we act in accordance with the laws of the Torah.
Rabbi Lewitan seems to reinforce the idea, commonly held by strictly Orthodox Jews, that the purpose of the Jews’ presence in the Land of Israel is to live according to the laws and principles of the Torah. Following that line of thinking, God brought us out of Egypt to deliver His Torah to us at Mt. Sinai and bring us into the land promised to Abraham, where we would be a holy people living according to the values set forth in its pages.
This is precisely the ideology of Religious Zionists, who believe that the purpose of Jews living in Israel is to follow the ways of the Torah. Ultra-Orthodox Jews would want to see the State of Israel turned into a theocracy, a state governed by Torah and not civil law. Extreme Ultra-Orthodox Jews, such as the Neturei Karta, believe that the modern State of Israel is illegitimate since it was brought into existence by secular Jews and not by a Divine act of redemption.
The problem is that modern Zionism is not comprised of only one ideology. There are Zionists who believe that the purpose of the State of Israel is for Jewish culture to flourish, while others believe that the purpose of Zionism is political, a guarantee of Jewish safety in a world hostile to Jews.
It seems that God’s fifth promise doesn’t mean only one thing to our people. Some believe that God promised us a land so that we can uphold the laws of the Torah, while others believe that we were promised a land so that we could live there as a people in all our colorful diversity.
This brings me to mini-markets. Among the headlines out of Israel this past week was a little noticed story about the Knesset voting to give the Minister of the Interior control over what business establishments can stay open on Shabbat throughout the State of Israel. The current Interior Minister, Aryeh Deri (an Ultra-Orthodox Jew who also happens to be a convicted criminal), introduced a bill that would enable him to force the closure of mini-markets in Israel on Shabbat. Threatening to topple the government’s ruling coalition if the “mini-market bill” wasn’t passed, the Knesset voted, by a margin of 58-57, to give Minister Deri the power to force the closure on Shabbat of mini-markets throughout Israel. The city of Tel Aviv was exempt from the law, but attempts to exempt Eilat, a city that attracts a lot of tourists, failed. Soon after the bill passed, Deri claimed that it was a victory for what he called the “silent majority” of Shabbat observers. He later changed his tune and said that the bill wasn’t his idea and that implementing it would be impossible.
Two ideas about the mini-market bill come to mind. First, the State of Israel came into being as a democracy where people are be free to choose how to live their lives. True, Jewish values permeate Israeli life. Personally, I appreciate the spirit of Shabbat descending on the entire country on a late Friday afternoon in Israel. But the Ultra-Orthodox shouldn’t be allowed to force people to conform to a religious standard that they don’t want to embrace, whether in matters of Shabbat observance, keeping kosher, marriage or divorce. The Ultra-Orthodox are free to educate and to inspire, but should not be allowed to demand and extort the results they want. Holding the government hostage until people capitulate to a religious standard they don’t want to uphold is simply ugly and wrong.
Beyond that, the mini-market bill reminds me that Zionism isn’t only about upholding Torah values in the land of Israel. There’s more than one way to be a Zionist. God’s fifth promise—that the Jewish people would live in our own land—should be interpreted in a variety of ways. We can only hope that Minister Deri and other Ultra-Orthodox politicians in the Israeli government grow to see that truth.