The Fifth Promise

Last week’s terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Hyper Cacher market, which resulted in the murder of 17 people, including four Jews getting ready for Shabbat, has captured the attention of many people around the world. France has woken up the dire threat posed to its nation by the growing number of French-born Islamic radicals living on French soil, and in the days following the attacks the world has rallied to their side. The march against terror held last week in Paris was astounding in that it drew numerous world leaders who were first in line to march (the United States government has expressed regret that it failed to send an official of sufficiently high ranking). The image of both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the front of the line, separated by only a few dignitaries, was itself enough to do a double-take (though no conclusions should be drawn that they were, themselves, experiencing a moment of political or personal unity, and their placement on opposite sides of the line so as not to have to encounter each other was surely not accidental).

The attack on the Hyper Cacher market, a target chosen specifically because it was Jewish, has highlighted the plight of French Jewry. At 500,000 strong, French Jews are Europe’s largest Jewish community, and many of them feel that their safety and their lives are threatened. There is good reason for French Jews to feel threatened, as the growing tide of radical Islam has made them a target for violence on numerous occasions. It is no wonder that the largest block of immigrants to Israel has been from France. That French Jews belong in Israel, indeed that the safety and security of any threatened Jewish community around the world can best be assured only in Israel, was the focus of comments by Prime Minister Netanyahu and other Israeli governmental officials, who in their comments on the attack on the Hyper Cacher market beckoned French Jews to come home to Israel. Touchingly, the four victims of the attack on the market were flown to Israel for burial, now their final resting place.

Can Jews survive and thrive without living in Israel? 2,000 years of living without a land of our own have clearly demonstrated that we can. But the history of Diaspora Jewry, while demonstrating that Jews know how to survive, is surely one of oppression, displacement and danger. The near complete destruction of European Jewry during the Holocaust, while unequaled in its scope, was not the only tragedy to befall our people. Throughout Jewish history, we have faced violence and destruction at nearly every turn. Perhaps it should be said that we can survive, but only barely, without a land of our own. In the nearly 67 years of Israel’s existence as a state in the modern era, we have seen countless Jews from Arab lands, from Ethiopia, from the former Soviet Union and from elsewhere around the world find safe haven in the land of the Jewish people. Only a land of our own can guarantee our long term safety and survival.

Perhaps that’s the message in this week’s Parasha, which contains the familiar “Four Promises” made by God to the ancient Israelite people on the eve of their redemption from Egyptian bondage. These four promises are the source for the structure of the Passover Seder, a “talk-feast in Four Acts,” each of which is accompanied by making a blessing over a cup of wine.

Therefore say to the people of Israel, I am the Lord, and (1) I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and (2) I will rid you from their slavery, and (3) I will redeem you with a outstretched arm, and with great judgments; And (4) I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God…(Exodus 6:7)

The Talmudic sages noticed that there was a fifth promise two verses later, but were unsure if it should be grouped with the other four and whether or not the Passover Seder should instead feature five cups of wine. Ultimately, they ordained that a fifth cup of wine be placed on the Seder table for which no blessing should be recited, a cup in honor of Elijah the Prophet, who according to tradition will one day usher in the Messiah and bring with him answers and solutions to problems too hard to solve.

But the fifth promise did not escape the attention of the sages, and it may be the most significant, for it is the promise of a land of our own.

And I will bring you in to the land, which I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it to you for a heritage; I am the Lord. (Exodus 6:8)

It is in the Land of Israel that the Jewish people can fulfill our potential to become a people devoted to the service of God in a focused and effective way. It is in the Land of Israel that we can develop our ideas, our culture, our language, our ways of life. From that hub of creativity, the Jewish people can branch out into the world, confident in who we are and spiritually rooted in the land of our heritage. This is the essence of the passage found in the Siddur that we recite each time the Torah is replaced into the ark—Ki Mi-Tsion Teitzei Torah, U-d’var Adonai Mi-Yerushalayim…From Zion shall Torah come forth, and the word of God from Jerusalem.

Diaspora Jewry, specifically in North America, is strong. But that does not diminish the significance of the State of Israel as the spiritual homeland of our people and its role as a safe haven for the Jewish people, including those from France. That fact behooves us to do whatever it takes to support Israel and to advocate for her needs. To paraphrase the great sage Hillel, if we don’t step up each day in support of Israel, who will?