The term lech lecha appears only twice in the Torah, each with its own meaning. According to the Midrash, the phrase can represent two important elements of our Jewish identity – the lech lecha of Zionism and the lech lecha of Judaism. Which one is more important?
Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin, President of the Schechter Institutes, Inc., explores this phrase and declares that the lech lechas of Judaism and Zionism are not only equally important but equally necessary components to building our Jewish identity.
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Parashat Lech Lecha begins with the famous verse: And God said to Abraham, ‘get you up and go from your land from the place where you were born from the house of your forefathers to the land that I will show you.
In this famous verse, there is a famous Midrash that is found in Bereshit Raba, chapter 39: Rabbi Levi said, it says ‘lech lecha’ twice in the Torah and we do not know which one is dearer or better, the first or the second.
He does not answer his question. In other words, being one of the rabbis of the Talmud who knows the Torah by heart, he knew that lech lecha only appears twice in the entire Torah; once in Genesis chapter 12, when God says to Abraham go to the land of Canaan and once in Genesis chapter 22 when God says to Abraham go to Mount Moriah and sacrifice your son in the story of the Akeida.
Rabbi Levi does not know which one is preferable. However, Rabbi Levi’s words are brought to Bereshit Raba chapter 55. There, we have a different version of his Midrash. Rabbi Levi says “since it says ‘lech lecha, go to Mount Moriah after the first ‘lech lecha,‘” from this, we derive that the second is preferable to the first.
What does Moriah mean? One rabbi says it means ‘hora’a’ which means to teach, to decide halachic matters. Another says it means yereah or fear of the Lord and another says ora which means a place of light coming from God, another one says morah, which means a place where a fear of God dwells.
In other words, the lech lecha of Genesis chapter 12 represents the lech lecha of Zionism and the love of the land of Israel and the lech lecha of Genesis Chapter 22 represents the love of God, Judaism, and in our day, perhaps Jewish education. Rabbi Levi in the second passage says he prefers the second value over the first.
With all due respect, I think both are equally important for the Jewish people.
Last week we had the 38th Zionist Zionist Congress, which was held virtually via Zoom, and as you may know, the first Zionist Congress was founded by Theodore Herzl in Basil in 1897. There’s no question that this was the first step towards the founding of the state of Israel. And indeed, the founding of the state of Israel is one of the great miracles of our entire Jewish history, and the ingathering of exiles is perhaps one of the great miracles of human history.
But the passage, ‘get you up and go from your land to the land of Israel’ – is not enough.
I would like to illustrate the dangers of Zionism alone without Judaism with two stories.
The first one happened to me a number of years ago at Ben Gurion Airport. I stepped up to the check-in counter and the young woman behind the counter saw that it said that I am a professor and she asked me, “a professor of what?” I told her I am a professor of Talmud and she replied, “what is Talmud?” I answered, “It is a work in 20 volumes and contains law and legends and customs.” She then asked, “How is it different from the New Testament?” So, I explained to her some of the differences and she said, “But the Talmud is written in the biblical period?” I said, “No, it was actually written about a thousand years later – didn’t you learn the oral law (which is the rubric of Jewish studies) in your school in the state of Israel?’ And she replied, “We learned it but it wasn’t serious, who remembers?”
The second story happens every year on Yom Ha’atzmaut at the International Bible Quiz. As you may know, this quiz for teenagers was founded in 1964, and in the beginning, secular and religious young people participated in the Bible Quiz. But over the years, the secular teenagers disappeared and it became a Bible Quiz for religious youngsters alone.
Indeed, three years ago when a secular boy won the Bible Quiz, the headline in all of the newspapers was: For the first time in 30 years, the winner of the Bible quiz is a Secular Jew!
How could it be that the Bible, The book of the people of The Book, has turned into a book for religious people only?
This is what happens when most Jews of the land of Israel learn the lech lecha of Zionism but they don’t learn the lech lecha of Judaism.
On the other hand, we have many Haredim, ultra-Orthodox Jews, in the state of Israel who assiduously learn the lech lecha of Judaism but do not learn the lech lecha of Zionism. This is why we have some 60,000 yeshiva students who do not serve in the army, many of them never learning a profession or earning a living because they only believe in the lech lecha of Judaism without the lech lecha of Zionism.
To both of these groups, I say in the words of Ahad Ha’am: This is not the right way.
Rabbi Levi was right in Bereshit Raba chapter 39. We do not know which is more important, because they are both equally important.
Zionism without Judaism is only half the story. Judaism without Zionism is also only half of the story. We must teach our children both the lech lecha of Zionism and Judaism,
This is exactly what we have been trying to do at the Schechter Institutes for 36 years. At the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, in the TALI school system, Neve Schechter in Tel Aviv and our Midreshet Yerushalayim network in Ukraine.
I hope that in the near future, every Jewish child in Israel and the diaspora will learn that both lech lechas of Zionism and Judaism are equally dear.
David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.