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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Parashat Behar: “My Faith, My Land, My Name”

by Rabbi Yehuda Hausman (Posted on May 23, 2024)
Topics: Behar, Sefer Vayikra, Torah

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And God spoke to Moses at Mt. Sinai saying:
Speak to the children of Israel and say to them:
When you come into the Land that I give you,
The Land shall keep a Sabbath to the Lord.
(Vayikra 25.1-2)

The opening verses of this week’s portion are like stage directions for a play. The setting is Mt. Sinai. The characters are God, Moses, and the Children of Israel. But the content is not a drama unfolding in the desert, but a lesson in the laws that will reign once Israel enters the Promised Land: laws for the Seventh Year and laws for the Fiftieth Year; Laws for Levitical cities and laws for lending and luckless farmers.

The passages anticipate a change in self-identity. The Nation shall become much more than the Children of a man named Israel. They will become the Children of a land of the same name.

“I am the Lord your God.
Who took you from the Land of Egypt,
to give you the Land of Canaan,
to be unto you a God.” (Vayikra 25.38)

This is the story of Am Yisrael. In Egypt, we became a nation. In the wilderness, we found our faith. In the Land of Israel, we found a home. This is the tale we recite every Passover, as we’ve done for 3,300 years. Yet we have another name and another story that is only slightly less ancient. We are not just the People of Israel, we are also the Jewish People.

About 2,700 years ago, in the year 722 BCE, the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrian Empire. Most of the inhabitants, the ‘Ten Lost Tribes’, were forcefully relocated. The rest fled south and were absorbed in the southern Kingdom of Judah. This precipitated a national name change. In their respective tongues, first the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Romans called us Yehudim—Jews. Though a far better translation would be Judeans.

Unlike the German (and Middle French) Jude, the ‘d’ was carelessly dropped by the Normans as they crossed the choppy English Channel. Thus, one may forgive the Anglo who assumes that a Jew is someone who practices Judaism. Not exactly. A Jew is a person who traces his or her ancestry to Judea, where the local faith was aptly named Judaism. Josephus, writing in Greek, used the term “Ioudaismos” (Ἰουδαϊσμός). This is our second story. Driven from the land by Babylonians and then again by the Romans, Jews bore on their backs this Judean faith as they spread to every corner of the globe.

Though the Nation of Israel and the Jewish People are one and the same, in recent months, I have thought a great deal more about the latter. Over Passover, I ventured twice to UCLA to visit its anti-Israel “encampment”. For thirty years, I’ve enjoyed UCLA events, classes, recreation facilities, and extensive libraries. So, the hubris of young aspirational Guy Fawkeses and Che Guevaras harassing students and dictating where Jews could and could not go, I found personally offensive.

The activists first pitched a dozen tents on a wide lawn in front of the magnificent red-brick facade of Royce Hall. Two weeks later, it was a military stockade. Tall, overlapping, wooden boards and heavy railings compassed a four-sided fortress. Canopies, tarpaulins, and beach umbrellas blocked air surveillance. Masked sentinels stood guard at the gates. When I approached, they barred entry with their bodies. The kippah and lack of keffiyeh were surely my undoing.

Even as the exterior grew increasingly fortified, the messages displayed within and without remained visible and vehement. It was disheartening to see the countless posters and scrawled graffiti libeling “ZioNazis” for fabricated crimes. Yet I found some satisfaction in black-lettered banners declaring the encampment’s occupants “Anti-Zionist, Not Anti-Jewish.”

Ironically, every anti-Zionist who utters the word Jew unknowingly reminds us of our origins. All the wishful thinking in the world cannot change the simple truth that Zion was the name of that Jerusalem hilltop around which those Judeans built their capital.

Introducing myself on a Pickleball court, recently, I got a familiar question: “Ya-hoo-da?? What kind of name is that?” Dismissing the usual responses, I grinned and said, “It’s Judean.”

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