They Lied to Me in Hebrew School: Parasha Shelakh Lekha

Comedian Seth Rogan 

A couple of years ago, the actor and comedian Seth Rogan caused consternation across the Jewish world, when, in an interview, he asserted that as a student in Hebrew school he had been “fed a huge amount of lies about Israel….. They never tell you that ‘Oh, by the way, there were people there’. They make it seem like it was just like sitting there, like the door’s ….open.” Rogan acknowledged the pervasive and prevalent presence of antisemitism, but then questioned the wisdom of a Jewish state idea from the standpoint of Jewish Survival. “You don’t keep something you are trying to preserve all in one place,” he said. 

Let’s entertain Seth Rogan’s position for a moment.  Jews spread out around the world increase the likelihood that if one community is destroyed other communities survive. Interesting.  For others, however, Israel is the very symbol of safety and security. Life in the Diaspora, they claim, is unstable, precarious, and full of peril for Jews and Jewish communities. As Tevye holds forth in “Fiddler on the Roof”:

“But here in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home…”

In this view, the State of Israel gives the would-be residents of Anetevka and other places like it the choice of having a new home, one perhaps not quite as dangerous and perilous, one in which one can do more than scratch out a life and a living, one in which Jews could live in dignity and prosperity. . But Seth Rogan is saying, and many may agree with him, that putting all of our Jewish eggs in one basket is way too risky. 


For others, statehood and political sovereignty are distractions from the higher calling of Judaism to be a vehicle for “the redemption of the human spirit and the salvation of the world”.

In this view, Judaism has flourished, grown, and changed through a rich exchange with our non-Jewish neighbors with whom we have  lived side by side for the past 2000 years. In exile we have lived by our texts and developed rich values and a Torah perspective on life.  Being mired in the day-to-day details of running a sovereign country and the compromises in values that running a nation state involves surely interferes with fulfilling the lofty values to which Judaism aspires. 

In this week’s Torah portion, we get yet another insight into the meaning of Israel for Jews. The Israelites are on the border with Canaan. Moses sends 12 scouts to reconnoiter the land. When the scouts return, ten of them report that it will be too difficult to conquer the Land. Upon hearing this, the Israelites rebel. They want to return to the safety of Egypt, the security of slavery. Upon hearing this, two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, tear their clothing and urge the people onward. “We can conquer the Land,” they exhort, “Have faith in God.” But the people ignore their pleas. 

What is the meaning of Joshua and Caleb tearing their clothing? It is a sign of mourning, of devastating loss. Later on, when the Israelites realize the gravity of their refusal to enter the Land of Canaan, they too go into mourning.  

When do we go into mourning? When we have lost someone dear to us. To this day clothing, or a symbolic substitute such as a ribbon worn on the clothing, are torn when our nearest and dearest on earth lay dead before us at the funeral. This is called “keriya”. The tear is made on the left side, above the heart, for our parents and on the right side for the five other relatives for whom mourning is obligatory. When Jacob believes that his dearest son Joseph has been killed by wild beasts, the Torah tells us he tears his clothing. Here, Joshua and Caleb tear their clothing and the entire People of Israel go into deep mourning over the loss of the Land of Canaan in their generation. 

This then gives us a hint about how important the Land of Israel is to the Jewish People. What, after all, are God’s first words to Abraham when he appears to him? “Lech Lecha – Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, from your fathers house to the land that I will show you.” There, in the Land of Israel, God promises to make Abraham into a great nation. If I were a deity wanting to begin a relationship with a 75 year old man, the very last thing I would ask of him is to move his family thousands of miles away to a land I will show him when he gets there!  But so important is the Land to the relationship between God and the future Jewish people that God starts there with Abraham. 

When the Jewish people are liberated from Egypt, it is not simply so that they can no longer be slaves. It is not simply so that they can receive the Torah. The entire point of the liberation is that Moses will lead them to the Land that God promised to their ancestors. The Jewish people, the Torah and the Land of Israel is a three legged stool upon which the covenant is based. One without the other two does not work. Many of the commandments cannot be performed outside of the Land of Israel. The sages even go so far as to say that those who live outside of the Land of Israel have no God! All this is to say that, in this view, the Land of Israel is inextricably connected to Torah and the Jewish People. This is why Caleb and Joshua tear their clothing. This is why the Israelites go into deep mourning. Losing the opportunity to settle the Land was spiritual death. They believed that Judaism could not survive, that the promise to Abraham could not be fulfilled without establishing sovereignty in the Land. 

Although we did not have sovereignty over the Land for our 2000 years in exile, the hope – Ha Tikvah –  of a return to the Land was kept alive generation after generation in the Diaspora. The return to the Land of Israel in our times is therefore seen, by those who hold this view, as nothing less than the first step in God’s redemptive plan for humanity as a whole. The return of the People of Israel to the Land of Israel thus has profound religious significance. Or as one Rabbi recently put it, “Without Zionism there is no Judaism”. 

Where do you stand – what do you believe? Do you believe that the “ingathering of the exiles” represents an existential threat to the Jewish people, as Seth Rogan opined? Or is the State of Israel the last best hope of the Jewish People for survival in a hostile world? Is having a State and exercising Jewish sovereignty a “distraction” from our mission, or is it the best way to fulfill it? Does the modern State of Israel have religious significance for Judaism, and the world, or is it merely a political means for exercising Jewish power and self-determination? Perhaps you believe a little bit of all of these. It is from understanding the questions that intelligent conversation can begin.

Shabbat Shalom