Taken collectively, the commands of the Torah are a prescription for the construction of a society with the consciousness of God at its center. God asks the Jewish people to become a role model for humanity by the shape and texture of the society they build, a society characterized by justice and the rule of law, welfare and concern for the poor, the marginal, the vulnerable and the weak, a society in which all would have equal dignity under the sovereignty of God. Such a society would win the admiration, and eventually the emulation, of others:
See, I have taught you decrees and laws … so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of. Observe them carefully, for this will be your wisdom and understanding to the nations who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” … What other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today? (Deuteronomy 4:5-8)
A society needs a land, a home, a location in space, where a nation can shape its own destiny in accord with its deepest aspirations and ideals. Jews have been around for a long time, almost four thousand years since Abraham began his journey. During that period they have lived in every country on the face of the earth, under good conditions and bad, freedom and persecution. Yet in all that time there was only one place where they formed a majority and exercised sovereignty, the land of Israel, a tiny country of difficult terrain and all too little rainfall, surrounded by enemies and empires.
Only in Israel is the fulfillment of the commands a society-building exercise, shaping the contours of a culture as a whole.
Only in Israel can we fulfill the commands in a land, a landscape and a language saturated with Jewish memories and hopes.
Only in Israel does the calendar track the rhythms of the Jewish year. In Israel Judaism is part of the public square, not just the private, sequestered space of synagogue, school and home.
Jews need a land because they are a nation charged with bringing the Divine presence down to earth in the shared spaces of our collective life, not least – as the last chapter of Parshat Acharei Mot makes clear – by the way we conduct our most intimate relationships, a society in which marriage is sacrosanct and sexual fidelity the norm.
That contains a message for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. To Christians and Muslims it says: If you believe in the God of Abraham, grant that the children of Abraham have a right to the land that the God in whom you believe promised them, and to which He promised that after exile they would return.
To Jews it says: That very right comes hand-in-hand with a duty to live individually and collectively by the standards of justice and compassion, fidelity and generosity, love of neighbor and of stranger, that alone constitute our mission and destiny: a holy people in the holy land.
Adapted from “Covenant & Conversation,” a collection of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s parshiyot hashavua essays, to be published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem (www.korenpub.com), in conjunction with the Orthodox Union. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth since 1991, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Koren Sacks Rosh HaShana Mahzor” (Koren Publishers Jerusalem).