When it comes to our birthright, we have not only inherited Israel from our forefathers, we are borrowing it from our children.
Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe designs and manufactures some of the world’s most expensive timepieces. Their advertisements brilliantly capture the imagination of high end customers with the tag line, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe, you merely look after it for the next generation.” Patek Philippe is not merely selling a watch, they are offering an heirloom that will stay in the family for generations as a precious birthright.
This week’s Torah portion tells the tale of Jacob and Esau, twin brothers who could not have been more different. Esau is described as “a cunning hunter, a man of the field,” while “Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents.” (Genesis 25:27) It is therefore surprising to see that the simple, pious Jacob seemingly tricks his devious brother into selling him the birthright of the eldest son for a bowl of lentil stew. Jacob and his mother Rebecca go to great lengths to make sure that the precious birthright bypasses Esau and cements Jacob’s role as the spiritual heir of Abraham and Isaac.
The notion of the Jewish birthright has taken on new significance in recent years. In 1994, Jewish leaders started a new initiative aimed at strengthening the bonds between young Jews and the Land of Israel, calling their program, ‘Birthright’. So far, over 360,000 young Jews from all over the world have come to Israel on a Birthright trip. At a time when so many young Jews feel apathy or estrangement towards Israel, Birthright is connecting young Jews with their homeland. In fact, the program is so successful, that a parallel Christian initiative has been proposed to enhance young Christians’ connections to their own religious heritage in the birthplace of their religion. Wouldn’t it be great if thousands of Christian youth came each year to Israel to connect with the Holy Land in a meaningful way while uncovering the Hebraic roots of their faith on a ‘Birthright for Christians’ program?
While the Jewish people were Divinely blessed with many spiritual gifts, it is the Land of Israel is that is truly our greatest birthright. In Hebrew there are two words that refer to a bequest: מורשה/mo-ra-SHA “inheritance” and ירושה/ye-roo-SHA “heritage”. While in English these two words are virtually synonymous, the Bible distinguishes between the two. The language of Biblical Hebrew is amazingly precise and the use of different words clearly suggests a difference in meaning.
Deuteronomy 2 describes the Children of Israel passing through the wilderness on their way towards the Promised Land. God tells the people in verse 5 not to stray into the territory of the local inhabitants, “for as an inheritance (“yerusha”) to the children of Esau have I given Mount Seir”. Similarly, “you shall not distress Moab and you shall not provoke war with them, for I shall not give you an inheritance (“yerusha”) from their land, for to the children of Lot have I given Ar as an inheritance (“yerusha”). And finally, in verse 19, “you shall not distress the children of Ammon and not provoke them, for I shall not give any of the land of the children of Ammon to you as an inheritance (“yerusha”), for to the children of Lot have I given it as an inheritance (“yerusha”).
Five times the word “yerusha” is used to describe particular regions of the wilderness, the inheritance of our Biblical cousins, the children of Esau, Moab, Lot and Ammon. Contrast this term with the very similar, but very different word used to describe the heritage of the Children of Israel in Exodus (6:8) which states, “I shall bring you to the Land about which I raised My hand to give it to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and I shall give it to you as a heritage (“morasha”).
While in English the two words might have the same meaning, in Biblical Hebrew, an “inheritance” (yerusha) is passed along from the previous generation, while a “heritage” (“morasha”) is something we are entrusted with to protect for the next generation. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, founder of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, explains that while “an inheritance may be squandered, a heritage must be preserved intact for the next generation. This will certainly explain why Morasha is used in our verse with regards to the Land of Israel.”
In 1948, after two thousand years of exile, we miraculously returned to our land, our heritage. Now God is watching to see how we take care of our birthright. Are we squandering it away like an irresponsible teenager who just inherited a lump sum of cash? This week, the Israeli government released 26 violent Palestinian terrorists as part of a peace deal brokered by the US to bring the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table so that we can give away more of our land to our enemies. We are treating our precious “morasha” as if it is merely a “yerusha,” with grave consequences.
In Genesis 25, Esau despised his birthright and sells his heritage for a bowl of stew. His twin brother Jacob on the other hand, valued the promise God gave to their father Isaac and grandfather, Abraham. As the patriarch of the twelve tribes of Israel, Jacob understood that a birthright is a heritage to be cared for and passed on to future generations. As descendants of Jacob, the State of Israel is the birthright of the Jewish people and the source of connection for so many thousands of young Jewish students. All those who recognize this birthright, both Jew and Christian Zionist, can help support Israel and preserve it for future generations. We must always remember, that when it comes to our birthright, we have not only inherited Israel from our forefathers, we are borrowing it from our children.