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The Promised Land

Updated: Apr 23



I largely avoid the news. When I think about it, I feel guilty. I think I should be embodying Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (Guanyin in Chinese, Kannon in Japanese), listening with a thousand ears to all the sorrows of the Universe. But of course, the news that I have access to comes through the news feeds and is predigested for me.


It’s only upsetting. So, I try to avoid it, but the news of the violence in Gaza breaks through. It feels like a Greek tragedy. I cannot see anything good happening in this story. I am not seeing how Israel can survive in a continuous war with its neighbors. And then where will we Jews be safe when all the world turns against us again?


Growing up, I had no Jewish education. I never studied Torah. I grew up singing, “Go Down, Moses.” The Negro spiritual, -- that’s what it was called when I was a kid, -- was included in the folk song anthology which my father sang from. I learned to play guitar myself from that anthology when I was in 9th grade. 


I didn’t understand. “Let my people go.” I thought those were Moses’ words, confronting the Pharaoh. I was proud that he was Jewish. I was proud that he had seemed a hero to enslaved black people.


I could have paid more attention. “Tell Old Pharaoh, let my people go.” The voice of God instructing Moses.


I have been reading Exodus, reading slowly, the story of bondage and liberation and the story of the promised land. I did grow up with this story, first in the old spiritual but eventually in the Seder liturgy, in the Passover story. I always loved the story because it seemed to me that our experience of bondage and liberation was the source of our compassion for all those who were struggling against bondage. I was proud that Jews were so prominent in support of the Civil Rights Movement, when even a Great Neck rabbi joined a Freedom Ride. 


But in the news, which is breaking through my barricades, the Palestinians in Gaza are looking so much like the black folks of “Go down, Moses,” so much like the enslaved Jews of the first part of Exodus


What I am reading seems important to understanding the suffering in Gaza today. I have been reading and rereading 34:11-12. God is speaking to Moses.


Be-you-watchful

of what I command you today!

Here, I am driving out before you

the Amorite, the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivvite, and the Yevusite, --

keep-you-watch,

lest you cut a covenant

with the settled folk of the land against which you are coming,

lest they become a snare among you.


I could be wrong, but I am hearing in these words the seeds of the Gaza trouble, and I am frightened. Here I am seeing the roots of the Greek tragedy called Israel. I am imagining it written by Euripides.


As I am reading Exodus, my copy of the Lotus Sutra is on the shelf next to me. Is there irony in this? In the Lotus Sutra, there is the story of the Golden City. The pilgrims are following a guide on the path to peace and joy when overwhelmed by the hardships of the journey, they refuse to go further. Their guide points in the distance to a Golden City on a far-off hill. “There it is, the Golden City.” The pilgrims take strength from this sight and are able to continue their journey, finally arriving at the Golden City. Exhausted they collapse. This is heaven on earth. What is the guide talking about when he tells them to pack up, that it’s time to move on?


The guide explains. “When I pointed to the Golden City, you needed a visible destination in order to go on. You’ve made it this far, but this is not Nirvana (the place of peace and joy). It’s time to move on.” 


The Exodus story is also the story of an arduous journey. It is the story which I can picture being told to exhausted people, talking of turning back to enslavement. That’s how hard the desert was. I am imagining the story of the Promised Land as the Jewish version of the Golden City. It is important for the people to continue, not to collapse in the desert, not give up in the face of hardship only to return to bondage in Egypt. To continue, they need hope. For the Jews, too, perhaps hope was to be found in the vision of a destination. 


Israel is the promised land. What if it is also the Golden City? Where would we go from here? What seems more evident every day, even to someone like me who is trying to avoid the news, is the place in which we have arrived is not Nirvana. Is it the Golden City?  

Possibly, I am trying to read too much Zen into my Jewish heritage. There is no Golden City. In Zen, there is no end to the journey, no end to practice. Possibly, there is no promised land.

Maybe now it is our time to learn to live in peace with our neighbors. But that will not be the Golden City either. It probably won’t be the promised land. There is no end to practice. What’s next? 


Funny, the answer arising sounds like a cliché. “God only knows.” And maybe aside from Golden City stories, God isn’t telling.


Genesis and Exodus, A New English Rendition, translated with commentary and notes by Everett Fox (New York, Schocken Books, 1986): p.422.

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