Your Land is Not Your Land: Word #30

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I rent. I’ve been a renter of real estate for my entire adult life.


No ideology – partially for practical finances, partially because I am often between Israel and the US – a foot in each world upon this earth. Where is home? both here and there. I am aware, and constantly reminded, that this is not the wisest fiscal choice, and nowadays, with some savings, can actually start to envision and plan for a modest purchase and investment in a home, but on the whole, right now,  I am a renter, and there is a great deal of freedom that comes with that.



In some way this is the ancient legacy of my people. The word Ivri – Hebrew – comes from the verb ‘ever’- crossing over, transient – the nomadic lifestyle, no attachment, pick up and go when it’s time to do so.  This has to do with how we live within, and not just with where we live and why.


The tension between nomad and settler, home owner and temporary dweller, citizen and migrant,  is as old as the human race for prosperity, property and progress.


It’s been a Jewish tension for as long as we remember, extended over exiles and diasporas, temporary homes turned into new homelands – from Babylon to Brooklyn. 

And this is the tension that is making the promised land into the land of sour, bitter, painful quarrels, every single day.  Is the price of the promise too high?


Just this week, a Jewish settler, father of five,  was stabbed to death by a Palestinian man at a junction in the West Bank. In response, raging settlers torched fields and homes, smashed cars and attacked several Palestinians, at least one of whom, a Palestinian street cleaner, father of 4, is in critical condition.


There are many layers for this rage but the ownership of land is at the heart of the matter.


Also this week, without much media attention, Israel’s supreme court granted the Israeli Government’s request to postpone the evacuation of the tiny settlement of Amona, scheduled for this week.

Amona, located in the heart of the West Bank, is an outpost founded illegally in 1995 on primarily privately owned Palestinian land. The name comes from the Book of Joshua, where Kfar Ha’Ammonai is mentioned – the village of the Ammonites – a reminder of the local indigenous Canaanites that were wiped out by the invading Israelites, as instructed by Moses.


In February 2006 the Supreme Court ordered the dismantlement of the nine permanent homes built in Amona. Thousands of protesters gathered and clashed with Israeli army and police when the time came for the demolition and eviction. The violent clashes, with more than 300 wounded, surpassed all previous clashes between the security forces of the State of Israel and civilians, including the 2005 unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip.


The government recognized the illegal use of Palestinian land in the majority of the Amona area, though some of the settlers are contesting this. Under the Supreme Court’s ruling the evacuation of the entire settlement was scheduled for April 2013. The most recent postponement comes so that the new government can have time to reorganize. The judges were severe in their ruling that this delay is ‘beyond the measure of the law’ and set the date for July 15 2013 – I don’t know if they knew that it is Tisha B’av – the fast that commemorate the destruction of the Jewish temples and the exile of the nation.


Not smart timing.


Who knows what will transpire in the political corridors before this actually happens – or not. But the Amona story is just one of many. And with no solution in sight, it seems to me, and to many others that the only way out of this lockdown is a new approach to the ownership, use, and attitude towards land.



Imagine a world in which nobody owns land. We all rent. None of us are land owners, all of us are temporary dwellers, modest guests of planet earth.


Roll your eyes and flip the channel – but this is not a new idea – it is in fact a Bibilal idea.  Even if it was not ever fully implmented. I mean, lets face it: Real estate is a big business for Jews and the real story behind it is very old and pretty complex – and you can find glimpses of it in this week’s Torah text – B’har B’chukotai, which describes the vision for a healthy society, living on earth, rooted in justice. The secret is in the details of the cycles of seven – every seven days we pause, every seven years is a fallow year, a chance to let the land rest and the people too; every seven cycles of seven is the jubilee – all homes go back to the original owner, debts are free, we start again.

It’s a radical notion. God, as recorded by Moses, could not be clearer:


And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is Mine; and you are visitors and temporary dwellers upon it, along with me.  

Lev. 25:23

Imagine that – in a close reading of this verse it seems that even God is no owner- the very notion of the Divine is not rooted in the ownership of land: the security and peace of mind comes not from deeds for the home – it comes from the trust that nothing is permanent, and yet a roof is sheltering us at night, protecting us from the rain, from foe, from fear and cold and hatred.

Imagine a world in which we are all renters, with the mindset that takes away the wars that ravage our sacred earth, in so many ways, every single day.  It changes the way we say ‘mine’. It let us say ‘ours’. Can that change the reality on the ground in the Middle East? All over the planet? In your own home?

Can this radical mindset change the crisis that is threatening to turn the dream of a Jewish homeland into a nightmare for all involved? Can it alter the way greed it destroying earth? 

What will it take to change our attitude about ownership and use of land? towards the most appropriate relationship with property?

I’m writing this on a plane, far from land, on my way from Israel to NYC, about to launch a congregation that at least for now is homeless by design – a pop-up, renting, transient sanctuary that celebrates the fact that we are always on the go, Hebrews through and through. 

Beyond brick and mortar there is, perhaps, another vision waiting to happen, a way for the sacred to aspire, for us to ascend to the highest potential of our being, while deeply rooting us in the gravity of here and now.


In the diverse ecosystem we live in – there’s room for all: homeowners and renters, feudal lords and homeless people, settlers and wanderers. If only we were able to heed the word of Leviticus and find ways to let go, detach, be kinder to each other, to the earth that is home.  It is one earth – belonging to all. The word Earth is even  the same word in Hebrew and English, and in Arabic too. 


For the people of Palestine fighting for their homes,  for those reading the Torah as the road map for establishing a holy land, committed to their truth and faith; for all of us fighting to occupy a new reality of justice on earth, roomates and neighbors, future partners in being stewards of life on earth: May we culitivate the landscaope of love, Leviticus style, and learn how to live together better. 


shabbat shalom.

Amichai Lau-Lavie
Interim Executive Director
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Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.

Cut to the Chase: Moses, James Bond, Drama in DC: Word 25

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.




On the evening before Seder my father and I watch Skyfall, the latest James Bond movie, on their home TV. He used to like action flicks, and with all the cooking going on in the kitchen it seemed like the perfect diversion.
I’ve not a big fan of gunblazing action but found myself riveted, towel in hand, matza balls waiting, sitting next to him and narrating some of what’s going on (‘no, that’s not the bad guy – he’s the good guy’) and tensing up with each and every chase scene. There are lots.  
“Did you like it?” I ask him later, he shrugs – it was OK. But later, when he’s getting ready to go upstairs he says to me: ‘good guys don’t always win.”

The next night we sit around the Seder table, intimate, just 8 of us, I get to lead, and skip around the hagada to focus on the key issues,  cut to the chase: What about this exodus story is important, meaningful, helpful to us today? Beyond the preservation of national legend, our master story – what here is useful to our personal soul journeys, our struggles with what holds us back and what helps us be more free?

Not everyone in my family is into the psychological rendering of passover, but they’re with me so far. Inspired by Skyfall I go to the chase scene, which is only alluded to in the classical hagada but is the one biblical quote I choose to read verbatim, trying to make the story as tense and anxiety provoking as the best of Bond:

“And the Egyptians chased them,  horses and chariots of Pharaoh, the army, and overtook them encamping by the sea..

The children of Israel looked up..and were terrified, and cried out to God, and yelled at Moses: There were not enough graves in Egypt?? We told you back in Egypt – leave us alone! It would have better for us to stay slaves in Egypt rather than die here in this wilderness.”(Ex. 14:9-12)It’s great text. Also chosen to be the Torah reading on the Sabbath of Passover. Much has been written on this first official Jewish National reaction to crisis: a sarcastic joke and terrified refusal of risk. What does this reaction tell us about our ancestors, about ourselves and our own choices?

What does it tell us about the fear that chases us on our fleeing from where we’re stuck to greater inner freedom.

“Imagine that you are in that chase scene,” I ask the Seder guests, well into our 2nd (really 4th) wine refill, “Who are you?  What’s your reaction? What will you do?”

We get into it: One of us will fight, two will hide, two will pray, three will run ahead into the sea.

The conversation drifted to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the new government, Iran, Syria, religious extremism, digital overdose and global warming: what are our different reactions to crisis, to change, when danger is on us like a hostile army? As individuals, as nations? Are we like the ancient children of Israel sarcastic and fearful of the future or do we leap into the sea and risk it all for progress? Or somewhere in between?

Right from Seder (‘best ever’  tweeted by niece) into the supreme court drama in DC. It’s not exactly a chase scene but there’s bad guys and good guys, and whatever happens in these next weeks and months this is certainly another major milestone in the public liberation project of the American people.  here, too, the reactions to major change, to the call for ‘exodus’ are telling – the choice to stick to familiar narratives and fears or go for a more complex but equalizing reality, with more dignity for all. The Phraonic forces are chasing, and who knows, in this version of the saga, they may still get the good guys. Like my father said – good guy doesn’t always win.

The chase is on.

Here’s hoping, praying, trusting that the good guys win, that not many get hurt in the chase, that progress will overcome the tyranny of terror.

Not just for James Bond, or for Moses, in blockbusters of biblical proportions and sacred myths of old –   but also in courts of justice – i hope that our master stories  will hopefully guide us to a much more promised land.

Happy Passover, Shabbat Shalom


Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.