The Numbers:13 Project
Moses instructed the Israelites, saying: This is the land you are to receive by lot as your hereditary portion, which the LORD has commanded to be given to the nine and a half tribes. Numbers 34:13
I know that it is improper to reference Woody Allen these days, but sometimes no one else will do. Sue me.
In “Love and Death,” he narrates his father’s obsession with small piece of ancestral land – so small, he was able to carry it with him. The gag recurs (including the Lego-size house that his father builds on the hunk of sod), and Boris (Allen) makes fun of the delusion.
This lampoon of humankind’s attachment to real estate is worth some reflection. Very little in the human experience rivals the possessiveness we feel as individuals, families and national groups to physical territory. The whole of the story of the Israelites in the Five Books of Moses is about our place in The Land. The rest of the Bible, and even beyond, concerns itself with exile and return, exile and return from and to The Land. The liturgy Jews developed to recite three times a day and after every meal and in triumphant proclamation on Yom Kippur and Passover yearns for a return to The Land. The Israeli national anthem, not to mention the theme from the movie “Exodus,” affirm that it is not enough just to be free. We must be free in Our Land (which God gave to me).
And that’s just the Jews.
How many wars have been fought among Christians and among Muslims and between Christians and Muslims over land? And this territorial imperative is not limited to the Abrahamic faiths. On every continent, except maybe Antarctica, faith groups and sub-groups, tribes and clans, peoples of various coloration and real estate moguls have waged conflict with whatever weapons were available in order to secure exclusive control over what they hope to inhabit and/or control.
Viscerally, I understand it. I am a homeowner, and though the piece of land that is mine is a little too large to carry around with me, I feel a connection to My Land that is distinct from everywhere else I go. That feeling is not the same for me anywhere else. I suspect that the former residents have transferred their land-connection to their current homes, but they will always feel the attachment in some way, as I do to Francisco Avenue in Chicago or Clapboard Ridge Road in Danbury. Some of me is in that land, and some of that land is in me.
But intellectually, I struggle with the concept. What is it about a particular piece of real estate that has such a hold on a person or a people? We have a tendency to speak in near-mystical terms about our land but, asked to explain it, we are reduced to waving our hands and relying on metaphor and memory. If I had to give up strawberries, I would be satisfied with blueberries, but I would fight tooth and nail to retain my home, even if offered a nicer place not of my own choosing. I cannot tell you why, but you likely understand.
So much of our sense of security is attached to the land. On the southern border of the United States, on the west bank of the Jordan River, in the Crimea and in so many other places, we insist that the issues have to do with the rule of law or military preparedness or historical authenticity, but it is really about land. It is as if everyone acknowledges that the Bible is accurate when, in the very beginning of the narrative, it connects the formation of the human being (or, as one of my professors preferred, “the earthling”) from the very dust of the earth. Though legend has that dust combining from the four corners (as if) of the earth, individuals and the groups we form seem to believe we have been filled with a very particular patch of earth.
Astronauts train for an existence that is without terra firma beneath them. Some believe they are paving the way for humanity’s eventual departure from this planet, once we have used up the resources that sustain us. I wonder if we will export our fixation on the land with us, or if somehow we will wean ourselves off of this inexplicable obsession.
If we do, I would not be surprised to encounter an old man with a piece of land in his coat pocket, a tiny home clinging to it, that he is willing to defend even at the cost of his life.