It was supposed to have been a quick trip. Even on foot, from Egypt to the Promised Land should not have taken more than a few weeks. But there were delays. An unprovoked attack by Amalek; a detour to a mountain called Sinai; waiting for Moses to return; a Golden Calf; a massive construction project – to name but a few. The camp was finally organized and the marching order (complete with travel signals) were set. The Israelites were finally on their way to complete their long-awaited journey.
As they start moving, Moses turns to his father-in-law (some say his brother-in-law), Hovav, and invites him to join them. “Travel with us and we will do good for you, for God has spoken of good things for Israel.” Much to his surprise, Hovav refuses the invitation. “I will not go! Rather, I will go to my land and my people!”
At first glance, Moses’ words are welcoming and generous. He not only invites Hovav to join, but promises that the Israelites will take good care of him. When we pause to consider his words, however, they offer a significant clue to Hovav’s refusal.
True, Moses’ invitation is generous, but the very fact that he invited Hovav reveals that in his mind, Hovav needed to be invited. There was no assumption that Hovav, who was apparently with the Israelites and began their journey with them, was part of them. In Moses ’ eyes Hovav was an outsider, and Moses’ words revealed that attitude to Hovav himself. That same attitude is compounded by the magnanimous offer to do good for Hovav, for God had “spoken of good things for Israel.” The “good” that God had promised to Israel was clearly not meant to include Hovav, but Moshe and the Israelites would be generous by sharing some of it with him.
Moses’ words stung, and Hovav refuses his invitation. He wants to be in a place that he can call his own and with a people who consider him to be one of them. He does not want to be a welcome guest, but a native in his own land.
The spring season on the Jewish calendar is filled with events of profound national significance – from the Exodus through the contemporary national days marking both the profound Jewish national tragedies and triumphs of the twentieth century. For many centuries Jews were guests in the land of others – sometimes welcome guests, sometimes tolerated guests, and sometimes unwelcome. And even in the most welcoming of societies where we were given full equality, we were not made citizens because of our Jewishness but despite it. It is in this season that we commemorate millennia of tragedy resulting from our statelessness and celebrate the reversal – the return to Israel to restore a state of our own – one in which we are natives because of who we are, one in which the national challenges beckon a Jewish response, one in which we will play an active role to chart our destiny.