Behar/Bechukotai- A Land of Loyalty

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Based on a d’var torah by Rav Chaim Jachter, a rebbe of mine and author of the Gray Matter series

Parshat Bechukotai features quite possibly one of the scariest parts of the entire Chumash; the תוכחה (admonition), where the Jewish Nation is warned of what can and will happen if they don’t follow מצות and don’t listen to G-d’s commands. However, this horrifying warning ends on a happy note, a “silver lining” in an otherwise chilling admonition:

וְאַף-גַּם-זֹאת בִּהְיוֹתָם בְּאֶרֶץ אֹיְבֵיהֶם, לֹא מְאַסְתִּים וְלֹא גְעַלְתִּים לְכַלֹּתָם לְהָפֵר בְּרִיתִי, אִתָּם כִּי אֲנִי ה’, אֱלֹקיהֶם

Despite this, even when they’ll be in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them nor destroy them, to stop my covenant with them, for I am Hashem their G-d (ויקרא כ”ו: מ”ד).

Even when we are at worst, spiritually and physically exhausted in the exile, in the “land of our enemies,” and all seems lost, G-d will hold up His end of the “bargain” and won’t abandon us. In light of this,  the תוכחה seems less like a horrifying warning, and more like a promise- one that has  its positive parts and negative parts, but a promise nonetheless. With this perspective, the רמב”ן sheds a different light on a previous פסוק in the תוכחה:

וַהֲשִׁמֹּתִי אֲנִי, אֶת-הָאָרֶץ; וְשָׁמְמוּ עָלֶיהָ אֹיְבֵיכֶם, הַיֹּשְׁבִים בָּהּ.

I will desolate the land and your enemies who live there will not prosper there (שם כ”ו: ל”ב)

What initially sounds like a horrible fate for our Promised Land ends up being a blessing in disguise- while בני ישראל will be in the גלות, in “ארץ אויביהם,” the Land of Israel will patiently await our return, not letting any other nation settle there and cultivate the land, especially “our enemies.” רמב”ן writes that from this promise, we see the uniqueness of ארץ הקודש- that it can at one point be a fertile land “flowing with milk and honey,” yet it becomes desolate when its rightful owners leave it. Based on his perspective in the 12th Century, it was obvious to רמב”ן that this promise has been fulfilled as no nation had had any success in settling and cultivating ארץ ישראל since the time of חורבן בית שני. Centuries later, this idea was echoed by non-Jewish author Mark Twain as he recounts his travels through the Middle East in Innocents Abroad:

“Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies. Where Sodom and Gomorrah reared their domes and towers, that solemn sea now floods the plain, in whose bitter waters no living thing exists — over whose waveless surface the blistering air hangs motionless and dead – about whose borders nothing grows but weeds, and scattering tufts of cane, and that treacherous fruit that promises refreshment to parching lips, but turns to ashes at the touch. Nazareth is forlorn; about that ford of Jordan where the hosts of Israel entered the Promised Land with songs of rejoicing, one finds only a squalid camp of fantastic Bedouins of the desert; Jericho the accursed, lies a moldering ruin, today, even as Joshua’s miracle left it more than three thousand years ago…. Renowned Jerusalem itself, the stateliest name in history, has lost all its ancient grandeur, and is become a pauper village; the riches of Solomon are no longer there to compel the admiration of visiting Oriental queens; the wonderful temple which was the pride and the glory of Israel, is gone. The noted Sea of Galilee, where Roman fleets once rode at anchor was long ago deserted by the devotees of war and commerce, and its borders are a silent wilderness; Capernaum is a shapeless ruin; Magdala is the home of beggared Arabs. Palestine is desolate and unlovely. And why should it be otherwise? Can the curse of the Deity beautify a land?” (Innocents Abroad, Ch 56)

So, we see that the Land of Israel has an imbued loyalty to us, waiting for us to return, rejecting any other nation that tries to inhabit it in the meantime. Or, as Rav Soloveitchik once put it; the Holy Land is loyal to the Jewish People as a wife stays loyal to a husband while he is away, even for a long time- she never strays or abandons him. So too, ארץ ישראל waits for us, entering a “sleep mode”, waiting for us to return and restart it.

But we must remember that this loyalty is not a one-way road. For this promise of the land’s undying loyalty made by G-d, we must take a step back and remember where this promise is made. The scenario explained at the end of פרשת בחוקותי is far from ideal, even the small “silver linings” within the horrifying rebuke. To get a better understanding of the significance of having the promise of ארץ ישראל’s undying loyalty in the context of the תוכחה, we turn to the משך חכמה, a commentary by Rav Meir Simcha HaKohen of Davinsk, on the פסוק quoted at the beginning, where he explains all of Jewish history based on that single verse.

The משך חכמה writes that since we were exiled from our land after the חורבן בית שני, all of בני ישראל’s history can be summed up in one tragic and highly repetitive cycle. The Jewish People, sentenced to be a homeless nation until they earn their way home, wander until they find a place where they can settle, live comfortably, and establish centers of Torah and Judaism. From this humble start, the Jews become successful and affluent in their new host countries, and through this, gain a new desire to “blend in” to their new culture, leaving their Judaism behind in an attempt to embrace their “new culture,” or as the משך writes very directly:

יבקר ברעיון כוזב את אשר הנחילו אבותינו, ישער חדשות בשכוח מה היה לאומתו בהתנודדו בים התלאות, ויהיה מה. עוד מעט ישוב לאמר “שקר נחלו אבותינו”, והישראלי בכלל ישכח מחצבתו ויחשב לאזרח רענן. יעזוב לימודי דתו, ללמוד לשונות לא לו, יליף מקלקלתא ולא יליף מתקנא, יחשוב כי ברלין היא ירושלים, וכמקולקלים שבהם עשיתם כמתוקנים לא עשיתם. “ואל תשמח ישראל אל גיל כעמים” (הושע ט, א).

… He will imagine new things, forgetting what happened to his nation when it staggered in a sea of troubles, no matter how bad it was. Soon enough, he will say ‘our fathers gave us an inheritance of lies.’ This Jew, will forget from where he came, considering himself to be a native of his adopted country. He will stop studying Judiasm to begin learning languages that are not his own. He will learn from the corrupt ways of the gentiles, and not from our good ways. He will think that Berlin is [the new] Jerusalem… “and Israel shall not be happy  with the joys of the Nations”

(To provide context, the משך חכמה was written at the turn of the Twentieth Century in Europe, where many Jews were assimilating into German culture. To apply this to our days, one could substitute New York for Berlin.)

As this continues, the Jewish Nation becomes more dispersed and assimilated, until the Jewish faith is almost in danger of disappearing. It is at this time that G-d intervenes as a fulfillment of His promise of “ואף גם זאת” and steps in to make sure that the Jewish People don’t disappear in their enemies’ lands by causing problems in our host countries, usually involving Anti-Semitism, so that the gentiles will reject their fast-assimilating Jewish neighbors, and we will be forced to unite as a nation and wander elsewhere, where this cycle will repeat.

The משך חכמה concludes that this explains another way to understand our פסוק: “לא מאסתים- I will not despise them” teaches us that G-d will not hate us despite how far we’ve sunken as a nation in the spiritual realm. “לא געלתים- I will not reject them” reminds us that we should not think that because we are in the exile and wander from place to place, that G-d has rejected us even though “להפר בריתי אתם” we have broken His covenant by stopping our Torah learning, because “כי אני ה’ אלקיכם- I am the Lord their G-d-” G-d loves us and ensures our survival until we merit the day when we earn the end of their wandering, when we will be a singular nation in the Land, serving our G-d faithfully.

So far, we have a slightly depressing picture painted for us from the end of פרק ל”ו in פרשת בחוקותי. The Land of Israel is patiently and loyally waiting for us to return, but, as the משך חכמה has taught, we are too busy being pushed from nation to nation and being saved from ourselves to return. However, this will not always be our destiny. This tragic, everlasting cycle, will break once we can return to the place that we call home, the Land calling for us to return, where assimilating to the culture will mean returning to our roots, and where we can proudly learn our faith and practice our religion without having to be self-conscious of those around us. In that time, we will finally be able to settle once and for all without having to worry about being kicked out, and the Land, waiting so loyally for us to return, will finally be able embrace us and begin to flourish again, returning to become an “ארץ זבת חלב ודבש.”

I believe that this time is already upon us. Looking at today’s Israel, it’s clear that the Loyal Land is thriving under Jewish settlement and care, as the land that Twain once described as desolate and forsaken has blossomed into one of the biggest agricultural exporters in the world, after having waited patiently for over two thousand years. But, as those of us who live in Israel are reaping the benefits of the Holy Land’s loyalty to us, and many come from near and far to witness its beauty, it’s almost time for us to repay the favor- to return to ארץ ישראל, break the tragic cycle of Jewish history before it repeats again, and attempt to repay the land’s loyalty by being loyal to it and not leaving it alone (or חס ושלום giving it away, as many have proposed). Only through this can we merit the next פסוק of the end of the תוכחה:

“וְזָכַרְתִּי לָהֶם, בְּרִית רִאשֹׁנִים אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אֹתָם … לְעֵינֵי הַגּוֹיִם, לִהְיוֹת לָהֶם לֵאלֹקים–אֲנִי ה'”

And I will remember the covenant of the forefathers who I took out… in the sight of the nations, to be for them their G-d, I am Hashem. (ויקרא ל”ו:מ”ה).

Very speedily in our days. Shabbat Shalom.