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Vaetchanan: Crying For Israel

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The first Tisha B’Av was a warm, muggy night in the Sinai Wilderness. The entire nation was anxiously awaiting the return of the scouts that Moses sent to check out the Promised Land. After 40 long days the scouts finally return.

Their report was disastrous.

Sounds like CNN or The New York Times today.

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3317 years ago today (Tisha B’Av) many tears were shed over Israel. That night the scouts that Moses sent returned with a slanderous report about the Land of Israel:

“We cannot go forward against those people [living in Israel]. They are too strong for us.”

As a result “the entire community rose in uproar and begin to cry; the people wept that night” (Numbers 14:1). In one of the most defiant acts in history, the entire Jewish nation rejected the land promised to them and their ancestors by G-d.

3317 years later we are still crying over Israel. This time it’s for the many innocent lives lost, families shattered and cities destroyed by enemies who want to eliminate the Jewish land.

Is there a connection between these three millennia of tears?

The Talmud tells us that because of the tears they shed that fateful night 3317 years ago we cry every Tisha B’Av. “You wept (that night) for no reason; I will designate (that night as) a weeping for generations…” (Taanit 29a). As a result of the scouts slander and the Jewish tears Tisha B’av was born: G-d decreed that the entire nation would not enter the Promised Land, and from then on, to this very day, Tisha B’Av would become a night of tears and grief: On that day both Temples are destroyed, Beitar is vanquished and Jerusalem is plowed. And for thousands of years, each year on that day we grieve for our losses.

Isn’t this punishment unjust? Why should generations suffer for the tears shed in vain 3317 years ago by a nation not wanting to enter the Promised Land?

The Promised Land is not merely a nice place to live, a retirement village or a cool vacation spot. It is the spiritual heartbeat of the universe; the portal between heaven and earth. Israel is therefore called the Holy Land because it is the physical manifestation of the fusion between the spiritual and the material – between the human and the Divine. Holiness means something that simply has less egocentric layers that block out the inner Divine energy.

The centrality of Israel is actually a psycho/spiritual centrality; the purpose of the Holy Land is to serve as the bridge to holiness that will ultimately transform the rest of the world. The Holy Land represents a state of sanctity within each of our souls, and its ability to integrate with our physical lives. Its role as Promised Land – the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the land that consumes the journey of the Jewish people throughout the wilderness – is the destination to which we all aspire.

No wonder nations and religions throughout history have all longed to conquer this small piece of geography. Everyone gravitates to this land. Unconsciously, ever nation, religion and individual senses that the Holy land is the spiritual vortex of existence, the place where the doors open up to reach the Divine. (See at length Israel: The Inside Story).

If Israel is the spiritual center of all life, why did the scouts and the entire nation slander the Promised Land and refuse to enter it?! Why were they intimidated by the “strong” people living there?

The answer in one word is: Galut – spiritual displacement. In this dark world things are not in their correct place. The wicked prosper as the good suffer. The material universe is not aligned with its spiritual purpose. Our personal lives are not seamless reflections of our soul’s cravings.

In this state of spiritual dissonance who suffers most? Israel and its connection to the Jewish people. Were the world aligned with its higher purpose, the scouts and the Jewish nation would have wholeheartedly embraced their destiny and marched forward to the Promised Land. If existence was in sync with its calling, the Holy Land would be cherished and protected by all, and Jews would live there in total peace and harmony. But the universe has not yet reached that place, and as a result the Jewish people and their land suffer a tenuous relationship.

Just look at history – our best teacher. Israel was promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to be their children’s homeland, but it does not come easily – not thousands of years ago and not today. Jacob is living at peace in Israel, at home studying and growing, and then he is forced to escape his brother’s wrath and build a family outside of Israel. After Jacob returns and is ready to settle down, his beloved Joseph is torn away from him. And then Jacob and family are forced to leave Israel and travel to Egypt due to the famine.

After hundreds of years in bitter Egyptian bondage, the Jewish people finally leave Egypt on their way to the Promised Land. What happens? The scouts come back with their tragic report and the Jews are forced to wander 40 years in the wilderness. And that entire generation (except for two people, Joshua and Caleb) never enters the land.

Even the great Moses, the man of G-d who sacrificed his entire life to enter the Promised Land, is not allowed in. In this week’s Torah chapter (appropriately always read after Tisha B’av) we read how Moses beseeches G-d with 515 prayers to allow him to enter the Promised Land.

“O G-d, What force is there in heaven or earth who can perform deeds and mighty acts as You do?” “Please,” Moses pleads, “please let me cross and allow me to see the good land beyond the Jordan, the goodly mountain and Lebanon.

“But G-d was angry with me because of you and would not listen to me, and G-d said to me: Enough. Say no more about this matter.”

The weeping caused by the scouts slander on that sad Tisha B’Av night affected even Moses…

But it doesn’t end there. Joshua finally leads the Jews into Israel, they conquer the land and build their homes, settling into the land. Close to five hundred years later King Solomon builds the first Temple, only for it to be destroyed 410 years later by the Babylonians. Then Ezra and Nechemia build the second Temple, and it too is destroyed 420 years later by the Romans, which begins our long exile.

It seems that the Jews and the Holy Land cannot remain at peace for any extended period.

Ok, another two tragic millennia pass. The Jewish people suffer terribly in countless, immeasurable ways. Though there was always a Jewish presence in Israel, until the last century the land remained desolate. Finally, in the 20th century, after the decimation of a third of the Jewish population by the German Nazis and the silent world, the Jews return to Israel en-masse and begin to rebuild the land, Immigration to the Holy Land grows by leaps and bounds, until this year (2006) Israel surpasses the United States to be home to the single largest segment of Jewish population. Now you would think, after all we have endured, things should be calm. But no, war plagues Israel – again, again and again.

The big question is: Why? Why must it be so difficult? Haven’t the Jewish people suffered enough? After millennia of pain the Jews have been allowed to return to their homeland. Why must they still fight for it? Why must they send their young and brave men to the battlefield to protect the lives of Israel’s citizens?

The answer lies in Moses’ words: After G-d rejects Moses’ cries to enter the land, Moses does not shrink away in defeat. Moses, the true leader that he was, instructs the people how they can earn the right

“to occupy the land that G-d is giving you.”

Follow the Divine laws and rules, “Do not add…and do not subtract from the commandments.” By doing so you will merit to live peacefully in the Holy Land.

What about the other nations of the world? Will they allow us to live in peace in the Holy Land? Without missing a beat, Moses continues:

“Protect and keep these laws, for this is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations. They will hear all these rules and say: ‘This great nation is certainly a wise and understanding people. What nation is so great that they have G-d close to it as G-d is when we call Him? What nation is so great that they have such righteous rules and laws?”

“Only take heed and watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not forget the things that your eyes saw. Do not let [this memory] leave your hearts all the days of your lives. Teach your children and children’s children abut the day you stood before G-d at Horeb [Sinai]”.

The only way to live in true peace in Israel, Moses says, is to embrace your Divine calling and all nations will respect you. And this calling is so just that all nations will recognize that these are the most “righteous rules and laws.”

The Jewish people and the Jewish land are not for Jews alone. Life’s purpose is not to merely take care of yourself and escape into your own paradise. The Torah, the Jews and the land are here to be a “light unto nations” – to proclaim to the world that G-d exists and that we all must live up to our calling. To illuminate the universe with the Divine message that we must all transform our lives and the corner of our world into a spiritual home.

As long as the world is not there, Israel and the Jews cannot be at peace. This, in a nutshell, is the story of all history.

Peace in Israel, in the spiritual hub of the universe, will bring peace to the entire world. The Jewish search for the Promised Land is not some partisan, nationalistic effort. It is not just a “Jewish” thing, but a universal one. It is one with the global search of all mankind to find peace between heaven and earth, between spirit and matter. When Israel becomes our spiritual center, and Jews recognize their spiritual connection to Israel, what results is a more sensitive world, a more peaceful universe – a universe that recognizes the inherent sanctity in all human beings, Jew or non-Jew, Christian or Muslim, Israeli or Arab. (see Israel and the Non-Jews).

The tears shed 3317 years ago on Tisha B’Av were an expression of the tension between the Jewish people and the land, reflecting the tension of the entire world and its purpose.

We are still suffering for the cries on that fateful Tisha B’Av 3317 years ago.

Today’s crisis in the Middle East is a wake-up call for all citizens of Israel, and indeed for all citizens of the world.

Citizens of the world: Rise and take up arms. Help protect the Holy Land from desecration and devastation. This is not merely a war of some terrorists against the Jews in Israel. It is a war against us all; against all free people; against the principles of our entire civilization. Jews living peacefully in Israel is a sign of the entire world living at peace with each other. And Jews under attack means that the entire world is under attack.

When Jews live in their Promised Land in peace, all the citizens of the world will live in their promised lands in peace. That’s how it was thousands of years ago, and that’s how it is today.

Both Jews in Israel and outside of Israel, both Jews and non-Jews, must ask ourselves the question: After all these years, are we still slandering the Promised Land of Israel? After all these years, what are we doing to protect and cherish the Promised Land?

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Question of the week: Do you believe there is a connection between our spiritual/virtuous behavior and the current events in Israel? Do our actions, for good or bad, effect the war in the Middle East? Or should the two be kept apart?

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