Back in the lousy old days when I was writing trashy movies in Hollywood, horror films like “Halloween,” and the spooky zombie movie, “The Night of the Living Dead,” became classics. To take advantage of the craze, a friend and I sat down for a week and knocked out at script for a horror film that we sold for a fast $100,000. It was about a whacko kid who comes home after 15 years in a loony farm, only to discover that a modern shopping mall has been built where his house once stood. Taking up residence in a storage room, he minds his own business till a group of spaced-out high schoolers take over the mall for a wild graduation party. Thinking they have come to evict him from his home, the psycho kid goes after them, one by one, killing them in all sorts of fun and gruesomely scary ways.
Why am I telling you this? Because it reminds me of what happened during the 40 years the Jews were wandering in the Sinai wilderness after Hashem decreed that the entire generation of men would die by a plague for not wanting to journey on to the Land of Israel. It all started when the Spies, the leaders of the tribes, came back with their demoralizing report about the pitfalls of living in the Holy Land. That happened on the ninth day of Av – Tisha B’Av. That first year, 15,000 of the males were stricken (the women weren’t part of the harsh decree because, unlike the men, all of them wanted to enter the Land, along with the children.) The next year, when the ninth of Av came along, Moshe told all the men to enter a mass grave at nightfall. When the morning sun rose, the plague had killed 15,000. And so it was, every ninth of Av, the men would enter the mass grave for the night and another 15,000 would perish by the morning. The night of the living zombies. 15,000 men for 40 years, for a total of 600,000. In the 40th year, the remaining men of the generation entered the mass grave on the ninth of Av, but nothing happened. They remained there through the 10th, then through the 11th of the month, waiting for the plague to strike. Finally, on the 15th of the month, they realized that nothing was going to happen. The decree of the plague had ended! So they climbed joyously up out of the grave. This was on Tu B’Av, and the day has been a festive holiday ever since.
In a sense, from the moment the decree of punishment was pronounced, the generation of men who didn’t want to live in Israel were goners. In a sense they were like zombies, still living but already dead. Or already dead, but still living. Yes, they had health spas, and country clubs with tennis courts and swimming pools; they enjoyed the manna that was delivered fresh to their tents every morning, along with the latest edition of the JewishWilderness Press; they all belonged to Jewish Federations and temples and synagogues of every taste and flavor – in short, they had the best Jewish life there could be in the wilderness, filled with jam-packed yeshivas which were miraculously air-conditioned by the Clouds of Glory – but with the decree of death hanging over their heads, they were all like zombies, going through the motions of living but far away from the real thing.
The Gaon of Vilna explains that the Jewish People in exile are like “a body without a soul.”
“Exile to outside the Land of Israel is a grave. Worms surround us there, and we do not have the power to save ourselves. They, the idol worshippers, they devour our flesh. In every place, there were great yeshivot, until the body decayed, and the bones scattered, again and again. Yet always, some bones still existed, the Torah scholars of the nation, the pillars of the body – until even these bones rotted, and there only remained a rancid waste which disintegrated into dust – our life turned into dust” (Likutei HaGra, end of “Safra D’Tzniuta”).
The Gaon’s teaching follows the prophet Ezekiel who proclaimed, in his famous prophecy of the Valley of Bones, that the wilderness of galut is a grave. Only in our return to the Land of Israel do our scattered bones come to life. Only in the Land of Israel are the Jewish People really alive, as King David said (Tehillim, 27), “I always believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the Land of the Living.” In Eretz Yisrael. Outside the Land of Israel, we are like zombies, as the Zohar remarks on the verse, “To give breath (a soul) to the nation upon it” – “Only in the Land of Israel does the Jewish Nation have its soul.” Not in chutz l‘aretz.