Jews around the world are commemorating the Nine Days, during which we remember the destruction of the two Temples on Tisha B’Av and the tragedies that have befallen our people in exile. But we cannot forget the origin of this fateful day, and all the crying it has caused.
Our tradition teaches us that the spies returned with their negative report about the Land of Israel on this date. God said that since the people cried for nothing in disdaining the Holy Land, He would give them something real to cry about for all generations.
So, if we are being true to ourselves and our tradition, the Nine Days is the time of year to reflect on our attitudes towards the Land of Israel. In Kol Hator (chapter 5), the Vilna Gaon connects the sin of the spies to those who don’t have a passion for living in the holy land:
This sin of the spies…hovers over the nation of Israel in every generation…many of the sinners in this great sin of ‘they despised the cherished land’ and also many of the guardians of Torah will not know or understand that they are caught in the sin of the spies, that they have been sucked into the sin of the spies in many false ideas and empty claims, and they cover their ideas with the already proven fallacy that the mitzvah of the settlement of Israel no longer applies in our day, an opinion which has already been disproved by the giants of the world, the Rishonim and Achronim who determined that ‘settling the Land of Israel is equal to all of the mitzvot in the Torah.’
The following story, told in the Tisha B’Av edition of HaMizrachi, demonstrates what real passion to live in the Land of Israel means:
Shlomo (Nagosa) Mula, a former member of Israel’s Knesset, was only 16 when he left his home to go to Israel by foot. It was the stories of the holy city of Jerusalem – with the Temple at its heart – that led him and his friends to endanger their lives back in the early 1980s.
“I had heard stories about Yerusalem (Jerusalem) ever since I was born,” he recalls. “We would sit in a circle and the adults would talk. We were 11 brothers and sisters – I was number five, the sandwich child – and we just listened. It was forbidden to interrupt an adult speaking.”
Shlomo’s parents talked about Jerusalem as an enchanted place, almost heavenly; a place where the righteous people live. “We were told that anyone who gets to Jerusalem will never die, because it is a sacred place, with streets flowing with milk and honey.”
Jerusalem was very much part of young Shlomo’s childhood in Ethiopia. When a cow was slaughtered, it was placed facing Jerusalem. When going to bed, everyone would lie with their heads in the direction of the holy city. And in the winter, whenever a rainbow appeared, everyone would stand still and listen. “We believed it was a sign that God wanted to speak to us. We would stand in silence, look at the rainbow and wait expectantly for Him to whisk us away to Jerusalem.”
One day, after rumors began arriving that Jews from the Tigray region had managed to reach Jerusalem, Shlomo’s friend Azamaro said to him, “Let’s go to Jerusalem!”
“How does one get to Jerusalem?” Shlomo asked in wonder. “Just like the Jews from Tigray,” said Azamaro. “First, we walk to Sudan, and then we cross the desert to Egypt, walk to Beersheba, where our forefather Abraham lived, and on to Jerusalem.”
It was a crazy plan. Escaping Ethiopia to Sudan was wrought with danger – thousands of miles of jungles, deserts, hostile locals, tigers, lions, snakes…
But in 1981, Shlomo and 15 friends – with no shoes, a cob of corn, and an earthenware water bottle – set out for Jerusalem after paying a local guide $2 to take them to Sudan. “We walked fast. With every step, we felt that Jerusalem was getting closer.” But it certainly wasn’t a walk in the park.
First, their guide got drunk. Then they had to split up into smaller groups so they wouldn’t be caught. And then, after hiding for a few hours in the trees, they were confronted by a huge snake.
After they overcame those obstacles, they were attacked by a band of armed robbers who made them strip to their underwear and stole whatever remaining money they had.
Eventually, the group managed to make their way out of the jungle, only to face the Kassala Desert – an endless sea of sand with no water in sight. After almost five days of continuous walking – over 400 miles – with eyes burning, throats dry, and feet sinking into the sand, they reached the edge of the desert. It was there that despair began to set in.
It was Shlomo’s eldest brother who encouraged them all to carry on. “Not much longer. Jerusalem is waiting for us. A few more hours of suffering and that’ll be it!” If only…
As soon as they entered Sudan, they were captured and thrown into prison. They spent 90 days under torture and repeated interrogations. The guards enjoyed beating them up with sticks and branches and tried to break them mentally as well.
“I almost gave in,” recalls Shlomo. “Was the goal really worth all this suffering? But I knew that whoever broke first would condemn the rest of us to death. I knew Jerusalem was waiting for us, with its sweet milk and honey flowing in the streets.”
The goal became even more important after Azamaro, the friend who had instigated the trip, died in jail.
One day they were suddenly transported to a refugee camp, Um-Rakuba, along with thousands of other Africans who had tried to escape their own corrupt or war-torn countries.
Although they didn’t know it at the time, there were Mossad agents in Um-Rakuba, charged with transferring the Jews to another camp at Gedarif, run by the Red Cross. This too involved a night-time getaway, another long walk, hiding, and bribing a local driver.
On February 3, 1984, Shlomo Mula and his friends reached Gedarif. A Mossad agent handed them some clothes. They were able to change their shirts and pants for the first time in three years.
“Follow me!” ordered the agent. Shlomo and his friends didn’t know what to expect. They had every reason to be suspicious. After yet another long walk, they finally came to a clearing occupied by a group of armed soldiers, faces covered and wearing helmets.
“This time we thought we were finished,” said Shlomo.
And then they saw a huge bird roaring in the sky, splitting the clouds before landing nearby. “We were really scared. We’d never seen a plane before.”
The soldiers pushed them into these “birds”; it was dark, cool, and very noisy inside. They sat on the floor. And then the soldiers took off their masks and helmets and starting singing “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem.”
“I had no idea what was happening until someone told us: This is a plane from Eretz Yisrael. The white soldiers are Jews. ‘We have come to take you to Jerusalem!’”
Every single Jew living in North America must ask him or herself if his or her passion for living in the Land of Israel matches that of Shlomo Mula. And if it doesn’t, what can we do to change that to make sure we are not falling prey to the sin of the spies – a sin that the Vilna Gaon says we commit if living in the Land of Israel is not even on our radar screen.
The Chofetz Chayim Heritage Foundation has done remarkable work in bringing attention to lashon hara, and how we act toward one another as we try to rectify the sin that led to the destruction of the Temple. I must point out, though, that the Chofetz Chayim left us with an additional legacy: a burning passion to live in Israel. In 1926, he wrote the following letter to Rabbi Shmuel Yitzchak Hillman who was the av beit din in London:
I will hereby recount to my brothers what has happened to me in the last few years at my old age, and I am forced to let the public know about my distress that I have been through up until today. Because for the last few years I have had the thought of traveling to the Holy Land and to settle there before God during my final days in Torah and divine service for all the days of my life that God will merit me to live there.
And I made great preparations toward this end, and I have spent almost a whole year making all the arrangements necessary for this, e.g., documents and tickets; and when the time finally came in which to travel, one or two days before my departure, suddenly my wife fell ill with a dangerous disease and I was forced to travel to Vilna for great doctors there…
Three years later, the Chofetz Chaim recorded the following in another letter: “It has been already three years since I was ready to travel to the Holy Land, but I was prevented from heaven because my wife suddenly fell ill. And thank God through the prayers of many she has become healthy again. But in the meantime, I have become older, and it is still my desire to travel to the Holy Land.”
We live in a time in which we don’t face the challenges that the Chofetz Chayim and Shlomo Mula faced to make the land of Israel our home. One can call Nefesh B’Nefesh and have every question answered and receive all the help necessary for smart aliyah – for now, for 10 years from now, or after retirement.
Let us use these Nine Days for self-reflection about the issue that first led to our crying during these days. And let us consider what Shlomo Mula was willing to do to make it to Israel, and ask ourselves what we are willing to do to accomplish the same.