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Parshat Behukotai: Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael

In prayer

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“The survivors among you – I will bring weakness into their hearts in the land of their foes; the sound of a rustling leaf will pursue them, they will flee as one flees the sword, and they will fall, but without a pursuer. They will stumble over one another in flight from the sword, but there is no pursuer; you will not have the power to withstand your foes.” (VAYIKRA 26:36-37)

It is in these verses that the Torah reveals the disgrace of Israel’s exile. And indeed, history can attest to the truth of this curse. Outside of our homeland, the Nation of Israel was reduced to vulnerable migrants wandering through foreign lands. Unable to defend ourselves in the Diaspora, the Jewish people gained a reputation for cowardice and victimization. We were treated as vermin, easily exterminated without even a fight. Israel’s survival became largely dependent upon the benevolence of our neighbors and Jews became conditioned to accept our shameful status as an uncontested reality.

Israel’s downtrodden state in the exile, coupled with the cruelty we suffered at the hands of host nations, damaged our self-image and stripped us of our former valor. We began to view ourselves as naturally incapable of defense as if Jews were designed as physically inferior to other peoples. Authentic Hebrew traits of courage and heroism became foreign to our culture and several Torah concepts became distorted without their proper material expressions. This mentality of learned helplessness grew in Jewish hearts to the point where many became fearful at even the slightest indication of tension with neighboring gentiles. Due to the tremendous persecution Israel experienced, the once proud Hebrew Nation developed a low soul – a slave mentality that made us fearful of even the sound of a rustling leaf. The great valor that had characterized Jewish fighters in ancient times was forgotten as we wandered the globe as a ghost through history – a broken people perpetually searching for safe refuge.

But just as the Jewish people were stripped of our former honor in the exile, the Land of Israel was stripped of her illustrious beauty. She became barren without her soul mate to rule over and nurture her soil. Her great splendor had departed and she was reduced to an infertile wasteland.

“I will make the land desolate; and your foes who dwell upon it will be desolate. And you, I will scatter among the nations, I will unsheathe the sword after you; your land will remain desolate and your cities will be in ruin.” (VAYIKRA 26:32-33)

According to the Ramban, the verse “your foes who dwell upon it will be desolate” is a partial blessing within the curse that guarantees through all generations that the Land of Israel will not receive any foreign nation in place of her true indigenous people. He points out that in the entire world, there are no other lands which were once good and bountiful but are now (in the time of the Ramban) as desolate and empty as Palestine.

A century before Hebrew sovereignty was restored to Eretz Yisrael, American author Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) visited the country and described it in The Innocents Abroad Or The New Pilgrim’s Progress as a “desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds – a silent mournful expanse… A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action… We never saw a human being on the whole route… There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of the worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.”

While most of the Hebrew Nation wandered through a dark and bitter exile, the Land of Israel lay in barren devastation. Although many foreigners tried desperately to cultivate her once rich and fertile soil, the land was unwilling to provide for illegitimate rulers and remained unwaveringly faithful to her native people. Only with Israel’s miraculous return did the country once again resume productive life. In an astonishingly short time, the once desert country became a major world exporter of fruits.

The reunification of the Nation of Israel with the Land of Israel miraculously infused new life and strength into both. Only a few short years after the decimation of six million, Jewish remnants in their native land stunned the world with unmatched military prowess. The Hebrew Nation was reborn and the Land of Israel returned to agricultural productivity.

Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael are inseparably connected in a bond so tight they even share the same name. Our deep spiritual connection to our country – like the connection of the soul to the body – transcends all rational human understandings. Our soil is an intrinsic part of who we are and the foundation for our national mission in this world as neither we nor it can attain full expression devoid of the other. Without the Jewish Nation, the land is doomed to desolation (as was the case for nearly two thousand years). Similarly, the Jews outside our borders are not the essential Hebrew Nation but rather a deformed shadow of our true inner potential – a wandering people miraculously able to hold on to our individual “Judaism” without possessing any tangible concept of nationhood. But when properly situated in our ancestral homeland, Israel becomes the healthy living nation that brings the knowledge and blessing of HaShem to mankind.

The Maharal of Prague teaches in Netzach Yisrael that like the orbits of the planets in space and the importance of oxygen for human beings, Jewish sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael is a natural necessity inherent in Creation. When Israel is living in and sovereign over our homeland, the entire world becomes healthy. The heart of humanity is in place and able to channel Divine life and blessing to all existence. Israel’s temporary separation from out native soil has stood in opposition to the very laws of nature. Like a ball thrown up in the air that must come down, Am Yisrael must return to independence within our borders. Nature corrects itself as we return home and the Torah now aspires – for the first time in nearly two thousand years – to be lived and expressed on a national level that infuses kedusha into every sphere of life. And as nature corrects itself and history progresses forward, Israel’s rebirth advances towards the redemption of humankind.

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About the Author: Yehuda HaKohen teaches history at several Jerusalem institutions and is a seasoned activist for indigenous rights in the Middle East and a vocal opponent of attempts to shrink Israel's borders. Yehuda organizes grassroots Jewish-Arab dialogue meetings for the purpose of fostering mutual acceptance and understanding.


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