Judaism: The Land of Israel: What's at Stake?
When Hazal, in the late Second Temple period, divided up the Torah into the 54 weekly portions with which we are familiar today, they determined that every year in Parshat D’varim, the parashah immediately before the 9th of Av, we would read Moshe’s rebuke of the nation, and specifically his account to the next generation of the sin of the spies. And they also determined that the first words we would continue with after the 9th of Av would be Moshe’s account of how he pleaded with G-d to relent of His decree and allow Moshe to enter the Land of Israel.
After describing, at the end of the previous parshah, the conquest of trans-Jordan, Moshe tells the nation, in the opening words of this week’s parshah: “I pleaded to Hashem at that time, saying: My Lord, Hashem G-d, you have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong arm – which power is there in Heaven or earth who can do like Your deeds and Your might? Please may I pass over and see the good Land which is over the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon” (Deuteronomy 3:23-25).
This is the very first Torah-lesson that Hazal wanted us to absorb after Tisha B'Av – Moshe pleading to G-d to relent of His decree that Moshe would die without ever entering the Land of Israel, only ever seeing it from the outside.
Indeed, Moshe may have had some spark of hope that he may yet enter the Land. G-d had told Moshe and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in Me…you will not bring this congregation into the Land which I have given them” (Numbers 20:12). Shortly thereafter, G-d decreed that “Aaron shall be gathered unto his people, for he will not come to the Land which I have given to the Children of Israel” (verse 24). There is a difference here: the first decree was that they would not lead the nation into the Land, the second was that Aaron would die outside of the Land.
Moshe, then, was resigned to not leading his beloved nation into the Land that G-d had given them; after all, he had already passed the task of national leadership over to Joshua (Numbers 27:18-23, Deuteronomy 1:38). Nevertheless, as the Ohr ha-Chayim (Rabbi Chayim ben Atar, Morocco and Israel, 1696-1743) suggests, he pleaded that G-d allow him to enter the Land, led by Joshua.
Rashi, based on the Midrash (Sifrei, Va’et’chanan 26), notes Moshe’s wording “I pleaded to Hashem at that time…”, and comments: “After I conquered the land of Sihon and Og, I imagined that maybe G-d’s vow [keeping me out of Israel] might be relinquished”.
The obvious question arises: What is the connexion between conquering these lands east of the River Jordan, and imagining that G-d might relent and allow Moshe to cross the River Jordan?
Rabbi Meir Kahane Hy”d (USA and Israel, 1932-1991) addressed this: “Apparently the connection is that Moshe’s punishment was a result of not sanctifying the Name of G-d when he struck the rock – that is to say, he did not demonstrate faith in Him. And therefore, when he faced this grave danger of Sihon and Og and G-d said to him: Have faith in Me! Do not fear, for I will help you, and Moshe had faith and went forth to war – Moshe thought that because he had trusted in G-d and sanctified His Name, maybe that would relinquish His vow” (Peirush ha-Macabbee, Deuteronomy page 7).
In support of this explanation, Rabbi Kahane cites the comment of the Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343). On the word “va’etchanan” (“I pleaded”), the Ba’al ha-Turim writes: “Earlier [the previous verse], it says ‘…you shall not fear them’. I strengthened Israel, maybe He will have compassion on me”.
In the event, as we well know, G-d rejected Moshe’s plea: “Hashem became furious with me for your sakes and did not listen to me; and Hashem said to me: Enough for you! Don’t talk to Me any more about this!” (Deuteronomy 3:26). Rashi explains “for your sakes” to mean “because of you – you caused this to happen to me”.
And the Sforno (Rabbi Ovadyah Sforno, Italy, c.1470-1550) explains further: “‘Hashem became furious with me for your sakes’ – because I yearned to sustain you in [the Land of Israel], such that you would never be exiled from it; but He had already decreed that you would one day be scattered”.
On the Shabbat immediately following the Ninth of Av, in the aftermath of mourning the disasters of destruction and exile, Hazal, our Sages, wished to infuse within us this message of who and what a true Jewish leader is, and how the Jew is enjoined to yearn for the Land of Israel. Moshe, who risked his life for the Jewish nation. Moshe, who yearned with every fibre of his being to enter the Land of Israel. Moshe, who braved G-d’s fury when pleading to come into the Land of Israel. Moshe, who after leading his beloved nation out of Egyptian slavery, to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, and through forty years of all-but-intolerable complainings in the desert, was now willing to enter the Promised Land not at their head as their leader, but as a humble follower of his own disciple Joshua.
In recent weeks we have witnessed the legal ban on shechita in Poland (which for economic reasons was until then one of the major suppliers of kosher meat throughout the European Union), and threats of similar legislation in Britain, France, Holland, and other countries. Jewish leaders, both rabbis and lay leaders, have expressed their outrage over such legislation, often asserting that banning kosher meat threatens these communities’ very survival.
We look back at the opening sentences of this week’s parshah, and we look back at Tisha B'Av just scant days ago…and ask: Have the Jews of Europe and their leaders learned nothing?! Indeed, ‘eichah’ – how has the message been utterly lost!
Consider the implications of the sentiment that the ban on kosher meat threatens Jewish communities. It means that while they can happily live in exile, they cannot live without chicken and steaks. It means that schnitzel and mutton are more important than the Land of Israel – the Land for which Moshe risked G-d’s fury! They can comfortably spurn the Land that G-d promised us – yet if they cannot get smoked turkey breast then their very existence is threatened! They will weep bitter tears over being deprived of burgers and sausages – bitterer by far than over being deprived of mere Redemption.
The juxtaposition of reading Parshat Va’et’chanan immediately after Tisha B'Av forces – or should force – every Jew to face the issue. What in all this world is more important, more precious, more desirable, than the Land of Israel?