Vacationing in This Blessed, Holy Land

A land of streams and springs and underground waters, flowing into valleys and mountains” ( Parshat Eikev, Devarim 8;7-8).

Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Hirsch

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Aryeh Hirsch

Summer vacations start in earnest here in Israel just after Tisha B’Av, and will continue for another week, when Yeshivot open. Most vacationers head north, as the 45 degree temperatures in the Negev and Eilat are quite a disincentive to go south.

We followed the trend, and headed this year to the Mediterranean coast, staying at the Beit Sefer Sadeh in Achziv. After mornings on the beach, we walked through the waters of Nachal (stream) Ga’aton, saw the view of Haifa Bay from the 30th floor of Haifa University, toured the University’s Hecht archeological museum , visited the Rashbi’s grave in Meiron, and walked through Zfat.

The highlight of the week, however, was when one of the kids got hungry in Acco, just north of Haifa, and wanted pizza. After our not-so-smart phone sent us to the nearest “kosher pizzeria”, and it turned out to have a large Arabic sign out front, we wandered into a kosher pizza joint off of Yehoshaphat street.

After eating, my wife wondered out loud where the Tunisian synagogue was located.

The kid at the oven, a bare-headed Sfardi, immediately replied: “ Atem mamash karov- it’s nearby, just go out the door, turn right ( south, but no Israeli gives directions except as ‘left-right’) on Rechov Yehoshaphat , go past the Kikar( traffic-circle) one block down (on the corner of the Courthouse) ,go 50 meters straight  (south) and turn left- it’s right there”.

Indeed it was right there: a magnificent building, both inside and out. Its walls, floors, ceilings and stairwells are murals consisting of mosaics depicting Yerushalayim, Chevron, Tzfat and other cities, as well as the Temple, biblical scenes, and animals and flowers of the Holy Land- and , of course, Acco and the sea. Millions of little colored stones (and stained glass windows) that even spelled out chapters from Tehillim and Mishlei (Psalms and Proverbs- like Eishet Chayil on the ceiling of the women’s section) and the Prayers for the State of Israel and IDF soldiers. It’s really a wonderful site/sight (just be sure to visit before 12:30pm or the sweet old Tunisian caretaker, Tzion Baladash, won’t let you in).

"A land of streams and springs and underground waters, flowing into valleys and mountains” ( Parshat Eikev, Devarim 8;7-8)

nterestingly, this lyrical description of the Holy Land is always read in this time of summer vacations. Even more amazing is that this year, the Parsha of “the land of milk and honey”, which is also the Torah’s source of the laws of blessings (Berachot, in verse 10 ) coincided with the start of the worldwide study of Tractate Berachot in a new cycle of the Daf Yomi ( a ninety year old program of the study of one page of Talmud a day). With both Written and Oral Law focusing on Berachot, a little background is in order:

"Berachot is an issue of of addition and multiplication” (Rabbeinu Bechaye, on Devarim 8; 10).

Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha said: Once I went inside the Holy of Holies to burn incense. There I saw an image, symbolic of G-d Almighty the Lord of Hosts, and He said to me: ‘Yishmael, My son, bless Me!’ (Berachot 7a) . 

The above quotes bring up the obvious question: We Jews make blessings before and after eating, and upon doing commandments (such as lighting Sabbath candles) - but what possible addition could our blessings be causing in the Lord Almighty? Why His plea:”Bless me!”

Rav Matis Weinberg answers by quoting the above Rabbeinu Bechaye: the addition is not to the Almighty Himself, but לשמו , to His Name. Per Kabbala, G-d’s Name means His manifestation in this world. The blessing not only increases His manifestation in the here-and-now in a purely spiritual dimension, but manifests as a very physical increase in the fruits and animals over which these Berachot are said.

Moreover, Berachot are not prayers, and not “just expressions of gratitude for food, new clothes, and the like” (R. Bechaye). Just as when the first man, dam, prayed for rain, and only then did vegetation sprout from the ground (Rashi ,Genesis, 2;5), so too do we become active partners in ongoing, evolving Creation by uttering our

Berachot. As Rabbi Weinberg points out, the only safeguard against the ingratitude, insensitivity and contempt bred by familiarity, is not mere mouthings of thank-you’s and Hosanna’s, but this ברית הארץ, this mutual pact to expand Creation.

As R. Weinberg points out, המקום , the place that “ embodies what Creation decreed must be”, and in which “ G-d’s blessings couple with our own”, is none other than this Holy Land. When the Torah says: “And He will love you, bless you and multiply you, blessing the fruit of your womb, your soil, your wine, cattle, flocks .. You will be blessed above all the nations “, all these blessings will come about when Israel energetically, responsibly fulfills its part of the Brit: “You shall eat, be satisfies and bless the Lord Almighty for the good land He has given you” ( Devarim 7;13-14 and 8;11).

Rav Tau stresses the other side of the coin. In his treatment of the famous story of R. Shimon bar Yochai ( Rashbi) hiding in the cave( Emunat Iteinu 10;p.118-119)”, R. Tau notes that Rashbi came to view all human activities( farming, sewing, baking,etc.) as the evil results of Adam’s sin, and hence a waste of Man’s energies and intellect.

Had Man remained in the Garden of Eden, all these pursuits would have been unnecessary. Furthermore, as the millennia pass, these “human needs” increase, expand, and multiply in a sorry caricature of the Blessing and Eden. “For if Man were but to wise up, he would see the gates of Eden not outside himself, but inside, since ‘his blessing’s source is the river that flows from Eden, the Garden of G-d, whose Light ( Or) shines forth from Man’s inner soul( Rav Kook)’”.

Rashbi was actually banished back to his cave for this attitude, to be freed only when he came to realize that for all the Kabbalistic truth of the above idea, this world can function only if the Brit involves a “joint project” (R. Weinberg) , with most men active in Creation both physically and with their Berachot- and one or two Rashbi-like Kabbalists per generation.

But for the rest of the Nation of Israel, this Holy Land becomes our Eden as we develop her both physically and spiritually. As Isaiah says in the Haftorah of Ekev: “Look to Abraham…who I blessed and multiplied (likewise will I do for the Nation of Israel; addition by the Lubavicher Rebbe) . For the Lord will comfort Zion, comfort all her ruins. He will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like G-d’s Garden. Joy and gladness will be found there, thanksgiving and the sound of music” (Isaiah51; 2-3).