After Shavuot, time to come home

There was a reason that G-d led us, His nation, into the Land of Israel. There was a reason that he commanded us to dwell in Israel.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Participants at the Mega Aliyah Fair in New York
Participants at the Mega Aliyah Fair in New York

 In memory of the writer's father, Ze'ev (Warren) Pinner, who passed away in Jerusalem on Thursday night, 11 Sivan, several hours after the article was posted.  Yehi zichro baruch.

Now that the 49-day period of the Omer is over and Shavuot is behind us, now that we have left Egypt and accepted the Torah, we face the question: What happens next?

This coming Shabbat we read the Haftarah for Parashat Nasso, recounting the birth of Samson (Judges 13:2-25): an angel heralded the forthcoming birth of a son to Manoah and his wife, and instructed them to raise their son as a Nazirite. The Haftarah concludes: “The woman gave birth to a son and she named him Shimshon (Samson); the lad grew up and Hashem blessed him. Then the spirit of Hashem began to reverberate in the camp of Dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol” (Judges 13:24:25).

This locates Samson’s story as beginning 60km (38 miles) due west of Jerusalem, in the south-east of the territory of the Tribe of Dan, just several hundred metres from the border with Benjamin. And decades later, when Samson was killed bringing down the Philistine temple, his family brought his body back to the same place for burial (Judges 16:31).

Samson lived at a time when the Jewish nation was at a low ebb. Jewish national independence in the Land of Israel, which had started so inspiringly, so auspiciously, so optimistically, so dynamically, under Joshua some 327 years earlier, had been constantly challenged and undermined by repeated attacks by the Canaanites, the Philistines, the Midianites, the Arameans, the Moabites, and the Amalekites – nations which were generally fighting each other as much as they were fighting the Jews, but who could always unite in order to launch a joint attack against the Jews.

Some things in the Middle East never change.

And miserable Jewish leadership had demoralised the Jewish nation to the point that few Jews were capable of fighting – neither physically nor mentally. The very concepts of national unity, military victory against enemies, and national independence were all but absent from the Jewish national psyche.

When other nations attacked Israel and threatened to destroy the nation, then the Jews indeed managed to unite and to defeat their enemies – as happened when the Tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali mustered their armies to defeat the Canaanite oppressor King Yavin (Jabin) and his general Sisera (Judges 4).

But for the most part, the Jews simply continued with their lives, accepting periodic oppression and attacks from the surrounding nations, and terrorism from the foreign nations in their midst, as an unalterable if unfortunate reality.

(Indeed, some things in the Middle East never change.)

It was against this backdrop that Samson appeared. Though the Jews were suffering constant harassment, it was painfully obvious that the nation had no fighting spirit. And had any Jewish individual or small underground group taken up arms against the Philistines, then the Philistines would simply have taken their revenge against the Jews, who would not have had the necessary fighting spirit to resist.

Indeed, as Samson himself experienced, when he executed successful guerrilla raids against the Philistines, the response of the official Jewish leaders was: “Don’t you know that the Philistines rule over us? What have you done to us?!” (Judges 15:11), whereupon they bound him and handed him over to the Philistines for judgement.

3,000 Judean officers – and their task was to fight, not against the Philistines who were terrorising the Jews, but against the one Jew who took up arms against the Philistine oppressors.

And so Samson had to use a double subterfuge in his one-man guerrilla campaign against the Philistines. Had he fought against them as a Jew, in the name of Judaism, then he would have brought disaster upon the Jews themselves whose leadership had so demoralised them that they lacked the courage to fight.

Instead he fought as “one of the lads”, a rambunctious and boisterous youth who went to live among the Philistines in Gaza, who consorted with Philistine girls, who played rough games and drank with other Philistine youths – and who killed them in their thousands, not as a Jew fighting for Jewish independence in the Land of Israel, but as a young tearaway youth playing rough boys’ games with other tearaway youths.

Now the Tribe of Dan, the Tribe which gave Israel Samson, was infected by idolatry throughout its history. When Amalek attacked Israel in the desert scant weeks after the Exodus (Exodus 17:8-16), it was Dan who they attacked, because Dan had been expelled from the protection of the Clouds of Glory because of their idolatry (Targum Yonatan to Exodus 17:8).

And centuries later, when the Danites sought to increase their territory, they collaborated with a priest of idolatry and ultimately kept Micah’s graven image for all the time that the Mishkan functioned in Shiloh (Judges 18).

And immediately after the split of the kingdom into two separate kingdoms – Israel in the north and Judea in the south – King Yaravam (Jeroboam), the king of Israel, set up golden calves as idols, one in Beit El and the other in Dan – and it was the idol in Dan that gained popularity among the masses (1 Kings 12:28-30).

Yet Dan was fiercely devoted to the Land of Israel. They could be seen as the paradigm of secular Zionism – idolaters who were nevertheless always on the front lines, fighting and bleeding, killing and dying for the Land of Israel.

Last Sunday, on Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth [1], beginning with the words,וַיְהִי בִּימֵי שְׁפֹט הַשֹּׁפְטִים..., which phrase is highly ambiguous. It could mean, “it happened in the days when the Judges were judging...”, or equally “it happened in the days when the judges were being judged...”.

This indicates the same malaise: Israel was living without proper authority, without a recognised leader who could unify the nation and infuse them with the spirit of national pride and unity. The first such leader would be King Saul, who indeed succeeded in consolidating the twelve Tribes into a single nation, in which their common Israelite identity would be more powerful than their individual Tribal identities. But as the Book of Ruth begins, King Saul’s anointment as King of Israel still lay more than a century in the future.

The Book of Ruth opens in a time of famine, when Elimelech, one of the leaders of his Tribe, his wife Naomi, and their two sons Mahlon and Chilion, left Beit Lechem of Judah, where they lived, and crossed the River Jordan into the fields of Moab.

And that led the family to disaster: Elimelech died in Moabite exile. Mahlon and Chilion both married out, and then both subsequently died in Moabite exile. Naomi, alone of her family, survived and eventually returned to Israel, to her ancestral land-holding in Bethlehem, together with her erstwhile daughter-in-law Ruth.

Now it seems puzzling that G-d should judge them so harshly for leaving Israel: this was, after all, a time of famine!

The Talmud expounds:

“The Rabbis taught: It is forbidden to leave the Land [of Israel] unless two se’ahs [of agricultural produce] cost a sela. Rabbi Shimon says: When does this apply? – At a time when he lacks the money to buy even at that price; however, if he has the money, then even if one se’ah costs a sela he should not leave [even if he thereby loses all his property]. As Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion were leaders of the generation and sustainers of the generation; and why were they punished? – Because they left Israel” (Bava Batra 91a).

And the Rashbam comments: “‘It is forbidden to leave the Land [of Israel]’, because he thereby breaks himself free of the mitzvot”. And a leader and sustainer of the generation has far greater an obligation than does the ordinary citizen.

This is the great lesson which our Sages instil in us on Shavuot year-by-year when we read the Book of Ruth.

Parashat Nasso, with its Haftarah introducing Samson, is usually the Shabbat immediately after Shavuot (as it is this year 5778). With the Book of Leviticus completed, G-d has given us most of His laws, and the Book of Numbers opens with our preparations to leave Mount Sinai and continue with our trek to the Land of Israel.

The first four parashot in the Book of Numbers – Bamidbar, Nasso, Beha’alot’cha, and Sh’lach Lecha – depict our national preparations for the journey to Israel, the journey itself, our arrival at the border of Israel, and the first attempt at entering the Land (the attempt which went disastrously wrong because of the ten Spies).

The Haftarah for Parashat Nasso depicts one of the lower ebbs early in our national history in Israel – and how our national pride was restored by a representative of the Tribe of Dan – the Tribe of “secular Zionism”!

In the early years of Israeli independence, the young State invested vast resources in bringing Jews in their millions back home. Heading the Department of Aliyah in the Jewish Agency was Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Shragai (who previously had been Mayor of Jerusalem, the first Mayor of Jerusalem ever to be elected to the position), and he faced a serious dilemma: Israel at the time was in the grip of secularists, from the Prime Minister down, and had aggressive programmes of forcibly secularising the newly-arrived Jews – particularly those from Arab Muslim countries.

However, with the end of the British Empire and influence in Yemen, Aden, Iraq and Egypt, and the end of the French Empire in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, and Syria, it was painfully obvious that with complete Arab Muslim independence, Jews would be in extreme danger of persecution, even genocide.

In his distress, he turned to the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank, to ask if it was proper to bring Jews to Israel, where their Judaism was inevitably going to be jeopardized.

In response, Rabbi Frank turned to the Midrash, expounding on the verse “Remember my afflictions and my sorrow – the wormwood and the bitterness” (Lamentations 3:19): “G-d said: If only My children would be in the Land of Israel, even if they defile it!” (Yalkut Shimoni, Lamentations 1,038). And rabbi Frank continued: “What do you want me to do – transgress the words of our Sages?! You are not guilty for anything that may happen; you must bring as many Jews as you can to Israel, and do what you can to connect them to the Torah”.

Rabbi Shragai later related that when he went to France, where he encountered the Jews of North African origin (Algerians, Moroccans, and Tunisians) who, instead of making Aliyah, settled instead in France. So many of them, he saw to his utter distress, not only abandoned the Mitzvot, but even abandoned their Jewish identity altogether, assimilating totally into secular French society.

He understood from this observation how right his mentor, Rabbi Frank, had been: however secularized those North African Jews may have become in Israel, they remained Jewish, and vast numbers of them returned to complete Jewish observance, often within a decade or two, others only in the next generation. Those who went to France were often lost forever.

There was a reason that G-d led us, His nation, into the Land of Israel. There was a reason that he commanded us to dwell in Israel:

“A Jew must always dwell in the Land of Israel, even in a city whose majority are idolaters, and not dwell outside of the Land of Israel, even in a city whose majority are Jews; because anyone who lives in the Land of Israel is as one who has a G-d, and anyone who lives outside of the Land of Israel is as one who has no G-d” (Ketuvot 110b).

The Rambam cites this as halakhah (Jewish law) in practice: “A Jew must always dwell in the Land of Israel, even in a city whose majority are idolaters, and not dwell outside of the Land of Israel, even in a city whose majority are Jews, because anyone who leaves Israel is akin to one who worships idols” (Laws of Kings 5:12).

So now that the 49-day period of the Omer is over and Shavuot is behind us, now that we have left Egypt and accepted the Torah, we can answer the question: What happens next?

– What happens next is that we inherit the Land of Israel. It really is that simple!


[1] This refers to the custom in Israel. Communities in exile read the Book of Esther on Monday, the second day of Shavuot.

[2] The Tanachic/Talmudic measurement of סְאָה, se’ah, is a measurement of volume, variously estimated as 8.3 litres/17½ U.S. liquid pints (Rabbi Avraham Chaim Na’eh), or 11.8 litres/25 U.S. liquid pints (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein), or 14.4 litres/30½ U.S. liquid pints (Chazon Ish).

[3] A סֶלָע, sela was a silver coin; the Mishnah (Bava Metzia 5:2) suggests that one sela would pay the rent for an apartment for a month; the Talmud (Bava Batra 86b-87a) suggests that a labourer’s wage would be 1 dinar (= ¼ sela) per day most of the year, 1 sela per day in the harvest season.