Shir haMaalot, Psalm 126, and the sanctity of the Land of Israel

Psalm 126, wrote Rabbi Kook, shows the uniqueness of Eretz Yisrael in giving us the ability to unite means to a goal and its ends.

Eretz Yisrael Yomi ,

Eretz Yisrael Yomi photo
Eretz Yisrael Yomi photo

This week's Dvar Torah is written by Ori Engelman and presented by Avrum Leeder

It is customary to recite Psalm 126 before saying the Grace After Meals on Shabbat and holidays. The Zohar provides a reason for this custom:

"One who enjoys his table and delights in his food should remember and be concerned with the sanctity of the Holy Land."

But where is Eretz Yisrael mentioned in this psalm? At first reading, Psalm 126 deals with the return to Zion, not with the Land itself.

Can we find a connection in the psalm between eating and the Land which makes it the appropriate precursor to the Grace After Meals?

Psalm 126

(1) A song of ascents: When the Lord brings back the returnees to Zion, we shall be like dreamers.

(2) Then our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues with songs of praise; then they will say among the nations, "The Lord has done great things for them."

(3)The Lord has done great things with us; we were happy.

(4) Return us, O Lord, from our captivity like water courses in arid land.

(5) Those who sow with tears will reap with song.

(6) He who walks along weeping, carrying the sack of seeds; will retunr singing, carrying his sheaves.

Am Yisrael’s Future Redemption - understanding the psalm

The psalm deals in general with the future redemption of Am Yisrael (The Jewish People), while they were still in Babylonian exile after the Frist Temple was destroyed - that is, the psalm was said prior to the redemption, not after it.

The psalm commences with the improvement in Am Yisrael’s status as the result of their redemption. The phrase “We shall be like dreamers” is expounded by Radak to refer to looking back at Am Yisrael’s tribulations – as the result of the redemption, all the difficulties and suffering will be considered as merely having been a dream and not something which actually occurred.

“Our mouths will be filled with laughter” – that is, at the time of redemption, all the joy that was hidden within Am Yisrael will burst forth, and “Our tongues (will sing) songs of praise” [Malbim].

For the gentiles, Am Yisrael’s redemption will be a novel situation and they will be impressed and declare “The Lord has done great things for them," praising Am Yisrael. In contrast, Am Yisrael itself was aware of its greatness and lofty status, though in exile these could not be fully realized and responds: “the Lord has done great things for us (in the past); we were happy.” Even prior to the redemption, Am Yisrael rejoiced in the great things God had done for the nation; however, this was a restrained joy, not on the level of “Our mouths filled with laughter and out tongues with songs of joy” [Malbim].

The Psalmist continues with the prayer that even in times of exile (when we are in “arid lands”) we shall merit redemption (“streams of water”): thus, he prays “Return us, O Lord, from our captivity like streams of water in arid land,” - that God redeem Am Yisrael from its exile.

“Those who sow with tears,” who worked hard in exile, did the “arid land,” work which was done in tears, without knowing whether their work would be productive, will “reap with song;” they will benefit from their labor.

The conclusion of the psalm teaches Am Yisrael’s great faith in its ultimate redemption. The one who sows with tears, even when he goes to harvest, does not yet know with certainty that he will reap with song; and the harvest as well may be reaped with tears.

When harvest time arrives, he goes out (still) weeping, not knowing what his field has yielded. However, when he reaches the field, the Israelite farmer will come back (to his home) with joy, carrying his sheaves of bountiful produce. [Malbim]

But where does the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael appear in this psalm?

General Redemption and Individual Redemption - a deeper understanding of the commentaries

The answer to our question is to be found in our commentators’ understanding of the psalm.

The psalm has two themes: the first is general, the redemption of Am Yisrael, which carries with it great joy; the second is individual redemption, the redemption arriving through the hard work and effort of those “who sow in tears,” who “go along weeping.”

At the conclusion of the psalm we learn that all the great toil, which was at risk of being in vain, yields a bountiful harvest. The conclusion teaches that the commencement was also in joy, though then the joy was merely potential.

Rav Kook zt”l explains in Orot HaTeshuva (Perek 6:7) that Eretz Yisrael connects heaven and earth, she connects the “tree” and its “fruit,” the taste of the tree being the same as the taste of its fruit, as was God’s intention in creating the world (see Rashi, Genesis 1:11), The Holy Land connects the toil of working the fields with the joy of harvesting.

However, only with the return to Zion, when Am Yisrael returns to its Land, will we fully reveal that exile is part of the process of redemption. When we return to Eretz Yisrael and to Jerusalem we will realize the exalted level of the Land, in which all the toil is part of its fruit, that all the difficulties experienced within it are part of acquiring her. This is the meaning of Chazals’ (our Sages’) statement that Eretz Yisrael can be acquired only through suffering. [Gemara Berachot 5a]; not only the fruit, the end product, but the process as well is important in acquiring the Land.

Based on this, we can see that the essence of Eretz Yisrael envelops Psalm 126. The connection between means and ends, the unique ability to unite all aspects of the process, and to reveal at the end complete joy and singing, making all the travails seems as but a dream, is what Eretz Yisrael is all about.

Thus, Zohar’s wording is exact “One … must be concerned with the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael,” not simply with Eretz Yisrael itself, but with its sanctity.

“Sanctity” implies uniqueness, and the uniqueness of Eretz Yisrael is the ability to connect the means and the ends.

Planting and Reaping in Redemption

The parable of awaiting redemption presented by the psalm is the planter and harvester, that is, the processes which necessarily precede having food. This fact can teach us that eating, too, is service of God. Ideally, we eat not only as a matter of desire, but to maintain our bodies in order to be able to fulfill mitzvot and study Torah. This too is difficult work, and often we see the results only after a period of time.

Tehillim 126 teaches this exact process: that of difficult work which is suffused with faith that it will succeed.

Eretz Yisrael Yomi was established with the goal of a daily recharging of the innate love for Eretz Yisrael and the idealism of living in Eretz Yisrael based on sources from the Torah and Chazal. The emphasis of each d'var Torah is to illustrate:

  • ​The uniqueness of Eretz Yisrael.
  • The special connection of Am Yisrael to Eretz Yisrael
  • The love of Am Yisrael for Eretz Yisrael
  • The Zechut (privilege) of living in Eretz Yisrael
  • The responsibility of living in Eretz Yisrael

The writers of the divrei torah are current and past avreichim (kollel members) and talmidim (students) of Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav, and other Torah institutions that connect Torat Eretz Yisrael in accordance with Torah sources, Chazal, and the teachings of Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook z"tsl and his son, Rav Tzvi Yehuda HaCohen Kook, z"tsl .