“Loving the Land of Israel”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, we learn the fascinating tale of five trail-blazing young women: Machla, Noa, Chagla, Milka, and Tirza–the daughters of Tzelafchad. On Thursday, June 27, 2002, Jews all over the world will observe the Fast of Shiv’ah Asar B’Tamuz, the 17th day of Tamuz. This fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army during the siege of the city in 586 BCE, leading to the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. As we shall see, there is a striking confluence between the request of the daughters of Tzelafchad and the mourning for the loss of the Temple and Jerusalem.

Who are these five women? In Numbers 27:1-2 we read: “Vah’tik’rav’nah b’not Tzelafchad ben Chefer ben Gilad ben Machir ben Menashe la’mish’p’chot Menashe ben Yosef…Va’ta’ah’mod’nah lif’nei Moshe,” These women, who were direct descendants of forefather Joseph, approached Moshe with a claim about the legal rights to their father’s property in the land of Israel.

In Genesis 50:25 the Bible quotes Joseph as saying to his family before his death, “Pakod yif’kod Eloh’kim et’chem… V’ha’ah’lee’tem et atz’mo’tai mee’zeh,” G-d will surely remember you, and you shall carry up my bones from here [Egypt], and bring them to the land Israel. By identifying the women as descendants of Joseph, scripture underscores that these five women were spiritual as well as physical descendants of Joseph–a person with an abiding commitment to the land of Israel. Although Joseph was certainly a greatly admired hero in Egypt, he knew that Egypt was not his land, and insisted on being taken out of that land to be buried in the land of Israel.

Numbers 27:3-4 fills in the details of the womens’ claim: “Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not in the company of them that gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korach. But he died in his own sin, and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be eliminated from his family because he has no sons? Give to us a possession among the brethren of our father.” Clearly, these women were passionately committed to the Holy Land.

G-d’s response (Numbers 27:7): “Kain b’not Tzelafchad dovrot,” the daughters of Tzelafchad speak correctly. They shall surely be given a possession of inheritance among their father’s brethren. And thou shall cause the inheritance of their father to pass to them. The women’s passionate commitment to Israel was rewarded!

When contrasted with the great love of Zion of the daughters of Tzelafchad, contemporary Jewry’s commitment, despite all the fretting over the security of Israel, rather pales. Frankly, one of the greatest lies of contemporary Jewry is the statement that diaspora Jews pronounce at the end of Yom Kippur and toward the close of the Passover seder, “L’shanah ha’ba’ah b’Yerushalayim,” next year in Jerusalem.

When the so-called Oslo Peace Agreement was feted on the White House lawn in 1993, together with President Clinton, Prime Minister Rabin and Yasser Arafat, I had a nightmare. I had a nightmare that the Al-mighty tried to clarify to the world the purpose of the Oslo accords by exclaiming to the Jewish people,”For 2,000 years you have been badgering and nudging me with prayers and petitions. “V’lee’Yerushalayim eer’cha b’rachamim tah’shuv,” restore Your presence to Zion, Oh Lord, “V’teh’cheh’zeh’nah ay’nay’noo b’shuv’chah l’Tzion b’rah’chah’mim,” may our eyes soon behold the return of the presence of G-d to Zion. In bentching, in the Grace after meals, you cried out, “Ooh’v’nay Yerushalayim eir hakodesh,” rebuild Jerusalem, the Holy city. Every year at the seder and the conclusion of Yom Kippur you exclaimed, “L’shah’nah ha’ba’ah b’Yerushalayim,” next year in Jerusalem. “So,” said G-d in my nightmare, “In 1948, against all odds, I restored the Jewish people to their land. And you know what happened? No one came! Only a few chalutzim–pioneers. In fact, most of those who came to Israel were refugees, expelled from Arab lands, with nowhere else to go. Almost no one came from the lands of comfort, from the United States, from Canada, from Europe, South Africa, Australia, except a few crazies.”

“And I said to myself,” said the Al-mighty, “What’s wrong? Perhaps, they are not coming because they had no access to the Kotel, the Western Wall, Mah’ahrat Hamachpela, the cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, the sepulcher of Joseph in Nablus, in Shechem. So in 1967 I restored the Old City, I gave them Hebron, the entire West Bank, and I even threw in Sharm El Sheik for scuba diving and the Hermon mountains for snow skiing! I waited and waited, and no one came. So, 25 years later, I said to Myself, Oib ah’zoy, if that’s the case, I’m going to give the land to people who really love the land, and those are the Palestinians! Hamas, Hezbola, the PFLP–they are willing to die for the land.”

We say in our Amidah prayer and in the Grace after meals, “V’to’lee’chay’nu ko’m’mee’yut l’artzay’nu,” restore us upright to our land–upright does not mean in a coffin. The land of Israel is intended to be a homeland for living Jews. It should not become a dumping ground for dead Jews. When we fast on the 17th of Tamuz, it is imperative for us to bear in mind as well that peace for the Jewish people has always been a factor of the Jewish peoples’ relationship to G-d. If we truly desire peace, we must return to G-d, and He will return to us, and in this way the land as well will be restored to the people of G-d.

May you be blessed.