“The Sanctity of Land and its Implications”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Among the topics discussed in this coming week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, is the sanctity of the Land of Israel.

In Deuteronomy 12, Moses tells the People of Israel that in order to posses the land that G-d has given them, they must faithfully observe and perform the Divine decrees and ordinances. So not to be seduced by the idolatrous practices of the local residents, the Israelites are expected to utterly destroy all the places where the nations that inhabit the land worship their gods, whether they be on high mountains or under trees. G-d sternly warns the people to smash all the pagan altars and pillars. Sacred trees must be burnt in fire, carved images are to be cut down–the ultimate goal being the total obliteration of the names of the idolatries.

In an unexpected segue, the Torah, in Deuteronomy 12:4, tells the Jewish people: “Lo ta’ah’soon kayn la’Hashem Eh’lo’kaychem,” You shall not do this to the Lord, your G-d.

The Torah then continues to advise the people to seek out G-d’s presence. The people are to worship only at the place that G-d chooses. Only there are the people to bring elevation-offerings, feast-offerings, tithes, vow offerings, free-will offerings, and the firstborn of the cattle and the flocks. Only at that sacred site are the people to eat before the Lord and rejoice together with their households.

The sages are troubled by the unusual juxtaposition of the verse, “You shall not do this to the Lord, your G-d” within the context of the other verses, the results of which leaves an ambiguous meaning. Obviously, this verse is not intended to serve as a warning that the Jews are not to destroy their temples or their synagogues (as they had been commanded to destroy the idolatrous places). Rather, say the rabbis, the position of this warning, following the command to destroy the heathen idols, comes to teach several lessons:

1) Jews may not establish altars arbitrarily and burn incense wherever they wish, as the local nations do.
2) Jews are not permitted to mar or deface anything that has been identified or designated as sacred. So, for instance, a stone that becomes part of the Temple of Jerusalem is considered sanctified and may not be defaced.
3) Jews are forbidden to erase any of the seven names of G-d, nor may holy writings be erased or destroyed. Consequently, Jews to this day, bury their worn sacred Torah scrolls, prayer books and bibles that contain G-d’s name, in order to show respect for their sanctity.

The Sefer Ha’Chinuch (the classic work on the 613 commandments, their rationale and their regulations, by an anonymous author in 13th century Spain) states that the verse, “You shall not do this to the Lord, your G-d” comes to teach the people the reverence with which a sacred object, such as a Torah or Temple, must be treated. Approaching anything holy must be done with awe and trepidation, and with a display of proper respect for G-d.

The Kli Yakar (popular bible commentary, authored by R’ Shlomo Ephraim Lunshitz, c.1550-1619, Rosh Yeshiva in Lemberg and Rabbi of Prague) notes that the injunction, “You shall not do this to the Lord, your G-d” comes to teach that Jews must not follow the heathen practice of picking a sacred site for their Temple based solely on locale, such as an attractive mountain or tree. For the Jew, it is not the location that establishes the sanctity of the place, it is G-d’s designation that determines a place’s sanctity.

The Alshich (a popular commentary on the bible by R’ Moshe Alshich of Safed, 1508-1593?) further expands on the previous point by stating that Jews must be satisfied with only one location and one Temple, and must not emulate the other nations by erecting numerous places of worship throughout the land. The Alshich stresses the primacy of the unity of the Jewish people that is accomplished by having a single central location for worship. Hence, he is not concerned that, due to the long distance, Jews will not come to the Temple. He is certain that the richness, splendor and inspiration of the Temple worship will undoubtedly draw the masses to Jerusalem.

One of the universally acknowledged lessons deduced from this series of verses is the sanctity of all Jewish places of worship. Not only may one not mar or deface the Temple in Jerusalem, but every single place of worship, every mikdash m’aht (miniature temple), contains an inviolate sanctity.

As we read these verses and study their inner meanings, we ask ourselves what, pray tell, could possibly be the contemporary application of these ancient laws? Surprising, these laws have become extraordinarily relevant in recent days as demonstrated by a letter authored by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshiva of Har Etzion Yeshiva, regarding the evacuation of Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip.

In the communication, written on 11 Av 5765 (August 16, 2005), and addressed to Rabbi Avraham Shapiro, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Merkaz Harav and former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Lichtenstein raised a number of complex issues regarding the evacuation of the residents of Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip. Rabbi Lichtenstein questioned whether it is halachically permissible for rabbis to advise religious soldiers to refuse to evacuate Gush Katif since it may very well pose a challenge to the unity and viability of the Israeli army, and hence put the entire nation of Israel in harm’s way. He also raised the issue of whether one is permitted to return parts of the biblical land of Israel to non-Jews in the hope that, in the long run, this gesture would save Jewish lives. The question of demolishing synagogue buildings or yeshivot is also raised, which of course is the very question alluded to in the text of parashat Re’eh.

Rabbi Lichtenstein questions whether the demolition of a local synagogue building is really a “biblical” prohibition since the bible text refers specifically to the “Temple,” meaning the Jerusalem Temple. He contends that many authorities state that the prohibition of demolishing a synagogue today is of rabbinical origin. Furthermore, Rabbi Lichtenstein argues that one who desecrates a sanctuary is guilty only if it is done with “destructive intent,” which certainly would not apply to those who evacuate the synagogues of Gush Katif in the hope of achieving peace and saving Jewish lives.

Rabbi Lichtenstein raises the intriguing possibility that the destruction of the synagogues may even be for the good. He notes that the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem is referred to in classical texts as not being all bad since “G-d performed an act of loving-kindness with the Jewish people when He spilled His wrath on the wood and stones, limiting thereby the loss of human lives.”

We see here that the ancient laws of the Torah are frequently quite relevant today, even when dealing with the most contemporary of issues, issues that may very well have bearing on life and death. Of course, we don’t know the full answer to the question, and we will probably not know for a while, whether the evacuation of Gush Katif and the West Bank settlements will ultimately lead to a true and lasting peace.

Let us pray that with the heartbreaking demolition of the synagogues and communities that we have witnessed recently in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, G-d will have exhausted His wrath on the sticks and stones, and that the Jewish people will now be able to flourish in a genuine and lasting peace.

May you be blessed.