“Loving the Land of Israel”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s Torah portion, parashat Va’etchanan, is an extremely rich parasha. The parasha opens with Moshe’s plea to G-d to allow him to enter the land of Israel. Unfortunately, the plea is rejected. This is followed by a warning concerning the religious practices of the ancients who inhabit Canaan. The parasha most notably contains a repetition of the Aseret Hadibrot, the decalogue or the Ten Commandments, and includes the famous Shema prayer as well. It concludes with a description of what awaits the Jewish people when they enter the land of Israel and are tempted by the decadent practices of the native inhabitants.

Parashat Va’etchanan is always read on the Shabbat that follows the fast of Tisha b’Av, the fast that commemorates the destruction of the ancient temples in Jerusalem. Because of that, the uplifting Haftarah from the fortieth chapter of Isaiah is read. This chapter begins with the words, “Nah’chah’mu nah’chah’mu ah’mee,” “Comfort thee, comfort thee, My people,” says G-d, and, therefore, the Shabbat that follows Tisha b’Av is known as Shabbat Nah’chah’mu, the Sabbath of comfort.

While the fast of Tisha b’Av is now behind us, and we have thankfully entered the period of Shiv’ah D’n’chem’tah, the seven weeks in which we read Isaiah’s messages of comfort, allow me to share with you a striking insight regarding the fast of Tisha b’Av that I found in the commentary on the Artscroll Kinot. For those who are unfamiliar, Kinot are a collection of poems written mostly during the middle ages, bewailing the destruction of the Temples and the hardships endured by our people throughout the ages. These poems are read after the Book of Eichah (Lamentations) is chanted on the night of Tisha b’Av. A larger selection of Kinot is recited during the morning of Tisha b’Av, following the shacharit, morning services.

After reading two dozen Kinot on Tisha b’Av morning lamenting the destruction of the temple, a Kinah, known as “Mee yee’tayn rosh’ee mayim,” Would that my head were water, is read. It is the first kinah recited on Tisha b’Av that is not related to the destruction of the temples. In fact, it is a poem that recalls the calamity that befell the Jewish communities of the Rhineland Germany–Worms, Speyer and Mainz (Mayence)–in the year 1096, during the First Crusade. Although this destruction occurred over 1,000 years after the sacking of the second temple, this kinah is included in the Tisha b’Av ritual to indicate that Tisha b’Av is the universal day of mourning and that all Jewish tragedies can be traced back to the destruction of our temple and the sin of the scouts recorded in the Bible.

The Artscroll commentary strikingly points out the universality of Tisha b’Av as the national day of mourning:

When the Jewish people became aware of the awesome devastation that befell our nation at the hands of the murderous Nazis in World War II, many sought to establish a new day of national mourning to commemorate Churban Europa. The contemporary Torah leaders were consulted. Among the responses was that of the Brisker Rav, R’ Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, who said that the reply to this question lies in the kinnah before us. Why didn’t the great Rabbis and Sages of that generation–among them the greatest of the Rishonim, including Rashi–establish a new day of national mourning to commemorate that new tragedy? The author of this kinnah addresses this question and offers this insight:

Please take to your hearts to compose a bitter eulogy,/ because their massacre is deservant of mourning and rolling in dust/ as was the burning of the House of our God. Its Hall and Its Palace. / However, we cannot add a (new) day (of mourning) over ruin and conflagration,/ nor may we mourn any earlier–only later./ Instead, today (on Tisha b’Av), I will arouse my sorrowful wailing, / and I will eulogize and wail and weep with a bitter soul, / and my groans are heavy from morning until evening. Thus, the essential purpose of this kinnah is to drive home this lesson: There are really no new tragedies befalling Israel. All of our woes stem from one tragic source–the Destruction of the Temple on Tisha b’Av. To establish a new day of mourning would detract from the significance of Tisha b’Av and obscure its lesson and message. (See Rashi to II Chronicles 35:25.)

This kinnah also answers another major question. Why does the exile continue? Why does G-d visit fresh calamities upon His people? Where have we gone astray? One of the main reasons for the continuation of our exile is because Jews are often quite content and comfortable in their adopted, alien homelands and have all but lost their desire to return to the poverty and hardships of Eretz Yisrael. Slowly the Jew ceases to identify with his true home, the Holy Land, and begins to feel intense pride in his citizenship in his new country.

The destruction of the Jewish community of Worms in the German Rhineland was the work of the crusaders. How ironic! The crusaders were willing to leave everything behind–homes, families, occupations–in order to conquer the Holy Land they called Palestine, while the Jews themselves were filled with no such zeal to regain their own homeland! In heaven, this irony did not go unnoticed, but aroused a terrible denunciation against the Jewish people, and especially against the Jews of Worms and her neighboring communities.

The classic work on Jewish history, Seder HaDorot, by R’ Yechiel Halperin, records the following observation in his entry for the year 5380 (1620):

The author of the commentary Sefer Meirat Eynayim (SMA) on the Shulchan Aruch explained why the Jewish community of Worms suffered far more persecution, pogroms and evil decrees than other congregations. That kehillah was founded by Jewish exiles who made their way to Germany following the Destruction of the First Temple. After seventy years of exile, many Jews returned from Babylon to Eretz Yisrael and Jerusalem, but none returned from Worms. The community in Jerusalem wrote to the kehillah in Worms and urged them to join their new settlement in Jerusalem…but the complacent Jews of Worms dismissed this invitation out of hand. Instead, they responded, ‘You stay where you are in the great Jerusalem, and we will continue to stay where we are in our little Jerusalem!’ This arrogant response was due to the prosperity and prestige the Jews of Worms enjoyed in the eyes of the local gentiles and their princes.

The success of Worms was its undoing! The prosperity of the Jew in exile is nothing more than a Divine test to see whether it will cause the Jew to forget his homeland and his heritage. Worms and the Rhineland failed and suffered bitterly. In our own times, the vast majority of the German kehillah failed, because, as Meshech Chochmah (Bechukotai) observes, ‘They began to call Berlin, Jerusalem!’ (The Artscroll Kinos pp 272-273)

A similar challenge faces the Jewish people today. Will we rise to the occasion and acknowledge the special gift of G-d–that we today have witnessed the return of the land of Israel to Jewish hands–or will we ignore this special gift and continue to compose elegies for the losses that we have sustained?

May we respond with passion and with alacrity and merit to behold the redemption of our people in the very near future.

May you be blessed.