Eretz Yisrael, Thoughts For Tu B’Shvat

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz explains that over the many generations we’ve been in exile, Tu B’Shvat developed from a largely technical date to determine certain halachot pertaining to trees into a quasi-“Memorial Day” for the Land of Israel. Over the years, Jews have made the effort, often at substantial expense, to obtain the fruits of Israel to enjoy on this day. Almonds, apricots, dates, figs and carob, among others, have adorned our tables for generations. (Although for some contemporary streams of Judaism it has recently expanded to a sort of “Jewish Earth Day”, both the halachic function and the centuries-standing tradition of eating the produce of the Holy Land have really restricted the importance of this day to Eretz Yisrael.) We’ve never lost our taste for Eretz Yisrael and we longingly pray three-times-a-day to return there.

Viewed objectively, however, our longing for this small sliver of earth seems absurd. A desert with very little water table, no major river to yearly flood its banks and turn the bordering land fertile, it’s totally dependent on rainfall which, at best, only occurs a few months of the year. Until the very recent discovery of oil and gas reserves (mostly offshore, so not really in Eretz Yisrael itself) it has been a land devoid of many resources. One wonders why we, or anyone else, would ever have bothered to fight over this land. Why has it become the most hotly contested real estate on earth?

In fact, until very recently it was desolate, abandoned and largely empty. Although this land was “the prize” over several centuries of Crusader and Arab battles, neither Christians from Europe nor Moslems from the much more fertile parts of the middle east flocked to actually live here. Of only spiritual rather than material value, and that only to the Jewish People, there is nothing to attract anyone else. As to the handful of holy sites, mere possession was usually goal enough for them.

When Jews began to return in significant numbers during the 18th and 19th centuries, Arabs from neighboring countries, attracted by the commerce and economy we were creating, flocked to enjoy this prosperity, at the same time resenting and trying to destroy our presence here (although only our presence made theirs possible). Without a legitimate connection to this land, once they were reminded of ours their goal became to destroy us and it.

Our tradition predicted this phenomenon nearly two millennia ago. The Zohar (1:127b) tells how Avraham discovered the holiness of Ma’arat Machpela (The Cave of Machpela which Avraham purchased shortly after Sara’s death) thirty or more years before he bought it bury Sara. A fleeing calf, the story goes, leads Avraham to this cave where he sees a vision of Adam. Looking inside he sees a great light and finds the two graves (of Adam and Chava (Eve)). At that very moment Avraham knows that his people will forever be connected to this land; he must acquire this cave as a burial place for himself, Sara and their descendants. The Zohar next asks the obvious question: why didn’t he purchase this plot immediately? It answers its own question by saying that had he even merely inquired about it at that time, the Hittites living in the vicinity would have paid it (too much) attention. Seeing it’s value to Avraham, they would have wanted to withhold it from him. From time immemorial, it seems, the Holy Land only acquires importance to others when they see its importance to us.

Likewise today, Machpela, which contains the graves of Adam and ChavaAvraham and Sara, Yitzchak and Rivka and Yaakov and Leah, as well as Hevron, the biblical city surrounding it, have been not only claimed by the “Palestinian Narrative” as its own, but they have made serious attempts to altogether deny the historical Jewish connection. We see the same story in Yerushalayim, our holiest city and especially Har HaBayit, site of our two Holy Temples and the holiest spot on earth for our people, where we are accused of/condemned for the “Judaization” of Jerusalem, our history denied and many ancient artifacts which tie us to this place brazenly destroyed.

The lesson–just as soon as the Jewish people show interest in our legacy, Eretz Yisrael, others also show interest, too much interest, and they try to obstruct us. As we remember from the original purchase of Machpela from Efron the Hittite (Bereishit 23:3-18), Avraham’s interest in the empty, abandoned field inspires Efron to demand an extortionist price for it, hoping to either discourage Avraham or, at least, make an outrageous profit. Previously fallow and unvalued by Efron, just as soon as The First Jew sees its holy, intrinsic, spiritual value, he wants to prevent and deny our holy, intrinsic and spiritual connection with this land.

It’s an old story, as relevant today as 3500 years ago. Just as Avraham overcame opposition and began the purchase of Eretz Yisrael on that day, so today, when we are returning to our land, there are powerful forces working overtime to prevent our inevitable destiny. And, just as then, we must now continue to overcome.

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