Programs Director, World Mizrachi
This week’s parasha, Bechukotai, contains the tochacha, the rebuke and warning to the Jewish people of the terrible punishments they can expect if they do not follow God’s commands. The echoes of these terrifying consequences have been heard throughout the last 2,000 years of exile:
I will bring upon you an army that avenges the avenging of a covenant, and you will gather into your cities. I will incite the plague in your midst, and you will be delivered into the enemy’s hands … And those of you who survive I will bring fear in their hearts in the lands of their enemies, and the sound of a rustling leaf will pursue them; they will flee as one flees the sword, and they will fall, but there will be no pursuer… (Vayikra/Leviticus 26:25,36)
In between these frightening statements, the narrative turns to the consequences for the Land of Israel:
I will make the Land desolate, so that it will become desolate [also] of your enemies who live in it. (Vayikra/Leviticus 26:32)
And we know, indeed, that this was the case, when for hundreds of years the land lay in waste. As the famous words of Mark Twain in his book The Innocents Abroad in 1867 explain:
A desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds… a silent mournful expanse…. a desolation…. we never saw a human being on the whole route…. hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country…
Moreover, not just the land was desolate, as the first half of verse 32 says, but the continuation of the verse says that our enemies will also not be able to gain a foothold. In 1888, Canadian academic Sir John Dawson, a devout Christian, wrote:
Until today no people has succeeded in establishing national dominion in the land of Israel… No national unity or spirit of nationalism has acquired any hold there. The mixed multitude of itinerant tribes that managed to settle there did so on lease, as temporary residents. It seems that they await the return of the permanent residents of the land. (Modern Science in Bible Lands, London, pp.449-450)
So, how can we find hope in this desperately depressing sequence of desolation and despair?
In the verse we cited above, verse 32. Rabbeinu Bechaye (1255-1340) explains in his commentary on this verse, that this is not just an admonition and a warning, rather a gateway of hope:
The desolation will be experienced by your enemies who will never feel comfortable in your land. This verse is good news for the Jewish people. God promises this in order that Jews in exile should never have to lament that seeing that they have been exiled from the Holy Land, others will now experience the pleasures to be experienced in that land (Sifra Bechukotai 6:8). As a result the peoples who will dwell there will not engage in civilising the country which they took over as desolate; they will not wall their cities. Any nation attempting to rebuild this country will find themselves lacking in strength to do so. This is a tremendous source of encouragement for exiled Jews that the land awaits their eventual return to it before it will begin to bloom again.
This is amazing – the Land will lay desolate and not allow another nation to rebuild, since, as Dawson put it, the Land “await[s] the return of the permanent residents of the land”. Despite the best efforts of the Romans, Byzantines, Mamluks, Ottomans and the British, they were unable to settle completely in the Land of Israel. Only once the Jewish people returned to their ancestral homeland could the following prophecy come true: “But you, O mountains of Israel, shall yield your produce and bear your fruit for My people Israel, for their return is near.” (Yechezkel/Ezekiel 36:8)
How fortunate we are to live in an era when the People of Israel have returned to the Land of Israel, and the Land of Israel has been reinvigorated and revitalised with the return of the People of Israel.