For What Was the Land Lost?
“Al ma avdah et ha’aretz – For what was the Land lost?” our Sages asked in the wake of the destruction of the Temple.
To that question, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch notes, the historians had easy answers. The destructions of both Temples were hardly miraculous. Just the opposite: they followed THE normal rules of history. “How could tiny Judea have avoided falling prey to the rising Assyrian and Babylonian imperial powers! How could the insignificant power of Judea mount resistance to the mighty Roman legions!”
And the historians are right, Rabbi Hirsch pointed out. But they misunderstood the question that our Sages were asking. The surprise lay not in the defeats at the hands of the Babylonians and later the Romans. Rather the miracle was the “political existence of Judea for more than a thousand years, an existence for which every natural prerequisite was absent.” At the most vital crossroads of the ancient world, coveted by every major empire, how had the Jews maintained some level of independence for a millennium?
So the question our Sages asked was really: What happened to cause the miraculous Power to forsake Israel? Why did the same Power “Whose eagles’ wings alone raised Israel up to freedom and independence and had maintained it far above the inexorable life-cycle of nations . . . not rush to the scene when the Babylonian power poised to devour and the Roman legions stood poised to capture?” That is what our Sages were asking when they pondered the causes for the loss of Land.
LESS THAN TWO WEEKS BEFORE TISHA B’AV, G-d has revealed to us with absolute clarity how precarious is our existence and how much we are in need of Divine protection.
Once President Obama failed to act when Syrian dictator Bashar Assad crossed Obama’s self-imposed red line and used chemical weapons against the Syrian people, it was clear that all options were not on the table, and that Obama had thrown away all his leverage in advance of the negotiations with Iran. The American position would shift to “any deal is better than none,” as long as it avoids the use of military power during Obama’s term in office.
Obama is lying when he says that last week’s deal prevents Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. All restrictions on Iran end after little more than a decade. So at best, a nuclear Iran is almost inevitable between ten and fifteen years from now. And that’s if Iran does not cheat – something at which the Iranians have long practice and great expertise.
The contemplated inspections regime is so porous that Iran might not even have to follow the North Korean example and expel international inspectors before attaining a bomb. At the same time, the sanctions relief is so front-loaded, that the mullahs have little incentive not to renege at any point, especially once Teheran is awash with men in silk ties and fancy suits eager to sell Iran the rope with which to hang them. (More likely, the mullahs will rely on West leaders to avert their eyes to any violations, as they did throughout the negotiations, so as not to give lie to their legacy achievement.)
So we can pretty much count on living in the shadow of a nuclear Iran that, which vows to annihilate us a little more than a decade from now, and possibly sooner. In the meantime, we can happily contemplate what Hezbollah and Hamas can do with their share of the $100-150 billion in sanctions relief that will flow shortly into Iran’s coffers. Or how that money will be spent to train legions of Iranian hackers and cybersecurity experts to attack Israel and defend against counter-attacks.
FURTHER DISCUSSIONS OF THE AGREEMENT at this point are pointless baying at the moon: Obama achieved what he set out to do – turn Iran into the preeminent Middle Eastern power. Our task now is to figure out how to protect ourselves in the midst of a nightmare from which there is no waking: militarily, yes; but, even more importantly, spiritually.
Not just today, but since the creation of the state, the Jews of Israel have been dependent on Divine protection. James MacDonald, the first U.S. ambassador to Israel, once remarked that Israel is the only country in the world that factors 30% Divine intervention into every government decision. Reading Yehuda Avner’s The Prime Ministers one is struck by the number of times that Israel’s existence hung in the balance, and not just in during the 1948 and 1967 wars. If President Johnson had not responded positively to Prime Minister Eshkol’s plea for rearmament after the 1967 War, Israel would have been left without arms to defend itself from Arab armies bent on revenge. The successes of the Entebbe and Osirak raids rank as near open miracles.
The current situation also contains hints as to what we must do so that we do not find ourselves asking, like our Sages after the Destruction: “For what was the Land lost?” A nuclear-armed adversary helps to clarify one aspect of our situation: We are all in this together. An Iranian nuclear bomb would make no distinctions between religiously observant and secular, Sephardi and Ashkenazi.
We are being shown that enhancing Jewish unity — so that it becomes something freely chosen not forced upon us from Above — is the imperative of hour. The Midrash and Gemara in several places points out that the armies of the wicked Ahav were successful because there was peace and love between the Jewish soldiers, and they did not speak negatively about one another.
About 20 years ago, Rabbi David Geffen started an organization called Common Denominator to bring the full spectrum of Israeli Jews together by working on common projects. Before he started, he went to Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, then the greatest living halachic decisor, and asked him whether just lowering tensions between Jews would be a worthy endeavor, even if it had no impact on any participant’s religious observance. Rabbi Elyashiv told him that it would.
Rabbi Geffen also brought over a period of three years about 25,000 secular Jews to visit families in Meah Shearim. When he heard about that aspect of the project, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, a major American rosh yeshiva, had tears in his eyes, as he told Geffen, “If you can just teach chareidim to love chilonim as they are, without any connection to kiruv, you will accomplish more than all the kiruv groups, and might even bring Mashiach.”
Rabbi Weinberg’s point was that one Jew can only influence another Jew positively if the latter feels that the first genuinely loves him and seeks his good, and is not just motivated by a desire that everyone be like him.
The key to building that love is to focus on our fellow Jews’ virtues, and not spend our time taking their spiritual temperature. Most of us have at least some sense of our many failings. Yet when we look in the mirror, we tend to place more emphasis on our good points. Loving our fellow Jews as ourselves means defining them by their virtues, just as we do with respect to ourselves.
Last week, I heard Miriam Peretz speak. She lost both of her sons, Uriel and Eliraz, in combat. Her rock solid belief in the coming of Mashiach and the rebuilding of the Temple was palpable. She described how she has a small model of the Temple in her home. Two stones taken from the booby-trapped rock upon which her son Uriel was killed in Lebanon – one charred and the other washed clean by the rain — she imagines will be among the building stones of the Third Temple.
She told how her son Eliraz had called during fighting in Gaza to say that he had a few-hour break and was coming to see her. She told him to visit his wife and one-month-old daughter whom he had not yet seen. But he said that he did not have time to reach his home in Eli. Instead he met his wife in Jerusalem, and together they went to the Kotel. It would be the last time they would ever see each other.
Two weeks after Eliraz fell, his wife wrote a description of that last meeting, and how Eliraz told her before the Kotel with tears in his eyes, “Do you see? For this. For this, we live. For this do we beseech [G-d]. For this we fight. And for this, if it’s required, will we give up our lives.”
I cannot fathom how Mrs. Peretz had the strength to read that letter, and even to turn it to a source of optimism to an audience of young women starting sherut leumi. But she did. And with her words she shook me from any complacent assumption that only among the great tzaddikim of my chareidi community is such intense faith to be found.
May we all make the effort to get to know one another better, to be alert to the admirable qualities to be found in our fellow Jews, and through the increased love and unity between us not only merit protection from those who seek to wipe us out but also to see the Temple rebuilt and Tisha B’Av transformed from a day of mourning to one of rejoicing.