07 Aug Re’eh: Land of Abatement and Legacy
Our experience in Israel is multi-dimensional and oftentimes paradoxical. This land distill so many different values and experiences that rarely can a single phrase or term capture it various layers and the depth of our relationship with Israel. The Torah employs a battery of phrases to capture life in Israel; sometimes these terms appear to clash and appear to create paradox. When facing an experience of this magnitude paradox is to be fully expected.
Parshat Re’eh contains a tandem of phrases which captures some of this multi-dimensionality. The Beit Hamikdash is described as both Menucha and Nachala (literally an abode and an inheritance(. The gemara in Zevachim )119a) acknowledges that these phrases refer to the penultimate mishkan in Shiloh as well as the subsequent and final mikdash in Yerushalayim. Prior to the construction of the mikdash, a semi-permanent mishkan stood in the Northern city of Shiloh (from 1258 to 889 BCE). The gemara actually debates which of these phrases refers to the mishkan in Shiloh and which qualifies the more permanent mikdash in Yerushalayim. To be sure, the overall “concept” of Mikdash – whether in Shiloh or Yerushalayim-is portrayed by the combination of these two phrases. Just as this tandem of phrases – menucha and nachala- define the experience of mikdash they also reflect life in Israel in general.
The term “menucha” implies an abode for the Divine presence or the Shechinah. God spans the entire universe and exists beyond space and time yet He chooses to concentrate His presence within a specific land, city and Temple. God announces “zot menuchati adei ad” (this is my residence for eternity (Tehillim 132)) confirming that His presence will never depart the environs of Jerusalem. Every Jew should yearn for Israel- first and foremost – because it is God’s chosen land and the site which affords the most direct and intimate encounter with His presence. Yet, Israel is also defined as “nachala” – an inheritance and a land of history. Our collective history unfolded in this land and this land was promised to the Jewish future. Theoretically, even if Israel didn’t contain the saturated presence of God it would still be our unique birthright; Our collective past and the hopes and dreams of generations consolidated this birthright. In our current uneven and incomplete world – as history is still “in progress” – millions of Jews worldwide identify with Israel as a “nachala” or heritage but do not yet yearn for the encounter with God and the condition of menucha. Sometimes, efforts to advance the state of “menucha” in Israel weaken the sway of Israel as nachala in the imaginations of many. Extending elements of religion into different areas of Israeli life may very well augment the presence of God and the experience of “menucha. Sometimes however, especially if these actions don’t stem from broad consensus among partially-observant Jews, these efforts can boomerang and efface the national shared sense of “nachala”. Clashes between these two values are complex and must be addressed in a sophisticated and nuanced fashion; advancing menucha at a stiff cost to a national perception of nachala may sometimes be unwise. More importantly than carefully navigating these potential clashes, we must maintain a historical vision of the overlap between the two values. Throughout history, Jews were drawn to this land of menucha simply because it afforded a more direct encounter with the residence of the Shechinah. Even without realizing the elements of nachala Israel was always valued as menucha since it housed the Divine presence. Even without a robust Jewish presence in Israel and in the complete absence of any expressed form of nachala, the condition of menucha was sufficient to rivet Jewish attention upon this land. In turn, this timeless devotion to Israel reinforced our rights to this land. The condition of nachala was institutionalized not only through the efforts of our ancestors who struggled to inhabit this land. Our constant dreams and devotion to this land throughout history secured our rights to this heritage of nachala.
Beyond connoting the presence of Shechinah the term menucha carries an additional connotation- abatement and repose. Shabbat is often referred to as “Shabbat menucha”- a term which captures the cessation from work and industry. Menucha doesn’t merely describe the dwelling of the Divine presence but the “rested” state of human inhabitants. As Jews, we were historically tasked with traveling through this world – often as strangers always as outsiders. We bore a message which wasn’t always understood and certainly was never popular. Invariably, this mission created hostility, instability and, ultimately, constant migration and resettlement. When Jews finally arrive home in Israel they enjoy much needed abatement from the disorder of our turbulent history.
For many, the State of Israel’s primary function was to serve as menucha – a home for a homeless nation and a solution to the historical scourge of anti-Semitism. Though a Jewish homeland clearly hasn’t resolved historical anti-Semitism, undoubtedly the land has served as a much needed menucha – beckoning Jews from across the globe and offering them residence, stability and serenity. This function should not, in any respect, be taken for granted. The Jewish search for safe refuge was a challenge which defined the decade of the Holocaust from 1935-1945. Jews were continually barred entry into potential safe havens across the globe while British policies banned mass emigration to Palestine. Oftentimes, refugees who were denied entry to safe havens returned to life-threatening conditions. With the formation of the State of Israel an ultimate menucha was established forever solving the “problem” of Jewish refugee-ism. In 1950, this reality was enshrined in the formation of The Law of Return which grants every Jew the right to emigrate to, and gain citizenship in, the State of Israel.
It may appear to some that the function of menucha can be served by any country which offers Jews refuge and residence. Additionally, in theory, any land may be chosen for a Jewish menucha to gather and stabilize Jewish people searching for Statehood. Famously, the 1903 Ugandan option proposed transferring land in an East African country ( in current day Kenya) to the Jewish people as their Stateland. This option – supported by many – gained support after particularly vicious progroms in Russia during that year. However, though this type solution may appear to provide temporary or even long term menucha, it certainly does not afford the opportunity of nachala. Kenya isn’t the birthplace of the Jewish people nor is it the target of our dreams and prayers. Our history unfolded in the land of Israel and any true and everlasting menucha can only be achieved in the land of nachala.
Once again, our imperfect world hasn’t accommodated a full realization of both of these meanings of menucha and nachala. By and large, the world has recognized the need for a Jewish State. Certainly, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the world was able to soothe its conscience and allay its guilt by enabling a Jewish homeland. Though the historical impact of the Holocaust has waned in public consciousness, the general international community still embraces the value and purpose of a Jewish State. Unfortunately, our rights to this land as nachala are still hotly contested. Some ignore our past historical claim to this land while others accept our past but dispute our claims to future. We still await a period of universal recognition of the land of Israel as a country of menucha precisely because it is our nachala.