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Growing Pains

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16-20 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

We Jews subscribe to the belief that the world is run by Divine Providence. God obligated Himself under the terms of the Covenant that He signed with us, the Jewish people, at Mt. Sinai, to treat us as the most beloved treasure of all peoples (Exodus 19:5). The very undertaking to provide Jews with special treatment assumes a world subject to Divine direction. Since it is quite unthinkable to suspect God of deliberately violating His agreements, we are forced to conclude that the events of Jewish history constitute an exact demonstration of God's interpretation of this obligation to treat us as His most beloved treasure. Needless to say, in light of the horrors that the Jewish people have endured over the centuries, especially the most recent horror of the Holocaust, the perception of our 'treasured' status is problematic to say the least.


But whatever the solution to the conundrum of Jewish history might be, Jewish tradition is adamantly clear about the fact that we live in a sensible world managed by Divine Providence. In such a world there are no random events. Whatever is allowed to take place is designed to move the world along towards the achievement of God's master plan for the human race. Besides, it is elementary that the benevolent God described by Jewish theology would never engage in the infliction of pointless pain. In light of these fundamental Jewish axioms, Judaism has always regarded it as a public duty to study the current problems of the Jewish people with an eye to attempting to unravel the workings of Providence.

With an eye to discharging this Jewish civic obligation, this essay focuses on the current conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. We are totally demoralized by daily acts of senseless terror perpetrated by people who enthusiastically sacrifice their lives to create havoc and murder against innocent civilians. No matter what solution we attempt, we seem quite helpless to stop the carnage. To add to our national frustration, a large part of the 'civilized' world regards us Jews as the perpetrators of the very violence of which we are the victims. Why is this happening to us? Why can't we reach a peaceful accommodation with our Palestinian neighbors no matter what concessions we offer?


This week seems like an especially appropriate week to examine the problematic areas of our relationship to the land of Israel. It is in our Parsha that the Torah points out the special dangers of living in Israel.

Do not become contaminated through any of these; for through all these the nations that I expel before you became contaminated. The land became contaminated and I recalled its iniquity upon it; and the land disgorged its inhabitants. But you shall safeguard My decrees and My judgments, and not commit any of these abominations.... Let not the land disgorge you for having contaminated it, as it disgorged the nation that was before you. (Vayikra 18:25-27)

You shall observe all My decrees and all My ordinances and perform them; then the land to which I bring you to dwell will not disgorge you. Do not follow the traditions of the nation that I expel from before you, for they did all these and I was disgusted with them. (Vayikra 20:22-23)

It is this special quality of the land of Israel and the spiritual demands that it makes on its inhabitants that lies at the source of our current troubles. It is this special quality that we propose to explore.

The Midrash informs us that God gave us, the Jewish people, three presents which were also desired by the nations, and which can only be acquired through suffering; Torah, the land of Israel, and the World to Come. (Sifri, Devarim, 32)

This essay is about the acquisition of the land of Israel, and not about Torah or the World to Come. Nevertheless, the fact that the land of Israel is linked to these clearly spiritual items indicates that spirituality is the common denominator that unites them all.


Israel is not just another country, qualitatively much like the United States or Canada except considerably smaller. Such countries do not need to be acquired through suffering; their spiritual aspect is not their predominant feature. They were designed to provide a suitable habitat for natural man, possessed of the spiritual reach programmed into all human beings by God at the instant of creation. These countries fit the user, man, perfectly, and there is no need to grow into them.

But Israel was not designed to be user friendly to natural man. Just as the World to Come is only open to the spiritually deserving, the Land of Israel was designated as the earthly habitat of the ideal man, man as he can and should become by perfecting himself spiritually and reaching out to God. Man as he was created cannot live there. Let us try to bring the concept of a spiritual country down to earth.


Man is unique because he is a mixture of the physical and the spiritual. He has a body, which is similar to that of all other life forms, but he also has a soul. Body and soul jointly participate in most human activities. When man eats, for example, the taste of the food, the setting, the cutlery, and the background ambience are almost as important as the nutrition value of the meal. Nevertheless, it is the need of the body for nourishment that provides the impetus for the meal.

Mitzvot are different. While many Mitzvot involve this duality of body and soul as well: eating Matzah, wearing Tefillin, blowing a Ahofar, etc; in the case of Mitzvot, it is needs of the soul that provide the impetus for engaging in the activity rather than the drives of the body.

To appreciate the subtle flavor of Mitzvot, one must consult human activities that are purely spiritual. Deep meditation, a familiar phenomenon, is an attempt to leave the confines of the body and express oneself as a pure soul. Because the impetus for Mitzvot is always spiritual, their performance is existentially always equivalent to such pure spiritual experiences even when the body also participates in their performance.


But man is not pure soul. The body gets in our way when we attempt to engage in "pure soul" activities. Removing the obstacle of the body necessarily involves tearing away and discarding a piece of ourselves, a process that cannot help but be painful.

Israel is a spiritual country; living in Israel has all the distinguishing marks of a spiritual experience. The process of divesting one's physicality is a necessary step in its successful settlement. You can only get a grip on Israel as a soul; the body has no need of it. We have only to look at the history of Israel to be convinced of the truth of this.

There is no other piece of territory on earth over which so much human blood has been shed through history. Secular theory attributes all this historic strife to the accident of geography. This tiny patch of land happens to be located at the junction of the trade routes connecting the lands of the north and east with Egypt. But an examination of the historic conflicts over Israel indicates that Israel is strategically important as a different sort of junction. Israel is desirable because it is the Holy land. It is the land located at the cross roads between the physical and the spiritual; it is the only place on earth where the territory of the mundane intersects the dimension of the holy.

It is in Israel that Cain and Able offered the sacrifice to God that served as the background to civilization's very first violent homicide. It is here that Noah presented his thanksgiving offering when he emerged from the Ark. Israel is the locale where Abraham was tested and ordered to sacrifice Isaac. Christians identify it as the locale of Jesus' resurrection. Islamic tradition teaches that it is the place where the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven. Jacob's ladder was planted on its soil on the site where the Holy Temple later stood.


The turmoil over Israel through human history was related to its holy aspect rather than to its physical strategic importance. The Christians and Moslems fought bitterly over its possession as a holy resource in the Crusades, and today the Arabs are fighting the Jews over it for much the same reason.

The terrorist acts from which we currently suffer are the work of suicide bombers and gunmen who believe they are earning eternal reward by sacrificing their lives in a religious Crusade to drive the infidel out of the Holy land. They should not be confused with Japanese Kamikazes dying for the glory of their country and their emperor. Only the secular West regards the present struggle between the Jews and the Palestinians as a conflict over territory that can be permanently resolved through some sort of compromise.

The secular modern mind may find it difficult to comprehend how a portion of earth that seems no different from any other can be designated as the habitat of the soul. But it is impossible to explain how Israel could have engendered so much conflict through history - or become the major focus of world media and the United Nations - without relating to it as a spiritual rather than a physical place.

All the monotheistic religions are based on the Old Testament and they all necessarily regard Israel as holy ground. This automatically means that a major portion of mankind will always be totally fascinated by who is in possession of this tiny piece of land. Israel is not Yugoslavia. In the imagination of monotheists, the land of Israel stands at the entrance to Heaven. Whoever holds it is already partially through the gate.


Spiritual countries must be acquired through suffering. Physical countries only have to be cleared and tamed; there is no need for anyone to exert any effort on the perfection of his character as a step to their successful settlement. All the labor involved in their conquest is focused on the outside environment. For spiritual countries this is not enough. Besides taming the soil, whoever wants to settle them must also do some heavy work on his soul. To be able to live in a spiritual land, you have to grow into a spiritual person.

All spiritual growth is painful. King Solomon put it thus: for with much wisdom comes much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases pain. (Kohelet 1:18) The person who must grow spiritually must necessarily undergo a period of suffering. The pain of such spiritual growth is the suffering associated with the acquisition of Israel. The land punishes anyone who plans to settle Israel as you would inhabit any other country.


It's extremely ironic. The early Zionists, who organized the return of the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland, did so with the intention of creating a modern secular state on this ancient soil. They were going to solve the problem of anti-Semitism once and for all by establishing a modern Western homeland for the Jewish people. They felt that when the Jews lived in their own land and were indistinguishable from Canadians or Americans and Englishmen, the Jewish problem would finally disappear.

Had they known that Israel is a spiritual land that can only be successfully reclaimed by people who are willing to make the transition from regarding themselves as bodies to understanding themselves as primarily souls, they never would have returned here in the first place. Now, because of the success that crowned the resettlement efforts of these primarily secular Jews, here we all are, over five million of us, the majority irreligious, with no place else to go, stuck in a land that demands us to behave as souls in order to acquire it. For the Jewish people, such a vision of our self inevitably requires a return to the traditional Judaism practiced by our forefathers, the diametric opposite of the vision of the Zionist founders of modern Israel. It is enough to make the secular Zionist pioneers turn over in their graves.

The suffering associated with spiritual growth is the key to understanding the Middle-East conflict. To see this clearly, let us look at the consequences the successful actualization of the Zionist scenario would have brought about. If the Jewish people could have managed to build a modern secular welfare state in the land of Israel and reach a peaceful accommodation with their Arab neighbors, this would have effectively brought the history of the Jewish people to a secular end.


No doubt there would always be a tiny remnant of Jews who would cling to the strict observance of Torah Judaism indefinitely, but as a people with a historic mission we Jews would have reached our culmination by constructing a secular state in the Holy land.

Is there any wonder that Divine Providence cannot allow Jewish history to end this way? For over two thousand years of exile, we Jews have clung to a Messianic historic vision with astonishing stubbornness. We shed rivers of blood and sacrificed the ambition of providing our children with decent lives in our determination to establish our vision of uniting humanity under the banner of God's rule. Is it reasonable to suppose that this two thousand year long bloody struggle could be allowed to terminate with the establishment of a modern secular state whose intelligentsia does not even believe in God's existence?

Imagine to yourself for a minute that there is a God. Do you honestly believe that He could allow the loyalty and self-sacrifice of several thousand years to just fade away without a whimper?


Let us look at the Middle East conflict from a religious angle. God is demonstrating to the Jewish people that you cannot live in Israel as you would in New York. If you want to live here you must prepare to devote your life to Judaism. After all, this is the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who were promised it as an inheritance so that they could worship God on the holiest place on earth.

True, the Jewish people aren't holding there at present, but this is through no fault of their own. The endless years of oppression and exile culminating in the horrors of the Holocaust have eroded the national dedication to the centrality of our Messianic vision. So God has chosen to stimulate us to think about the meaning of being Jewish.

How has He accomplished this? By allowing Jews to be shot at, blown up and terrorized until they reach the stage of hopelessness; until it seems that no possible compromise or concession will ever suffice to appease the Arab world.

After a while, this intense pressure compels us all to begin asking some very pointed questions. "What is going on here? Why are we Jews so different than other people? What value is being defended here that makes it worthwhile to give up one's life? Is our national striving to make a copy of New York in the Middle East where people speak Hebrew instead of English worth all this blood and sacrifice?"

When the individual Jew reaches this point in his soul-searching, he will either attempt to leave Israel, or will begin to discover the meaning of Judaism, and will find answers in the Torah. And then, the Mideast problem will immediately begin to improve.

God is not out to destroy the remnant of the Jewish people or to drive us out of our ancestral home after allowing us to miraculously regain it following a two thousand year hiatus. God is applying pressure. He is teaching us that it is impossible to live in His Holy land without thinking about the meaning and significance of being Jewish. He is leading us back to Sinai.


He even selected our opponents with great care. They are our perfect existential opposites. Whereas we are steeped in Western culture and totally literate, they are violently opposed to the West and everything it stands for and are largely uncultured by Western standards. Where we are secular they are extremely religious. Where we are apologetic and riddled with self-doubt, [sometimes self-hatred] they are chock full of brazen self-confidence based on nothing at all. Where the Jewish claim to this land is backed up by 4,000 years of recorded history, our neighbors' religion was only founded 2,000 years after we arrived.

In fact, the greatest weapon in the Arab arsenal is the will to sacrifice their lives for their beliefs. The focal point of Jewish vulnerability is that we no longer believe in any higher power and can only rely on the might of our hands. We have fully absorbed the skepticism of Western secularism. Torah values and promises are no longer useful to many of us as a foundation to justify the occupation of our own ancestral homeland. For many modern Jews, their highest moral value is social justice, and we are seriously weakened by the fact that many of these Jews question the justice of our cause.

Our immense military power has not led to a speedy resolution. No matter what solution we attempt, we seem quite helpless to stop the carnage. Our national frustration and pain is aggravated by the fact that a large part of the civilized world regards us Jews as the perpetrators of the violence from which we suffer instead of perceiving us as its victims.

It is essential to have a stubborn belief in the justice of our cause to arm ourselves with the stamina we need to face the long haul.

Yet many of us come up empty.

What is the solution? For the Jewish people to succeed in our quest of reacquiring this junction between heaven and earth, we must learn from our enemies. We need to regain our faith and the belief in our cause. We must recognize our current suffering as spiritual growing pains. Because in the end, the Land of Israel -- our most precious earthly possession -- will only be acquired through meeting the great challenge we face with spiritual growth.

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