torah

This land of ours, Israel, is really who we are

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They had only been in the army for eight months, and had only recently completed basic training, but on the books they were paratroopers. The youngest of the units sent into one of the toughest neighborhoods of Beirut, they were supposed to be backup, reinforcing the experienced combat veterans ahead of them.

Two relatively unknown refugee camps in Lebanon had become infested with units of the PLO, and the mission tonight was to root out terrorist enclaves and prevent further infiltrations into Israel against Israeli civilians in the North. They weren’t supposed to be involved in heavy fighting; there were more experienced troops ahead who were more prepared. But in Beirut, no one ever plays by the rules.

Unbeknownst to the young paratroopers, a PLO unit had circled around behind them, catching them off guard. Chaim, eight months in the army, was in the command turret when all hell broke loose. The vehicle in front of him was hit by an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) and exploded. The lieutenant in charge of the unit was killed instantly. Then the vehicle in the rear was hit. The column was trapped in the heart of enemy territory.

Men spilled out of the personnel carriers, taking cover where they could. Confusion reigned. Screams and gunfire filled the air. All the commanders had been killed or wounded. Most frightening of all, the inexperienced men were not well-versed enough to give brigade headquarters their exact position. For four long hours, the paratroopers held off overwhelming odds until support units could finally reach them.

Despite this, Chaim spent two more years in the army, much of it in Lebanon, because that was what needed to be done.

• • •

One of the men wounded that night lost part of his foot and eventually was honorably discharged. He was an ex-ski patrol instructor from the States who had volunteered for the Israeli army, leaving behind a cushy life in America.

I ran into him one Sunday morning near Tel Aviv. He was headed back up to Lebanon after a weekend pass. I asked him why on earth he had volunteered, and whether he regretted it. His answer, in a moment of sober reflection, belongs in a movie:

“Some things are worth dying for, man.”

Are they? Is anything on earth really worth dying for? A piece of land so small most people can’t find it on a map?

If the greatest gift we are given in this world is life itself, how can we be so attached to a plot of earth? Is this really what Judaism wants of us? Even Shabbat, described in the Talmud as being equal to all the commandments, is nonetheless waived aside to save a life.

Hidden between the lines of this week’s portion, Behar, is an idea that may shed some light on this issue.

• • •

Behar deals mostly with the mitzvoth of shemittah, the Sabbatical year which falls every seven years in Israel, and Yovel, the Jubilee year, which occurs after seven cycles of shemittah, in the fiftieth year.

Every seven years, the Jewish people in Israel cease working the land and rediscover what all that work was really about. Just as Shabbat gives us the chance to take stock of what we are accomplishing all week, shemittah does the same on a national level. Every seventh year, the ploughs stand still and the fields grow wild, as the Jewish people fill the study halls to reconnect with why they were given the land in the first place.

An agricultural life can be intoxicating. After all the effort to produce the harvest, it is easy to forget that the harvest is not the goal. In this seventh year, even indentured servants are reminded that however little they may own, they have value as human beings and ultimately serve no man. They are set free. And after seven cycles of shemittah, the Yovel year arrives, during which the land lies fallow, servants go free, and all plots revert to their original owners.

There is a fascinating law in this week’s portion: “If your brother becomes impoverished, and sells part of his ancestral heritage, his redeemer who is closest to him shall come and redeem his brother’s sale” (Vayikra 25:25).

In other words, if a person is so poor that he has no way to live other than to sell the land he received as an ancestral inheritance, his relatives have a special mitzvah to buy it back, so that this ancestral plot be returned to its rightful owners.

Rashi points out that this verse teaches that a person is only allowed to sell his ancestral plot in the event of dire poverty, and then, only as much as is needed to live off of. Additionally, as soon as he has accrued enough money to buy back the land, he is obligated to do so. Most fascinating of all, once he or a relative is able to redeem the property, the buyer is forbidden to prevent the sale!

• • •

Clearly, the Torah takes issue with those who wish to sell the land they have inherited. Why? What meaning is there to inheriting land if not to sell and trade? Why is it so important to hang on to a piece of earth? Is what you have more important than who you are?

On a mystical level, every nation has its place, the source of its character and its strength. A nation cannot be a nation if it does not have a land. No nation would be what it is anywhere else. The Greeks would not have achieved what they did as the same people living in Kansas. We are very much influenced by the environment; we tap into the energy of the places we inhabit.

The Talmud suggests that a person who is struggling with improper desires should bring them into the study hall. Just being in a room filled with the study of Torah and the effort to come closer to the Creator and achieve higher ethical levels makes, on some level, a more ethical person.

And we are impacted not just by what people are doing in our environment, but also even by their history.

Science is just starting to warm to this concept, but many cultures have embraced the idea that everything that happens in a building is “recorded” in its walls. If you move into a home whose previous tenants were unhappy, you will pick up unhappy energy. And if you spend time in a place where people have done many spiritual things (like a beit midrash) you will have an easier time tapping into your own spiritual path.

• • •

This is the secret of the land of Israel. Judaism suggests that every nation was created for a purpose. The mission of the Jewish people, in the words of Yeshayahu, is to be “a light unto the nations,” an ethical role model for the world. It is no accident that the world holds us to a higher standard, devoting three to seven times as much front-page coverage as any other nation. It is the reason we are here.

So if Hashem wants us to become such an ethical people, He must give us a land whose historical ethical imprint is unique. And this is the essence of the land of Israel. It was here that our ancestors, giants of ethical behavior, walked the land. When we are in Israel, we tap into the kindness of Avraham and the power of Yaakov. We reconnect with the superhuman sensitivity of Rachel, who gave up the love of her life rather than embarrass her sister.

If we are meant to be a people who rise to a unique level of ethical behavior, we have to be in a uniquely ethical place.

And just as every nation has its place, so too every individual within that nation has a special place in that land. Indeed, the Talmud suggests that every Jew has four cubits of land somewhere in Israel (Bava Batra 44b, Tosafot), which means that we, each of us, are meant to tap into a specific historical story.

And this is why the Torah says a person’s ancestral land cannot and should not be sold except under dire circumstances. It is a part of who we are. In this world, there are some things that are just not for sale.

May Hashem grant us soon the wisdom to come home and rediscover who we are really meant to be.