Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai predicted it, during the Roman era of two thousand years ago. He said, “שלש מתנות טובות נתן הקב"ה לישראל, וכולן לא נתנן אלא על ידי יסורין. אלו הן: תורה וארץ ישראל ועולם הבא.” “HaShem gave the Jewish people three gifts - Torah, Israel and Olam HaBa - but none of them may be acquired without יסורין, without suffering.”
And what a long parade of suffering it has been. Three generations of slavery in Egypt. Forty years of desert wandering. Even two thousand years of exile were not sufficient, apparently. 1929. 1948. 1967. 1973. 1981. 1990. 2000. 2006. And now 2008. This week, once again, we have seen that suffering that comes hand-in-hand with living in our land. Rockets strike kindergartens and high schools, young men and women stand ready to march into the deathtrap that is Aza…
And these are only the highlights, the points when the powderkeg ignited, as opposed to the years in between of hijackings and suicide bombings.
Yes, these יסורין continue.
But what is the value of these יסורין, why does the Torah guarantee that the Jew, through the ages, will be forced to experience trauma before he may receive his territorial heritage? Our sages have offered three classic explanations:
The Maharal of Prague, writing almost five centuries ago, offered what many consider the obvious explanation: The Jew must endure pain in order to purify himself from his sins, such that he will deserve to tread upon this sacred earth.
A midrash seems to say as much, comparing the יסורין inflicted upon the Jew who would live in Israel with the יסורין a parent inflicts upon a child in order to refine his behavior.
Rabbeinu Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, in the 19th century, suggested a second understanding: Self-sacrifice is a test of our loyalty and commitment to the land of Israel.
Just as one who wishes to convert to Judaism must demonstrate sincere, enduring commitment to Gd, to Torah and to the Jewish people, so the Jew who wishes to acquire his share in Israel must demonstrate that his four cubits in this land mean more to him than four cubits in any other land on earth. Avraham was once summoned to sacrifice that which was most dear to him, and his descendants have been held to that same standard.
And there is a third layer: Rav Shmuel Eidels, also known as Maharsha, explained back in the 17th century that our historic privation is a lesson in the very purpose of Israel.
Lest we think that we have been given Israel for its beautiful beaches, for its wine country, for the hills of Yehudah or the mountains of the Galil or the shores of the Kinneret, these יסורין teach us that Israel is not to be the Cancun of the Middle East, some spa for physical pleasure. Rather, it is a center for spiritual growth.
I must admit that this feels cold, this philosophy of assigning national meaning to the individual pain of a bombing victim, an ambushed soldier, a parent whose child is missing in action. We are not normally a religion that reads the mind of Gd, identifying motives for the suffering of individuals.
But the Maharal, Rabbeinu Yosef Chaim, the Maharsha and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, giants of Judaism, did develop this philosophy. They believed that this is the way we are to understand the suffering we have endured in the name of this land: That it purifies us, that it pushes us to demonstrate our sincere commitment to the land, that it ensures we will properly appreciate Israel as a place of spiritual growth.
Therefore: A Jew who wishes to embrace the land of Israel must be prepared to confront pain, and overcome it. And without it, he cannot claim ownership of the land.
Witness the covenant extracted from the tribes of Gad and Reuven, when they wished to monopolize the portion of Israel on the eastern side of the Jordan River. Gd required that they cross the Jordan and aid their brethren in settling Israel itself, before they could return to the land to the east.
Why did Gd require this of Gad and Reuven? The conquest of Israel was engineered miraculously, so what difference would it make whether the tribes of Reuven and Gad fought, or sat it out?
It wasn’t for the sake of military success - it was for the sake of Gad and Reuven themselves. It was about their Yisurin, the suffering that would earn them a portion in this land. If the tribes of Reuven and Gad would endure the difficulties, then they could have a stake in Israel - whether the land east of the Jordan or the land to the west. But if they would not endure the difficulty of acquiring Israel, then they would own no true stake in that land.
Which leaves us, outside of Israel, in trouble.
• We lack the purification that comes with suffering.
• We have not passed the test of sincerity that comes with enduring great difficulties.
• We have yet to learn the lesson of Israel’s spiritual nature that comes with material privation.
In short - like Reuven and Gad if they remain on the eastern side of the Jordan - we have not undergone the yisurin. So how do we gain a share in Israel?
In truth, the answer is that we don’t gain a share. There is no substitute for those Yisurin; we are not earning what the Jews in Israel are earning, no matter how close we feel to our family there, no matter how loudly we yell at the television commentators, no matter how compulsively we refresh the Jerusalem Post homepage on our computer.
Nonetheless, there are things we can do, actions with which we can contribute positively to the war effort, ways we can help אחינו בני ישראל deal with their יסורין, and so, in some small way, claim to have dealt with these יסורין ourselves.
First, we can daven on behalf of the IDF, and the situation in general.
Second, we can engage in hasbara, explaining the Israeli position.
o This is not a minor endeavor; American public opinion matters to our politicians, and therefore it influences American government policy toward Israel. How much pressure or how little pressure the US administration exerts upon Israel depends largely on their perception of the thinking of the average American citizen.
o For those who are Internet-savvy, there are many venues for this sort of debate. Whether on blogs or Twitter or Reddit or Digg or CNN’s comment pages or a million other places, the battle is on for public opinion, and the results matter.
o This can happen in person, in discussions at work or the grocery store or anywhere we hear Israel being discussed. And anyone can do it - even people who are not 100% behind Israeli policies, people who think the avenues of diplomacy with Hamas were not exhausted, can recognize and defend Israel’s basic right to defend itself.
o When we hear people say, “Israel’s response is disproportionate,” we can respond, “What do you consider a proportionate response to people who rocket kindergartens?”
o When we hear people say, “There is a humanitarian disaster in Gaza,” we can respond, “These people elected Hamas on a platform of rocketing Israel, and they publicly supported firing those rockets right up until Israeli air raids began last week.”
o If you aren’t familiar with the issues, we have copies of Mitchell Bard’s classic “Myths and Facts” book in the library, and sheets in the lobby listing websites where you can get more information.
And third, we are able to support the soldiers and the ambulance corps.
o There are websites, Pizzaidf.org and Burgeridf.org, which bring care packages of food to soldiers at the front lines, including at the Gaza border.
o National Council of Young Israel has an on-going “Support the IDF Troops Campaign,” and they take donations on-line. https://www.youngisrael.org/securecontent/donate.cfm
o United Hatzalah of Israel is taking contributions for emergency medical equipment on-line, as well. http://www.unitedhatzalah.org/
One additional point: There is another reason for us to become involved in hasbara and for us to donate to support the IDF, besides sharing in their yisurin.
In his classic essay, Kol Dodi Dofek, Rav Soloveitchik wrote regarding Israel’s War of Independence, “For the first time in the history of our exile, divine providence has surprised our enemies with the sensational discovery that Jewish blood is not free for the taking, is not hefker [ownerless]!”
Rav Soloveitchik’s words ring powerfully in our own day, not only as a rebuke to our enemies but also as a rebuke to ourselves. Do we truly believe that Jewish blood is not free for the taking? Do we truly believe that Jewish blood is not hefker? If so, then we bear the responsibility of standing together with our brethren and shouldering whatever portion of their burden extends to our position in exile.
Whether by davening or by arguing for Israel or by sending contributions, we will illuminate our world with this news: כל ישראל ערבין זה בזה, All Jews are responsible for each other, all Jews stand together. Like Yehudah standing up for Binyamin in this morning’s parshah, we will ensure that the blood of our family will not be free for the taking. And when we demonstrate this for ourselves, when we make the sensational discovery that Jewish blood is not hefker, for ourselves, then the rest of the world will be forced to realize it as well.
1. R' Shimon bar Yochai is Berachos 5a. The Midrash I cite (linking yisurin to parental discipline) is in Shmos Rabbah 1:1. The Maharal is in Netivot Olam (II) - Netiv haYisurin Chapter 2. Rabbeinu Yosef Chaim, aka Ben Ish Chai, is in the Ben Yehoyada to Berachot 5a. The Maharsha is in Chiddushei Aggadot to Berachot 5a.
2. I know Bnei Gad/Reuven receive a share in Israel even if they don't fight, but the idea is that then this share would not truly be their own. For a similar idea, see R' Ben Zion Firer in Midei Shabbat b'Shabbato. As far as my comment about monopolizing the eastern side of the Yarden, see Kiddushin 61a-b.
3. As I note in the derashah itself, I really am very uncomfortable with this direct identification of personal suffering with national fate. But, as I said there, it is an undeniable component of our tradition.
4. Yes, this is another derashah expressing my not-so-latent guilt about living outside of Israel.