Sunday, April 18, 2010

Yom haAtzmaut: Israel as Motherland and Mother

I wrote the following article for YU's "Yom ha'Atzmaut To-Go," but since that publication will not be issued in print (available here at YU Torah, though), I'll circulate it here.

The theme is simple, but important to me - Rav Yissachar Techtel introduces us to a unique concept in our love for Israel, and our imperative for aliyah: Israel as a conscious Motherland.

The theme needs greater expansion, which I intend to present in a shiur at the BAYT on Sunday morning, but here is my article on the topic:

ותאמר ציון עזבני ה' וה' שכחני
And Zion said: G-d has abandoned me, and G-d has forgotten me. (1)

לא יאמר לך עוד עזובה ולארצך לא יאמר עוד שממה כי לך יקרא חפצי בה
You shall no longer be called ‘Abandoned,’ and your land will no longer be called ‘Desolate,’ for you will be called ‘My desire is in her.’ (2)

Israel as our beloved intimate
The Jew has known many reasons for his millennia-old longing for the Land of Israel; our thrice-daily recitations of “ותחזינה עינינו בשובך לציון ברחמים, Let our eyes see when You return mercifully to Zion,” have been fueled by motivations both religious and secular, personal and national. Focus of the biblical universe, cradle of our nation, throne of King David’s theocentric empire, haven from our foes, coordinate at which our mitzvot are most practical and practicable, host of our most palpable connection to the world of the spirit, terraced hills across which the plangent Divine declaration, “פה אשב כי אויתיה, Here I will dwell, for I have desired her (3), ” still echoes – Eretz Yisrael has been all of these for the genetic and spiritual heirs of Avraham and Sarah.

In the vision of Rav Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook and Rav Yissachar Techtel, though, the Land of Israel plays a more active role. Earth and stone and river and sea are anthropomorphized as limbs controlled by a humanesque consciousness, and the space formerly known as Canaan is identified as a living being, an independent spiritual entity to whom we are bonded.

Rav Kook stated this explicitly:

ארץ ישראל איננה דבר חיצוני, קנין חיצוני לאומה, רק בתור אמצעי למטרה של ההתאגדות הכללית והחזקת קיומה החמרי או אפילו הרוחני. ארץ ישראל היא חטיבה עצמותית קשורה בקשר חיים עם האומה...
The Land of Israel is not an external thing, an external prize acquired by the nation, a means toward the end of national unification and reinforcement of the nation’s physical or even spiritual survival. The Land of Israel is an independent entity, bound to the nation in the bond of life… (4)

Seen in this light, Yeshayah’s identification of Zion as a bride is part of a broader depiction of the Land of Israel as a thinking, feeling, loving and beloved intimate who longs for us to return home.

Anthropomorphic land
Description of land as a thinking, feeling entity did not originate with the Land of Israel; the midrash places this concept at the start of the Torah, in the Divine creation of the third day, when G-d charged the land to create both עץ פרי and עץ עושה פרי, fruit tree and fruit-producing tree, but it only produced the latter:

ולמה נתקללה... ר' יהודה בר' שלום אמר שעברה על הצווי שכך אמר הקב"ה תדשא הארץ וגו' מה הפרי נאכל אף העץ נאכל, והיא לא עשתה כן...
Why was the land cursed? Rabbi Yehudah ben Rabbi Shalom said: She trespassed G-d’s command. G-d said, ‘Let the land produce vegetation, etc ’ meaning that just as the fruit is edible, so the tree should be edible, and she did not do this. (5)

The concept of territorial consciousness does not end with Creation, either, and it is not limited to wicked rebellion; the sages also envisioned stones desiring to serve righteous Yaakov. The Torah records an overnight condensing of Yaakov’s protective stones from the plural (6) to the singular (7), and regarding this change the sages explained:

כתיב ויקח מאבני המקום, וכתיב ויקח את האבן! אמר רבי יצחק: מלמד שנתקבצו כל אותן אבנים למקום אחד, וכל אחת ואחת אומרת עלי יניח צדיק זה ראשו; תנא: וכולן נבלעו באחד.
It is written, ‘And he took from the stones of the site,’ and it is written, ‘And he took the stone!’
Rabbi Yitzchak explained: This teaches that all of the stones were gathered to one place, and each one said, ‘This tzaddik will rest his head on me.’ We learned: All of them became absorbed into one. (8)

Many more classic sources ascribe consciousness to a range of inanimates, from the sun and moon to the plant kingdom. Certainly, at least some of these texts are meant to provide moral instruction rather than to describe ex-cerebrum thought processes. Nonetheless, the identity of Israel as person, as thinking and feeling entity, and particularly as mother to the Jewish people, adds depth of meaning to our exile, and intensifies the imperative for our return.

The meaning of Motherland
In itself, envisioning our birthplace as Motherland is not unique to the Jewish people; numerous nations describe their homelands in maternal terms, depicting these spaces as environments which passively provide nourishment, security and familiar comfort. As Professor Rosemary Marangoly George wrote (9), “Home is a place to escape to and a place to escape from. Its importance lies in the fact that it is not equally available to all. Home is the desired place that is fought for and established as the exclusive domain of a few. ” Our concept of Israel as Mother transcends this role, though; we envision the Land of Israel as an active matriarch, actively protecting us and summoning us home.

The Torah portrays mothers as dynamic protectors, intervening and risking their own well-being on behalf of their young. From Sarah declaring that Yishmael would not inherit “with my son, with Yitzchak,(10)” to Rivkah arranging Yaakov’s blessing and accepting his curse upon herself (11), to Rachel pleading with G-d on behalf of her descendants (12), to Batsheva orchestrating her son Shlomo’s ascendancy to the throne and then arranging the downfall of his challenger Adoniyahu (13), the Jewish “mother” is more than nurturer. The mother is a lioness, acting to ensure the safety and success of her offspring.

Along the same lines, the Land of Israel is seen as an active Mother for the Jewish people, evicting unworthy tenants and invoking her own merit on behalf of her longed-for children.

Rav Yissachar Techtel (14) saw this message in the Divine promise (15) to remember Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov and “The Land”:

ומתורת משה רבינו בעצמו למדתי זאת בפ׳ בחקתי כתיב וזכרתי את בריתי יעקב ואף את בריתי יצחק ואף את בריתי אברהם אזכור והארץ אזכור... כי עיין ברש״י שם שכתב למה נמנו אחורנית כלומר כדאי הוא יעקב הקטן לכך ואם אינו כדאי הרי יצחק עמו ואם אינו כדאי הרי אברהם עמו עיי״ש ועפי״ז יש להוסיף דאף אם כולם אינם כדאים היינו באופן דתמה זכות אבות ח״ו אבל ו״הארץ אזכור״ דזכות ארץ ישראל תחלצם ממיצר... היא תגן עלינו לחלצנו ממיצר בכל עת שאנו נתונים בצרה, ר"ל.
I have learned this from the Torah of our master Moshe himself. It is written, ‘And I will remember My covenant with Yaakov, and also My covenant with Yitzchak, and also My covenant with Avraham I will remember, and the land I will remember.’… Rashi there wrote, ‘Why are they listed in reverse? As if to say: Yaakov the youngest is worthy of this, and if he is not worthy then Yitzchak is with him, and if he is not worthy then Avraham is with him.’
Based on this, one may add that even if all of them are unworthy, meaning that the merit of our ancestors has ended, still, ‘The land I will remember,’ for the merit of the Land of Israel itself will save them from trouble… She will protect us, to free us whenever we are placed in trouble, Heaven forbid.

Like Queen Esther approaching Achashverosh and offering herself on behalf of her people, the Land of Israel approaches HaShem and offers her own merit on our behalf.

Returning to our mother
This personification of Israel as mother and protector should add a dimension to our longing for aliyah, inflaming our souls and inspiring our national return to Israel with the greatest urgency. Our impulse to return is not only a selfish desire to live in the land of our ancestors, or to use the land and its products for our rituals. We are not only walking the Bible and laying claim to the once and future home of the Beit haMikdash. Rather, we are returning to our mother, to a being who longs to have her children restored.

A midrash highlights the intensity of this longing:

אמר ירמיהו כשהייתי עולה לירושלים נטלתי עיני וראיתי אשה אחת יושבת בראש ההר, לבושיה שחורים ושערה סתור צועקת מבקשת מי ינחמנה, ואני צועק ומבקש מי ינחמני, קרבתי אצלה ודברתי עמה, ואמרתי לה אם אשה את דברי עמי ואם רוח את הסתלקי מלפני, ענתה ואמרה לי, אינך מכירני, אני היא שהיו לי שבעה בנים, יצא אביהם למדינת הים, עד שאני עולה ובוכה עליו הרי שניבא ואמר לי נפל הבית על שבעה בנייך והרגם, איני יודע על מי אבכה ועל מי אסתור שעריי, עניתי ואמרתי אין אתה טובה מן אמי ציון והיא עשויה מרעית לחיות השדה, ענתה ואמרה לי, אני אמך ציון
Yirmiyah said: When I ascended to Yerushalayim, I raised my eyes and saw a woman sitting atop a mountain, wearing black clothing and with her hair undone, crying out, seeking one who would console her. I cried out as well, and sought one who would comfort me. I drew close to her and spoke with her, and told her, “If you are a woman, speak with me. If you are a spirit, leave me.” She replied, “Do you not recognize me? I am the one who had seven sons whose father left to go overseas. While I was yet crying for him, it was prophesied to me, ‘The house has collapsed upon your seven sons and killed them.’ I don’t know for whom to cry, and for whom to release my hair!” I replied and told her, “You are no greater than my mother, Zion, who has been turned into grazing for the wild animals of the field.” To which she replied and said to me, “I am your mother, Zion.” (16)

Rav Kook understood the Land of Israel as a partner of the Jewish people, and this partner suffers our exile as a bereaved mother mourns for her children. Yeshayah envisioned the day when the Land of Israel would be like a bride returned to her spouse. Rav Yissachar Techtel portrayed the emotions of that reunion by describing the reunion of a mother reunited with her husband and children in the Ghetto, concluding, “So I imagine will be the joy of our mother, the Land of Israel, at the moment when all of us will return to her.” (17)

May HaShem enable us to bring that day to reality, and to see the fulfillment of Dovid haMelech’s words:

מושיבי עקרת הבית אם הבנים שמחה הללוקה
He establishes the barren woman in the house as a joyous mother of children; Praise G-d! (18)


1. Yeshayah 49:14
2. Yeshayah 62:4
3. Tehillim 132:14
4. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook, Orot, Eretz Yisrael I
5. Midrash, Bereishit Rabbah (Vilna) 5:9
6. Bereishit 1:11-12
7. Bereishit 28:11, 18
8. Talmud, Chullin 91b; see also Midrash, Bereishit Rabbah 68:11 and Rashi to Bereishit 28:11 for some variation
9. Rosemary M. George, The Politics of Home: Postcolonial Relocations and Twentieth-Century Fiction, pg. 9
10. Bereishit 21:10
11. Bereishit 27
12. Yirmiyah 31:14
13. Melachim I 1-2
14. Rabbi Yissachar Techtel, אם הבנים שמחה, First Prologue
15. Vayyikra 26:42
16. Midrash, Psikta Rabti 26
17. Rabbi Yissachar Techtel, אם הבנים שמחה, Second Prologue
18. Tehillim 113:9

[And now for something completely different: This week's Haveil Havalim is here]


  1. I printed this up before Shabbos from YU's website and read it yesterday.
    The imagery was very moving. Great article.

  2. Thanks for the consolation. Two, possibly three of my kids are declaring themselves as Olim when they return to Israel in August. I'll miss them, but apparently not as much as Eretz Yisrael misses us.

  3. Neil-

    Yes, that is the flip-side, isn't it? Although, of course, Israel misses you, not just your kids, and would welcome you as well...

  4. Yasher Koach! Beautiful. It is interesting as to why the midrash on the pasuk וזכרתי did not make the ק"ו between the avot and the Land. Incidentally, while I don't know who placed your previous post on Facebook (that you had inquired about after receiving a number of hits), I do plan on posting this devar Torah on there (once I go on) in honor of Yom Ha-Atzma'ut.

  5. Joseph-
    Thanks! I never found out who posted the other one.

  6. The Midrash about Yirmiyah made me cry.

    Laya, Mazal Tov to your family, and on behalf of Am Yisrael, thank you so much for the sacrifice you will make so that your kids can be part of the return to Eretz Yisrael. May we all join them soon - one big Jewish family re-united in and with our Land.

  7. This is a very moving shiur. I just listened to you give it (got it from YUTorah).