The haftarah for Simchat Torah, which comes from the opening lines of the Book of Joshua, is greatly under appreciated. I suspect the message gets lost in the revelry of Simchat Torah and in the haftarah’s juxtaposition to the reading of the Torah portion describing the creation of the world. Those awfully large shadows, understandably, make it hard to see the haftarah in its full glory.
This is a shame because it’s a glorious passage of scripture. Moshe has died and is buried by Joshua but out of his death comes creation! After hundreds of years of slavery and decades of wandering through the desert, the Jewish people can, finally, begin their national and spiritual life in the Land of Israel as free men and women. God commands Joshua Hazak ve’amatz: “Be strong and resolute, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land which I swore to their fathers I would give them.” And God promises, further, “Be not afraid nor dismayed, for I will be with you wherever you go.” God’s assurance that everything will be okay, is exactly what the nation needs to hear in its time of mourning and on the precipice of monumental transition. Without too much imagination, we can appreciate how the same message resonates today.
In considering what to write this week, I focused, first, on the death of Moshe. At the end of Parashat Ha’azinu, God gives Moshe the bad news that, as a punishment for striking the rock in the desert to bring forth water, he may not enter the Holy Land with the Children of Israel: “Ki mi neged teer’eh et ha’aretz,” God commands… “For from afar you will see the land.” Rashi comments on this passage that Moshe ascended to the top of Mount Nevo, for from there, Moshe would have the best view possible of the land. God provided him with this, at least.
But, I would like to think there is more; that God allowed Moshe to ascend even higher, to view the Land of Israel as a bird might, or an angel, soaring high above the topography, experiencing the land as no human being ever has or ever will. In this magical flight, Moshe saw everything at once: trees, fields, villages, deserts, hills, valleys, animals, crops, the future site of Har HaBayit but, most of all, water. God, in His mercy, and with a keen sense of mida keneged mida irony (the Jewish principle of “measure for a measure”), ensured that Moshe would see all of the water that nourishes the fertile land of the Seven Species.
But, this is a kind of fantasy, based on nothing other than the wandering of a poet’s mind. What is real, here, is God’s promise that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people in perpetuity. That we are rooted in it, that our personal and collective well-being is inextricably tied to the strength and resolve with which we protect this birthright, is the central message of the text. And, in an era in which the nations of the world are still promoting the timeless canard that the Jews have no claim to the Land, this is a message we oughtn’t take for granted.
2,500 years after the Exodus, Yehudah ha Levi, gave me a gift. He wrote: “My heart is in the east and I in the uttermost west. How shall I find favor in food, how shall it seem sweet to me? How shall I render my vows and bonds, while Zion lies beneath the fetter of Edom and I in Arab chains? A light thing would it seem to me to leave all the good things of Spain, seeing how precious in my eyes to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.”
I must have been 10 or 11 when I first encountered this poem. I remember looking up the words “render,” “fetter,” and “sanctuary” in a massive Merriam Webster dictionary, the kind of which, with the advent of online searches, you don’t find in many homes anymore. And, then, I memorized the words and repeated them to myself over and over until they were an integral part of my conscious and unconscious existence. Growing up in a Zionist home, attending Jewish schools and camps, I suppose I felt like acquiring this poem was a kind of rite of passage, establishing my Zionist bona fides. But what I didn’t know and couldn’t have articulated back then, was the extent to which the words affected me, transformed me, shaped the way I see the world. The words of the poem were the living embodiment of the chain connecting the Jews of every generation to the Exodus, to Sinai, to the fulfillment of God’s promise to the Jewish people that they would inherit the Land of Israel. This was the gift Yehudah HaLevi gave to me, across the centuries.
So, my poem in honor of Simchat Torah, is about my mother; a woman whose entire life has been the personification of the yearning expressed by Yehudah HaLevi; a yearning she satisfied when she made Aliyah 34 years ago.
My heart is in the East, wrote Yehudah HaLevi, a thousand years before
you suffered the same inexorable longings. What drove you, at 19,
to break away? In 1950, a good Jewish girl dreamed of picking her
wedding dress, not cucumbers in a hostile land. But Rogers Park
was never really your home. The city sidewalks were hard on your feet
and, late at night, too excited to sleep, you would imagine walking
barefoot across the soft, warm earth, planting your toes deep in
the fertile soil. When you finally arrived, they put you to work—
no time for barefoot romps—and you learned that the parched land
did not surrender easily. It was slow work, painful work, but every
morning you rushed to it, knowing, somehow, at 19, in this life
nothing worthwhile is given. Each day, as your sweat irrigated
the dry surface, the thorns and rocks began to yield. And,
remembering the asphalt fields of Chicago that you left behind,
you thought, with utter amazement and humility, I am a tiller of the soil.
One night, the air was balmy and sweet and everyone in the kibbutz
gathered for a concert on the tidy, communal lawn. A record player,
rescued from Mother Russia, played a splendid piece by Tchaikovsky
and beneath the eternal, star-filled sky, you listened and realized how far
you had come. And then, all you wanted was to listen to the music,
to feel every note of that splendid music deep inside your tired body.
At 19, pressing your face against the fragrant grass, you thought:
I am part of this gorgeous moment in the history of the world.
And I am part of this land.