Cry, the Beloved Country
A Torah portion chronicling a tragedy foretold
Summers are the hardest.
Any other time of year seems tailored for exile. Autumns, for example, are much better in New York than they are in Tel Aviv, the city in which I was born and which I left, not without considerable pain, in 1999. Back there, on the coast of the Mediterranean, all of autumn’s tenderness is crushed by the long reach of summer’s clammy hand. Leaves changing colors? That earthy smell singeing the nostrils with the first gusts of brisk air? Forget about it: in Tel Aviv, you can still lounge on the beach in December.
Similarly, winters are largely absent as well, and springs are like short and furious arms races, with each month rushing the next into the escalation of summer’s inevitable heat. Come June, however, there’s no better place to be than Tel Aviv. As humid as the city is, as humming with the discontent of sweating, heated souls, the first Hebrew town in modern history was really for summer born.
Growing up, my friends and I would start our summer mornings running around on the beach, playing matkot —a popular beach game played with two paddles and a rubber ball that makes a frightful thwacking sound—and eating lemon popsicles before lying down for a nap. A few hours later, our skins roasted and our heads dazed with sun, we’d amble over to one of three or four nearby cinemas to catch a silly action film, then rush to the local burger joint to soothe our gurgling stomachs. Greasy, sunburnt, and wildly happy, we’d return home late in the evening. I’m many years and thousands of miles removed from those glorious summer days, and yet I still miss them terribly.
It was with much interest, then, that I read recently about some Israeli children spending their summers not in similar pleasurable pursuits but by building settlements on the rocky hills of the West Bank. As I reported earlier this week, “Youth for the Land of Israel,” a new non-profit organization, is offering Israeli youth a summer stint on the hills of Judea and Samaria where they can learn about the importance of our ancestral land and partake in its settling, government strictures and international condemnations be damned.
Reading the committed campers’ accounts, I was stirred by feelings of admiration. Unlike myself at their age, these ideologically driven youth could return home at the end of a sizzling summer afternoon and say that they had done something to further their beliefs. They sacrificed their idle days—a teenager’s most precious resource—for the greater good. Their voices pealed with conviction, with the kind of clarity that is ours in abundance when we’re young—and that grows ever dimmer as we age.
Shlomit Amitai, 16 years old, a counselor in the settlement camp, was quoted as telling her young charges that the Zohar, the sacred book of Kabbalah, teaches us that the land of Israel is like our collective mother. “Just like you would dress your mother’s wounds,” she said, “empty land is a wound we need to dress by settlement.”
It is probably useless to tell Ms. Amitai that the Zohar, so mighty in its mystical force, was traditionally available only to scholars 40 and older who’d reached a level of mastery in Judaism’s earthly foundations before being allowed to travel to its more ethereal realms. I’m not so far removed from my own youthful years to remember that there’s nothing teenagers like less than being preached to by didactic dunderheads; but if I could, I would suggest to her and her friends a better book to read this summer: Deuteronomy.
They wouldn’t even have to read the whole thing. This week’s parasha is enough. It’s short, and it’s as heartbreaking as anything in literature. It’s Moses’s farewell speech. Weary and elegiac, the dying leader, done retelling the past, speaks to his people about the future.
Me, says Moses, I won’t make it to the Promised Land. But you will. And, once there, you will mess things up.
“When you beget children and children’s children,” he prophesies, “and you will be long established in the land, and you become corrupt and make a graven image, the likeness of anything, and do evil in the eyes of the Lord your God, to provoke Him to anger, I call as witness against you this very day the heaven and the earth, that you will speedily and utterly perish from the land to which you cross the Jordan, to possess; you will not prolong your days upon it, but will be utterly destroyed. And the Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and you will remain few in number among the nations to where the Lord will lead you.”
But things, he continues, aren’t all grim: this terrible exile, Moses concludes, will reawaken Israel’s appetite for righteousness, the people will once again keep the laws of the Torah and worship the Lord, and He, in turn, will redeem them and return them to their ancestral home. The saga of Israel will have a happy ending after all.
This story is often taken by biblical scholars to be a bit of a retroactive rewrite, the work of post-exilic scribes wishing to fortify the faith by peppering the story with premonitions, supposedly authentic, of the doom that is to come. But as is so often the case with scripture, reality’s concrete details are eclipsed by a grander, eternal meaning: Moses’s story is not some sliver of Jewish history, but a warning that is, has always been, and will always be timely.
To those who revere the land above all, seeing it as a wounded mother (somewhat of a graven image there, some might say, the bleeding and martyred woman), Moses’ story couldn’t be more relevant. Jews, it reminds us, have had Hebron and Jericho and Shechem once before. They were long established in the land. And, doing evil in the eyes of the Lord their God, they speedily and utterly perished from it. They returned again, once again transgressed, once again perished, once again returned. It’s not for lack of territorial sovereignty that Jews had suffered terribly, not for forfeiting a holy hill or a sacred wadi. The answer to our suffering lies not in the soil but in the soul. This summer, may we all listen to Moses, and believe him when he tells us our true, eternal, and only strength lies in justice, in compassion, in love. By now, we know all too well what happens when we ignore him.