Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Weekly Portion: What Makes A Land Holy?

The weekly portion read on the Sabbath this week contains two parashot (portions): Matot and Masei. (They are read together this year, while in most years they are read on separate Sabbaths.) This Sabbath falls in a special period in the Jewish calendar called The Three Weeks - a time of remembrance of the destruction of Jerusalem that begins with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz (this year July 9) and ends with the fast of Tisha Be'Av (this year July 30).

The content of these two parashot has no connection to the destruction and the exile, but the haftarah (the practice of the supplemental reading from the Prophets following the reading of the weekly portion) of today contains powerful admonitions to the Jewish people and prophecies of the destruction. The haftarah is taken from Jeremiah Chapter 2. The Haftarah selection is always one that is related to the subject of the weekly Torah reading or the festival or event being celebrated. If we look at the topics covered in Chapter 2 of Jeremiah, it appears that there is no connection between the content of the parasha and that of the prophecy by Jeremiah.

There is, however, a remarkable verbal association between one of the verses in the parasha of Masei and a central verse in Jeremiah's rebuke. Among the many ideas mentioned in this week's portion is a stringent warning against shedding blood. And in the warning against shedding blood, which comes after the verse that states that blood spilled defiles the land, it states:

Do not, therefore, defile the land which you will inhabit, wherein I dwell: for I God dwell among the Israelites.
(Numbers 35:34).

Note that God does not dwell in the land, but among the Israelites. It is that fact which makes the land significant: God dwells among the people of Israel only if they make Him dwell among them. God does not dwell in the land automatically. This explains the warning: "Do not, therefore, defile the land which you will inhabit."

Had God dwelled in the land because of the sanctity of the land, how could the land have been defiled by anyone? But here we are told unequivocally that it is possible that the Israelites will defile the land.

Fast forward 800 years after Moses. The prophet Jeremiah prophesied not about what should be done and what should not be done; rather, he described what the conditions were like and what was being done. Jeremiah said:

You entered and defiled My land, and made My heritage an abomination.
(Jeremiah 2:7).

The same land which is known as God's land and inheritance has no immanent uniqueness, and man's action can defile God's land and make His inheritance an abomination.

Jeremiah spoke to later generations as as well, as his teachings contain eternal messages. And that verse in Jeremiah is directed at us as well. On the one hand, we are aware that the people in Israel in the last 100 years have returned and are rebuilding a national home in this land, which they consider God's land and inheritance, while on the other hand, this does not prevent them from endorsing and declaring holy that which both the Torah in our parasha and the prophet Jeremiah regard as acts of defilement and abomination.

There is nothing more dangerous than cloaking acts of violence, discrimination and dispossession in the garb of holiness. The land itself does not have any inherent quality which sanctifies everything done in it, but only that which is done in it in accordance with the principles of justice and fairness can impart holiness to the land. Just as our actions can make the land holy, they can also defile God's inheritance. These words apply to us. We should always be mindful that our actions in the land are making the land holy and not defiling it. If there is any meaning to religious rituals associated with the period of the Three Weeks, it is this theme - do our actions in the Land of Israel sanctify the land or defile it?

(Based on the book by Yeshayahu Leibowitz: Accepting the Yoke of Heaven - Commentary on the Weekly Portion)

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