Parashat Nitzavim, 4th September 2021 – Leslie Wheeler

The Book of Deuteronomy is the fifth and final book of the Five Books of Moses. By the time Deuteronomy starts, the Children of Israel have already left Egypt, stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, built the Tabernacle and wandered through the desert for a total of 40 years. Today’s Parashah describes the Children of Israel camped on the plains of Moab along the banks of the Jordan River, ready to cross the river and enter into the promised land. Moses is making his final oration as leader. He calls the people to attention and reminds them not to follow the idolatrous ways of the Canaanites; he promises them that, even if they should stray, God will fetch them back in love. In today’s Torah we read “The Lord thy God will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the peoples, wither the Lord thy god hath scattered thee.” (Deuteronomy 30:3).

Ezekiel expands this further: “With a pleasing savour I shall accept you when I take you out of the nations, and I shall gather you from the lands in which you were scattered, and I shall be hallowed through you before the eyes of the nations. And you will know that I am the Lord when I bring you to the land of Israel, to the land that I lifted My hand to give to your forefathers.” (Ezekiel 20:41-42)

The baraita of Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai teaches: “Then the Lord your God will return with your captivity”. It does not state: He will bring back, i.e., He will cause the Jewish people to return, but rather it says: “He will return,” which teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, will return together with them from among the various exiles (Megillah 29a:4).

I interpret this as follows: God led the Jews into exile; God remained with the Jews during their Exile; God will gather all Jews in exile and return with them to the land of Israel. Did God have an underlying motive for dispersing the Jewish nation to the four corners of the globe? Could it be that God dispersed the Jews among the many nations of the World so that the peoples of the World would come to know God?

I found this interesting quote by Rabbi Elazar: “The Holy One, Blessed be He, exiled Israel among the nations only so that converts would join them, as it is stated: And I will sow her to me in the land” (Hosea 2:25) Does a person sow a se’a (that’s a seed) of grain for any reason other than to bring in several kor (large qty) of grain during the harvest? So too, the exile is to enable converts from the nations to join the Jewish people.” (Pesachim 87b:14)

We don’t need to look far for evidence of foreigners who have chosen to follow Judaism, e.g., the strangers that followed the Children of Israel out of Egypt during the exodus; Rahab the Jericho harlot; Ruth; Obadiah the Prophet and the many thousands from all corners of the globe who have chosen to follow Judaism.

Jews have been strangers in foreign lands for much of their history: the Babylonian exile that followed the destruction of the First Temple, the Greek exile during the 2nd Temple period and the exile which began with the destruction of the 2nd Temple by the Romans in 69 CE.

Although since the Roman conquest in 69 CE there has always been a Jewish presence in Israel, the vast majority Jews have  been driven out of their homeland and dispersed to the far corners of the globe making the Jewish nation one of the World’s most migratory peoples in the history of mankind.

But what of the land left behind during the exile of the Jews? Had the land of Israel been maintained during their absence? Did it remain the “Land of Milk and Honey”? Mark Twain’s account describing his visit to Palestine in 1867 doesn’t paint a very attractive picture: “A desolate country whose soil is rich enough but is given over wholly to weeds….a silent, mournful expanse…. a desolation….we never saw a human being on the whole route….hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country”.

What did the first pioneers encounter when they arrived back in their homeland? Hannah Trager’s first recollections of Palestine described in her 1923 book “Pioneers in Palestine” paints a very similar picture to that described by Mark Twain. Trager describes the hostilities encountered building the very first Jewish Colony in 1878 “Petah Tikvah” (The Gate of Hope) describes these early pioneers encountering Swamps, floods, drought, Malaria and blindness. The colony had to be temporarily abandoned due to so many deaths caused by malaria, particularly in infants and young children. With pioneers from so many different parts of the world, to make ones self understood it was necessary to hold conversations in Hebrew then in Yiddish, further repeated in Ladino and finally in Arabic! The short distance between Jerusalem and Jaffa could take three or more days depending on weather conditions or attacks from marauding Bedouins. Arab hostility was always a danger requiring these early settlers to have their weapons close to hand at all times.

These hardships were not only encountered once the pioneers had arrived in the promised land, the journeys made getting to Palestine were equally fraught with dangers. In his book the “Jewish Immigrant Experience” by Gur Alroey he describes Russian Jews escaping the Pogroms making their way to Odessa where they were met by unscrupulous individuals posing as guides, stevedores or hotel representatives whose only objective was to rob the gullible migrant of their money and possessions prior to their boarding the sailing ships to Jaffa.

The trip from Odessa to Jaffa by sailing ship took about 11 to 12 days. Most immigrants would travel fourth class without food or heating on the lower decks. This being their first sea journey many of them suffered seasickness and when the food rations had run out or had become unfit for consumption many suffered starvation.

How does the experience of the early pioneers compare with my first visit to Israel back in October 1975? I flew from Heathrow Airport aboard a comfortable Boeing 747 aircraft. The leg-space in those days was more than adequate and the food offered by the stewardess was excellent. Landing at Ben Gurion Airport I encountered my first experience of Israeli security, an experience one doesn’t readily forget. Once exiting the airport and making my way to the Sini Hotel in Tel-Aviv I was struck by just how beautiful Israel really was. I found it in total contrast to what I had witnessed in the media back home. All of us in the UK during the sixties and seventies were familiar with the scenes of desert warfare during the Israel Arab conflicts. Instead of desert I witnessed forests of trees, orange groves and vineyards, and agriculture farmlands producing crops, beef and dairy. Flowers were everywhere, in the fields, gardens and bordering the roadside, and everywhere you looked was meticulously clean and free from litter. Little wonder Maggie Thatcher was so impressed during one of her visits when she contrasted the spotless streets of Jerusalem with the littered pavements of London.

I was soon to learn that the reason for this beautiful land was due to the hard work and dedication of the people to their land. During my contract employment with the Israeli Aircraft Industries I found myself working with people from all over the World: Russia, Georgia, Yemen, North Africa, Europe, Argentina, USA and Sabras from Israel. All these people had one thing in common, they worked as a team for a land that belonged to them and they in turn belonged to that land. It was so hard to imagine Tel-Aviv where I first stayed had once been a malaria infested swamp. It was now a beautiful city with beaches bordering the Mediterranean Sea, full of buildings from the first pioneer settlers to the recently built sky scrapers reaching high above the city. I found Tel-Aviv to be a young and buoyant city full of art and commerce, a city full of people from all corners of the globe. The only place in the Middle East where you will find people from India dressed in their whites playing cricket.

Whether or not the State of Israel meets with Ezekiel’s vision or exists through Gods divine intervention, what one can confidently say is that the State of Israel exists by the blood, sweat, tears of those early pioneers who made the desert bloom.

I will conclude with a poem by Hannah Senesh describing God’s promise to return with the ingathering of Jews to the land of Israel based on Genesis 26:4 where God promises Abraham that he will make his descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven: “There are stars whose radiance is visible on earth though they have long been extinct. There are people whose brilliance continues to light the world though they are no longer among the living. These lights are particularly bright when the night is dark. They light the way for mankind.” Just like the stars in Hannah’s poem, the Jew’s role in this world is to light the way for mankind, despite the darkness they have encountered throughout their history.

Shabbat shalom