When he was accused of incessantly harping on the past, Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel responded: "Jews don't live in the past, but the past lives in us." The Jewish calendar does not just mark dates and events; it records the demeanor and tone of the Jewish people at any given time. The month that we have entered is called Av, and the day to which it ineluctably leads is Tisha B'Av, the ninth of Av.
The First and Second Temple were destroyed on Tisha B'Av; the former by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and the latter by the Romans in 70 C.E. Other disasters have also fallen on that date.
Our talmudic sages locate the biblical seeds for Tisha B'Av in the story of the so-called 12 spies, who went to explore Israel prior to entry. After 40 days of reconnaissance, they came back with a negative report. A heavenly decree was issued: one year of wandering the desert for every day of excursion in the land.
In essence, it was this breakdown in our relationship to the Land of Israel, which was the catalyst for our wandering in the desert. This incident is recalled by Moses right at the beginning of our parasha — and it is for this reason that the portion of D'varim is always to be read before Tisha B'Av.
More Than Real Estate
Think for a moment about the etiology of this decree. Why was there such a harsh punishment?
After all, what did they report that was so erroneous? They did, in fact, see large inhabitants and fortified cities. From a realpolitik perspective, there was enough evidence to be nervous and negative. From a geo-political bent, the Jews should not have thought about entering the land.
Therein, I believe, is the rub. What these spies failed to focus on was the special and unique position of this land relative to their own history and destiny. They viewed Israel as just another piece of real estate in the Middle East — and that was an egregious sin.
When former President Jimmy Carter speaks this way, I become upset. When Sari Nusseibeh, a Palestinian intellectual and moderate, speaks this way, I am jolted into reality — after all, he is the moderate with whom "Israel can deal." But when former Knesset speaker, and former Jewish Agency chairman Avraham Burg speaks this way — as he recently did — I get nervous.
"To define Israel as a Jewish state is the key to its end," he writes. If we, ourselves, are guilty of the sin of historical amnesia denying the purpose for which we were brought to this land, Eretz Yisrael, then our place among the nations is tenuous, at best. If we, ourselves, write our own revisionist history diluting our people's relationship to this land, Eretz Yisrael, then our standing in the world is precarious at best.
In his collection of essays A Nation that Dwells Alone, former Israeli ambassador Yaakov Herzog records an anecdote. He was asked to entertain a group of dignitaries who were visiting the new Jewish state. They first toured renowned sites such as the Weizmann Institute and the Hebrew University. Then they came to meet with Herzog. He brought them to the Western Wall and spoke with them about the Hebrew Bible and Jewish prophets. Now they were duly moved.
One said — and I paraphrase: "Dr. Herzog, we were not particularly impressed with what we had previously seen. Yes, Weizmann and Hebrew University are fine institutions, but we, too have our MIT and Harvard. But if, after 2,000 years of exile, the Jewish people can return back to Jerusalem; if after 2,000 years of pain and suffering, that special link with this land was not severed; and if, after 2,000 years, the vision of the prophets who stood in this land is still your compelling vision, then you are, indeed, a unique and indestructible people." May it be so.
Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.