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Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5773 — 04/17/2013

Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5773 — 04/17/2013

You shall not present any of your children to pass through [fire] for Molech… (18:21)

But notwithstanding [arguments to the contrary, especially from Rashi], what appears most correct in my eyes from the evidence of the verses, is that the child was consumed by fire… (Ramban ad loc)

And the Land became contaminated and I recalled its iniquity on it, and the Land will vomit out its inhabitants (18:25)

Scripture states that the Land would vomit them out because the Land abhors all these abominations … and the passage mentions “the practice of the land of Egypt,” for they too behaved in accordance with all these abominations, yet the land of Egypt did not vomit out the Egyptians, nor did the lands of the other nations.  Rather the entire matter is due to the eminence of the Land and its sanctity.  (Ramban ad loc)

We know that Gd is One and the variation found within the world is the result of the variations among the receivers of His emanation … And it is a part of serving Gd to preserve the power of reception in accordance with the location.  (Ibn Ezra quoted by Ramban ad loc)  [All Ramban translations are from the Artscroll edition]

As I was reading Ramban’s commentary on the Molech passage the first thing that came to my mind was “suicide bombers.”  The image of a child passing through a pyre and being burned to death morphed into the image of our adversaries strapping dynamite on their children and sending them off to create a firestorm of destruction.  All in the name of their god, their Molech.  Hopefully, just as Scripture tells us that the Land vomited out the Canaanites, it will either refine our adversaries so that we can all live together in peace, or, failing that, the Land will expel them in some way.  But clearly people whose values are as diametrically opposed as life and death cannot coexist in one place, neither in Biblical times nor in our time.

It is clear from Torah that, of all the lands of the earth, the Land of Israel is most supportive of life and those who choose life.  The life that is being referred to is of course spiritual life; as we pointed out a few years ago, Rashi explains that it cannot mean merely physical existence, for even the most saintly individuals die a physical death.  Consequently, the Land of Israel is especially intolerant of influences that push in the opposite direction.  Therefore, when the Israelites, fresh from a 40-year-long desert sojourn, eating miraculous, spiritual food, drinking from a miraculously provided well, all living within a short walk of the Mishkan, where Gd’s Presence was most palpable of anywhere in the world, entered the Land of Israel, the Canaanites had to leave.  Some 850 years later, when our own behavioral repertoire began to include the same abominations as the Canaanites, the Land expelled us as well.

This intolerance for depravity appears to be specific to the Land of Israel, as Ramban points out.  The other lands of the earth are able to support depraved societies with, apparently, no untoward consequences.  Torah mentions Egypt as an example, as the Israelites had just left there, but apparently plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – in modern day Egypt virtually 100% of women are victims of sexual harassment, and many endure it almost every day of their lives.  Just as “the air of the Holy Land makes a person wise,” it appears that the air of Egypt makes men into perverts.

It appears that we have a constant across millennia in the influence that different lands have on their inhabitants, even though the ethnic makeup of the inhabitants may change radically.  The Talmud tells us that the laws of Torah restricting or forbidding marriage with converts of certain peoples (Egyptians, Moabites, Ammonites) are no longer applicable (i.e. they were already inapplicable 2000 years ago in Talmudic times) because the wars and invasions of those lands, with their concomitant displacement of the inhabitants (e.g. the exiles of Israel, and the mixing of peoples under the Babylonian Shalmaneser) had mixed the peoples up, and an inhabitant of, for example, Moab (in present-day Jordan) is not considered a member of the Moabite people, if such a people can even be said to exist any more.  Nonetheless, behaviors and even political relations between the nations in these different lands appear to be similar now to the way they were thousands of years ago.

Why should this be?  It should be obvious that we are affected by the qualities of the land in which we live.  People who live near the equator have different ecological challenges than people who live in the temperate zones or the Inuit in the Arctic.  The Berbers of the Sahara live in different conditions than the Yanomami of the rain forest.  Some countries are blessed with abundant mineral or agricultural resources, while some are not so blessed (“Moses wandered 40 years in the desert and settled us in the one place in the Middle East with no oil” – although had the Land of Israel been oil-rich it is hard to see how the world would ever have let us return to it! – thanks to R. Frand for that insight).  All of these features appear to affect the character of the people who live on the land.  Presumably, each land has spiritual qualities as well that are reflected in their populations.  Even when you cross the US-Canadian border, where the two cultures are very similar, the effect is quite noticeable.  I believe this is one aspect of Ibn Ezra’s meaning: that the variations of the conditions in each location refract Gd’s infinite nature in specific, unique ways, and this gives rise to the variations in language, dress, culture and patterns of thinking of the peoples who are adapted to that particular location.

One reason why this is so is that, just as in the case of biological evolution, cultures evolve to adapt to their physical and spiritual surroundings.  Maladaptive behaviors and thought patterns – that is, those behaviors and thought patterns that meet resistance from the particular configuration of the geographical area, tend to die out, whereas those that are in consonance with that configuration are amplified and entrenched.  Thus, after some time, the collective consciousness of the people has a particular resonance with the land on which they live.  Nowadays, when we have mass migration of populations, often fleeing war or other disasters, we find large populations that have difficulty assimilating into their host populations (Mideastern and Asian Muslims in Europe are an example), which causes stressful relations between the two.

In Rabbinic thought, the collective consciousness of a people is expressed as a celestial “minister” (an angel) who advocates for “his” people in the Heavenly court.  Each of the traditional 70 nations has a specific ministering angel, all of whom of course are subject to Gd’s ultimate authority.  The one exception is Israel, which is under Gd’s direct supervision.  In the same way, each land is presided over by its “minister,” again with one exception: the Land of Israel is under Gd’s direct supervision, as we read (Devarim 11:12) ..the eyes of Gd your Lord are on it at all times, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.

Putting this all together, it appears that the ideal situation for life on earth occurs when each people is settled peaceably in its land, where evolution has maximized the compatibility between land and culture, and where peoples of different cultures interact in ways that foster their mutual growth.  Again, the one exceptional case is the people of Israel and the Land of Israel.  Our mission is to infuse Gd into every aspect of physical creation, to live a spiritual life in the midst of physical existence.  To do that fully, we need to be in a Land that supports spirituality, and which doesn’t countenance a crass, perverted materiality.  And of course, we need to deserve as a community and as a nation to be in such a sacred place.  Our return to the Land (more than half the Jews in the world now live in the State of Israel) is a very good sign to be sure – as the contemporary liturgy puts it the beginning of the sprouting of the Redemption.  Yet we obviously still have a lot of work to do, and the sooner we accomplish our task, the sooner we can all enjoy heaven on earth!


Pirke Avot, Chapter 3

Mishnah 18

R. Akiva used to say … Beloved are the people of Israel, who are called the children of Gd…

R. Lau points out that Parents remain parents and children remain children (Kiddushin 36a).  That is, even when Israel sins – acts contrary to Gd’s Will – we do not lose our status as Gd’s children.  In the same way, the Land of Israel does not lose its special status, even if its people are exiled from it – in fact, it seems to go into a kind of hibernation, not giving its bounty to just anyone, waiting for its people to return (the accounts of many travelers, including Mark Twain, attest to the desolation of the Land throughout the exile).  The holiness of the Land is not lost, it is just hidden for a while.  Similarly, the intrinsic holiness of the Jewish people is not lost, it is just encrusted with the dust of exile, be it regular dust or gold dust.  The more effective we are at transcending the material shroud around our essential spirituality, the sooner we can begin living an ideal life in our ideal, holy home.