Parashat Emor: Living today, for tomorrow

We live in this land only because previous generations were willing to devote their lives to a dream they never saw materialize.

kotel 88 (photo credit: )
kotel 88
(photo credit: )
Our Bible wishes Israel's kohanim to concentrate on this world, and not on the dead. This is in contrast with other ancient religions which saw their priests as helping the dead move from this world to the other world. And the classical interpreter Rashi even comments: "Warn the adult kohanim regarding the younger kohanim" likewise not to become defiled by the dead. If this is the case, what seems to be an outlandish comment is made in the Talmud, which suggests that "in other inheritances of the world, the living inherit the dead; in the Land of Israel, the dead inherit the living" (B.T. Bava Batra 117a). I believe an in-depth understanding of this message will explain the confluence of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers and Independence Day, and provide extra meaning for the country's 60th anniversary. Let me start with a brief history of the Etzion bloc. In the 1940s there were four settlements in this area. All were on barren, rocky land bought from Arabs in a registered sale by a Jew named Holtzman. Not only was its location (south of Bethlehem) strategic, protecting Jerusalem to the north, it was also scenic, for it was verdant with green vineyards, majestic hills and sweeping valleys. Most important, it was historic - geographically poised between Hebron, the ancient city of our patriarchs, and Jerusalem, eventual city of Messianic peace. The farmers worked indefatigably to till the unfertile soil, for they were certain that the land worked by Boaz, Naomi and Ruth and the fields in which the shepherd/psalmist David had grazed his flock would flourish once again. When the UN partition plan of November 29, 1947, was not accepted by the Arabs, the fighting in this region became ferocious because of the battle for Jerusalem. Whoever controlled the hills of the Gush (bloc) would ultimately rule the Holy City. The settlements suffered heavy losses, and it was decided in Jerusalem that a group would have to be dispatched to help the besieged area with arms and food. Setting out on foot, 35 men worked their way through darkness to reach the surrounded settlements. On the way they met an old Arab and captured him, but when he begged for his life they let him go. Legend has it that after he was released, he revealed their position, and the 35 were all slaughtered. The remaining settlers - without their much-needed supplies and manpower - continued to fight bravely, but were ultimately massacred, almost to a man. The date was May 13, 1948. The very next day, David Ben-Gurion declared the birth of the State of Israel and - in honor of the fallen heroes of the Gush - agreed to include a reference to God in the Declaration of Independence. The few survivors re-established their settlements in the Ashkelon area, but never stopped dreaming of an eventual return to the Etzion Bloc. After the Six Day War, when the area was once again in Jewish hands, children whose parents had been forced to evacuate the area, or who had been killed by the Jordanian Legion, returned. In the hills of Gush Etzion, the heirs to this land reconstructed the shattered dreams of their parents, who were no longer alive to see whether their vision had borne fruit. What occurred between 1948 and 1967 in the Gush is a paradigm for the 1,900 years in which the Jews were separated from their national homeland after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. We were scattered to the corners of the globe, but never stopped dreaming of our eventual return to the Promised Land. Because of our parents' teachings, sacrifices and suffering, the dream of Israel remained vital in the hearts of their children. Among other nations, the living inherit the dead. With us, it's exactly the opposite: The dead inherit the living. This concept emerges in the course of a legal dispute between Rabbi Yoshiya and Rabbi Yonatan in the Talmud concerning the meaning of several key verses dealing with the initial division of the Land of Israel. "Among those people you shall divide the land as an inheritance according to the number of names. By lot shall the land be distributed; according to the names of your fathers shall they inherit it" (Numbers 26:53-56). When the 40 years of desert wandering ended, should the apportioning of the land be determined by the number of those who left Egypt or by the number of those who arrived in Israel? For example, if I left Egypt with two sons, and one of them had only one son, while the other had five, then if the division is according to those who left Egypt, each of my sons should get an equal portion. Thus we find that five grandsons must share the same-sized portion which the single grandson of the other son receives. But if we make our determination according to those who enter the Land of Israel, we end up with six portions to be divided equally. Rabbi Yoshiya stresses verse 53: "According to the names of your fathers you shall inherit it," which to him indicates that the land is divided according to those who left Egypt, while Rabbi Yonatan emphasizes the verse: "Among these people you shall divide the land as an inheritance," and takes "these people" to mean those who physically enter the Land. The Talmud declares: "In all other inheritance of the world, the living inherit the dead, but here the dead [the generation which died out in the desert] inherit the living [the generation which entered the Land]." (Bava Batra 117a). Where did the Jews find the strength to wander for 40 years, knowing they would die before entering Israel? They believed that even though they wouldn't enter the Promised Land, at least their children would. And this is precisely what R. Yonatan means when he says that the dead inherit the living. We live in this land only because previous generations were willing to devote their lives to a dream they never saw materialize. But through us, they inherit land. A famous midrash tells a tale of Hadrian, after the fall of Judea and Samaria, meeting an old Jew planting a carob tree (which, according to tradition takes 70 years to bear fruit). Asked to explain his behavior, the Jew answers that just as his father and grandfather planted for him, he is planting for his child and grandchildren, oblivious to the Roman flag flying on Jewish soil. The emperor then turns to his general and admits that faced with such resilience and faith, with such a willingness to plant in the present that which will be reaped in the future, even the Roman armies don't stand a chance. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.