The Image of Eretz Yisrael as the Mother of the Jewish People

Posted by Arie Strikovsky on April 21, 2001
Topics: Yom Ha'atzmaut

In every generation, each individual is obligated to renew the remembrance of the primal experiences of our national past. Every year, when bringing the Bikkurim [first fruits to the Temple], each Jew would repeat: “And I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land” (Deut. 26:3), even if he has lived in Eretz Yisrael for 20 generations. Each Jew is required to once again bind his own experience to the history of Eretz Yisrael throughout the generations. This renewed examination is required by the dynamic nature of the commandment to settle the Land, because settling the Land is not only a commandment, but also a reward for the observance of the commandments.

At the same time, it is also a purifying crucible for both individual and community. Generations of outstanding Jews, who have purified themselves through the sufferings of the Land, have brought about the establishment of the State, the Beginning of our Redemption.

Within this framework we will observe four periods of modern Jewish history, through the perspective of the image of Knesset Yisrael as a mother, or a Shechina (Divine Presence) who has never left Eretz Yisrael, and has always remained the center of hope and inspiration for her sons and daughters yearning to return to the Land.

The Expulsion from Spain and the conquest of Eretz Yisrael by the Turks aroused messianic expectations and led to waves of aliya that resulted in the flowering of Safed in the 16th century. After a long barren period, the 19th century saw waves of aliya of hassidim and Perushim (followers of Rabbi Elijah of Vilna) that led to a renewal of the old centers of settlement and a growth in new settlements. Below are three mystical letters and passages that reflect this reawakening using the image of Israel as a mother in varying relationships with her children. The first of these is from 1536, in Nikopoli, Bulgaria, the second mystical letter from the late 18th century, and the third from Budapest, 1943.

Let’s start with the revelation on the Night of Shavuot (in Nikopoli, Bulgaria), described by the Kabbalist Rav Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz (author of “Lecha Dodi”):

“Rav Yosef Karo and I agreed to stay up all night on Shavuot… we did not sleep for one minute… and when we began to study the Mishna.. we heard the voice of the Divine Presence, [with a feeble voice] speaking through Yosef Karo: ‘May you be blessed; return to your studies, do not stop for one minute, and go to Eretz Yisrael… Do not have pity on your vessels [material goods], because you will be sustained by “the upper realms”… so hurry to Eretz Yisrael, because I will be your sustainer, and I will provide for you and the peace of your house.’ And we all raised up a great cry of joy, when we heard the Divine Presence, her voice pleading with us…
“Thus, feel the Divine and give Him honor.. and God will cause your hearts to merit becoming one with the Holy Land, to work it together, Amen.”

This revelation is based on the words of Isaiah (2:20): “On that day man will throw down his idols of silver and his idols of gold.” Overcoming the “idols” means to become free of ties to material desires, in order to come to Israel. In return, the Divine Presence promises the rewards of the “upper realm” (because she knew she could offer them little on the “earthly level”). Here the Divine Presence is described as a “sick mother pleading with her children.” This image, however, will change.

Our second letter describes the Divine Presence as a pleading Queen.

In the first Letter of the Perushim to the Diaspora (at the end of the 18th century), there is an identification between the Land, the Divine Presence, the Mother image, the Queen and Knesset Yisrael (the Jewish people). The Letter begins with a greeting from Israel:

“I remembered the days when I was a regal queen…
Even now there is nothing missing here.
I have the blessed Torah
I have an inspired soul
And why am I despised?
I am the promised land!
.. Now the place shall be blessed, the land shall be pitied, and the ingathering of my sons will begin… send your souls to me.”

And the Land allows its enthusiastic sons to speak:

“It is true, how wonderful it is, dwelling in the Land! Such serenity and wholeness! Even in her ruins there is nothing like her, even in her desolation there is nothing to compare to her… and who can rightly glorify the Queen in all her glory?
“We should cry over the ruins of the Holy Land.. we should have pity for the sorrow of our Mother and the souls of our brothers, and your eyes should see the Land awakening in its glory, drying its tears, as a poor mother standing in the doorway of her son as an exalted queen… She has been made poor, downtrodden, pleading for her sons who have given their souls for her. Is she not the source of your soul! Remember the oath of yore: ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem…’ … Tear at your hearts and your clothes, at the sorrow of your Mother, the source of all.”

The awakening Land calls to her sons in the diaspora and cries out to their hearts. She demands honor from her sons who have given their soul to her, and they demand her honor. The authors of the letter, disciples of the Gra, felt the reawakening of Eretz Yisrael. They brought hoes with them and worked the land, so that they could observe the mitzvot connected to the land. Rabbi Yisrael of Scheklov even met with [Sir Moses] Montefiore, and his students were among those who settled outside the Jerusalem city walls and established the first settlements. Thus there is continuity between the Pharisees and the “the mother who rejoices.”

The third awakening of the Mother takes place during the Shoah. R. Issachar Teichall, when he changed his position toward Zionism (he had been a vocal Haredi anti-Zionist), was adopted by the “Mother of Israel.” He accordingly called his book, written in Budapest in 1943, “The Mother of the Sons Rejoices.” Hungarian Jewry still lived under the illusion that they would survive. This excerpt was written with hope, but this time Zion’s tears weep, not about her poverty, but about the destruction of the diaspora.

Eretz Yisrael is depicted as the genuine “Mother of Israel,” while the lands of the diaspora are the “stepmother” who is betraying them: “The Sages said that our mother Zion weeps for our being in the diaspora, and waits for us to return to her bosom… What I know [about her weeping] from the above events, that are happening now [the Holocaust], I would describe as happening just before the rejoicing of our mother – Eretz Yisrael – when we shall all return to her bosom after the terrible captivity that we have undergone in these times…”

“The event” that the author alludes to as a witness was based on the experiences of a mother whose son was taken from her by the Nazis, and then returned to her. The mother’s rejoicing at the return of her son is paralleled by the author by the rejoicing of Zion at the ingathering of the Holocaust refugees. This author, who yearned for Zion, did not live to reach it; he died in the Holocaust.

We have seen how Eretz Yisrael is presented as the mother of the Jewish people in three documents. The first example, from the 16th century, presents the mother as a sick woman, while in the second example she awakens and calls for her sons in the diaspora to gather to her. And while the second example is of a mother calling from her desolate holding to a prosperous diaspora, the third excerpt shows the mother in the new land of settlement, listening painfully to her sons dying in the diaspora. Her surviving sons responded to their mother by making illegal immigration to Israel.

A great transformation took place on 5 Iyar 5708 (May 15, 1948), Heaven and Earth kissed one another. The Lover from the Song of Songs said, “I came down to my garden, my sister, my bride.” After hearing this, the ailing, old mother was transformed into a beautiful, cheerful bride:

And the Lover continues: “Sing, O barren one, you who bore no child. Sing aloud for joy, you who did not travail. For the children of the wife of the forlorn shall outnumber the children of the married wife….The Lord has called you back as a wife forlorn and forsaken. Can one cast off the wife of his youth? For a little while I forsook you, but in vast love I will bring you back. In the overflowing of wrath I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting faithful love I will have mercy on you, says the Redeemer, the Lord.” (Isaiah 54:1-8)

On 5 Iyar 5758 (April 30, 1998) the people of Israel and Jews all over the globe will congregate and greet one another to celebrate the 50th Yom HaAtzma’ut of Medinat Yisrael. Let us only imagine what she would say, as she looks at the many accomplishments of 50 years of Statehood – to her children, Pardes family among them, who have gathered to her, and to those who still yearn for her from afar. Perhaps it is this verse from Lecha Dodi “Come in peace…also in gladness and good cheer.”

B’virchat Chag Atzma’ut to all Pardes alumni and friends.

Extracted and adapted from the book, A Nation in Its Land: Destiny and Challenge, published by the Israel Ministry of Education.

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