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Beit Midrash Shabbat and Holidays Tu Bishvat

Dates, Pomegranates, and Eretz Yisrael

Whatever becomes the property of the Jewish people, even if it starts out on a material level, is eventually elevated to a spiritual one. The bond between the Jewish people and the land of Israel inevitably leads to great spiritual refinement.
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Psalm 37: "Dwell in the land..."
The thirty-seventh chapter of the book of Psalms addresses the issue of how to deal with the wicked. Among the various approaches suggested by the psalm, the settling of the land Israel appears a number of times.

At the beginning of the third verse, the following command appears: "Trust in God and do good." And what exactly is "good"? "Dwell in the land and enjoy security." The Midrash explains: "Dwell in the land, i.e., establish a settlement in the land of Israel: Sow and plant."

Following this, the psalm informs us as to whom exactly merits settling the land. In verse nine: "For evildoers will be cut off, but those who wait upon God, they shall inherit the land." In other words, by virtue of their faith in God, they merit inheriting the land. In verse eleven, "The humble will inherit the land, and enjoy abundant peace." The second condition, then, for inheriting the land, is possessing admirable character traits, most notably humility. Our beloved mentor, Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, zt"l, in his work, "Mussar Avikha," explains that only if one possesses humility does one merit true love for the land of Israel. This is understandable according to the talmudic adage that a proud person "knocks the feet out" from under the Divine Presence. Because the land of Israel is the place of the revelation of God's Divine Presence in the world, fulfilling the Mitzvah to settle the land calls for possessing the attribute of humility.

Via steadfast faith and positive character traits, one advances to the next level. This appears in verses twenty-one and twenty-two: "The wicked borrows but does not pay back; but the righteous one gives with good grace. For such as are blessed of him shall inherit the land; and they that are cursed of him shall be cut off." Having reached this level, "The righteous shall inherit the land, and dwell in it forever" (verse 29). Next, the psalm explains that a righteous person merits the level Torah study: "The mouth of the righteous speaks wisdom, and his tongue discourses justice. The Torah of his God is in his heart; none of his steps shall falter" (verses 30, 31). Finally, it is stated one last time, "Wait on God and keep His way, and He shall exalt thee to inherit the land; when the wicked are cut off, you shall see it."

Dates and Pomegranates
The Talmud relates (Berakhot 41b) Rabbi Hamnuna and Rabbi Chisdah sat eating together and were brought dates and pomegranates. Rabbi Hamnuna said the blessing over the dates. Then Rabbi Chisdah asked him why he did so: Do not the Sages explain that whatever comes first in the verse, "A land of wheat, barely, grapes, figs, and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and (date) honey" also receives priority when blessing? This being the case, pomegranate, which is fifth in the verse, should be given priority to dates, which are seventh. Rabbi Hamnuna responded, explaining that though "pomegranate" is fifth from the first "land," dates are second to the second "land," and it is the closeness to the land that counts. With this, Rabbi Chisdah exclaims: "Would that we be blessed with 'nerves of steel' and merit serving you." He said this in response to Rabbi Hamnuna's vast Torah erudition, as revealed in the preceding novel interpretation.

From Blessings to Jewish Thought
Rabbi Kook, in his "Olat Ra'ayah" comments upon the preceding talmudic excerpt. The Rabbi begins on a general note. It is well known that the purpose of benedictions is to awaken in an individual the proper attitudes - for example, a sense of indebtedness to God - for by virtue of such thoughts, a person performs praiseworthy actions and attains commendable character traits. With novel insight, Rabbi Kook informs us that even the laws of benedictions, with all of their intricate details, awaken us to this goal. It is therefore possible to learn from the laws of the blessings themselves important central concepts in Torah and Jewish thought.

Closest to the Land
The first lesson which Rabbi Hamnuna teaches us is that whatever is closest to "the land" receives priority of benediction. From this we can see that the settling the land of Israel is an indispensable pillar of Judaism, for through this act the Jewish people and the entire world are brought closer to perfection. Therefore, one who is closer to the land of Israel, i.e. a person who exerts himself more for the sake of settling the land, receives priority in blessing.

Love for the Land: Two Levels
The second important lesson that Rabbi Hamnuna teaches us is that one who is closer to the second "land," takes precedent over one who is closer to the first "land." Love of the land of Israel can be divided into two levels. Some people love the land of Israel because they appreciate its unique spiritual powers and the blessing that these powers bring to the Jewish people and the entire world. Others love the land because they understand that, from a practical-material point of view, it is the best place in the world for the Jewish people. Both these types of devotion are good, yet it is clear that the first type is more commendable.

The double appearance of the word "land" in the verse represents two levels. The first "land" refers to five types of fruit; these five types of fruit reflect the Five Books of Moses. This symbolizes a love of the land which emanates from the world of the Torah. The second "land" includes oil - secular knowledge - and date honey - the sweetness of material comfort. In other words, love for the land because it is a place where the Jews as a nation can flourish culturally, and enjoy peace and material prosperity.

In each of these two categories, we can find people who are "closer" to, or "further" from the land, depending upon the amount of actual effort they put into settling the land. The pomegranate, for instance, is included the first "land." Though it represents an individual whose love for the land is of the highest degree, it is fifth in distance from the "land," i.e., in practice, this sort of person remains far from actually settling the land. Despite his great love for Eretz Yisrael, he takes no practical steps toward settlement. Perhaps he even resides outside of Israel.

The Importance of Settling the Land of Israel
This, then, is the truly illuminating novelty of Rabbi Hamnuna's interpretation. The most important thing is the effort made on behalf of actually settling the land, even if one is motivated only out of concern for the material betterment of the Jewish people. For, whatever becomes the property of the Jewish people as a whole, even if it starts out on a material level, eventually becomes elevated to a spiritual level. The bond between the Jewish people and the land of Israel is what inevitably leads to great spiritual refinement. Nevertheless, unless it is played out in the form of practical steps to settle the land, love "in one's heart" for the land of Israel is not worth very much - no matter how sincere.

"Nerves of Steel"
In light of the above, the words of praise expressed by Rabbi Chisdah become all the more understandable. "Would that we be blessed with nerves of steel," i.e., material strength, "and merit serving you," i.e., learn from you how to appreciate properly the material strength of the nation of Israel, and understand in just what manner it is transformed into spiritual strength.

Rabbi Kook closes, explaining that the "we," spoken of by Rabbi Chisdah, refers to the Jewish nation as a whole: Would that we, the entire Jewish people, be blessed with nerves of steel - the materiel prowess to courageously restore the glory of Israel - so that these "nerves" eventually serve the lofty goal of: "Neither by might nor by army, but by virtue of my spirit..."

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