In general, synagogues are built facing east. Why? Because Jerusalem was that way, at least for the Ashkenazi legislators that came up with that idea. When you go back to the Talmud, written in Babylon and consequently north-east of Jerusalem, the Sages mention that, if possible, we should pray facing Jerusalem (Berakhot 30b), but they also state that if you want to become rich you should pray facing north, and if you want to become wise you should pray facing south (Bava Batra 25a).
Later halakhic sources discuss a situation related to a synagogue that was not built facing east. In that case, what should that congregation do? Where should those congregants face during the Amidah? For many Rabbis, the answer became clear: if you need to decide whether to face Israel or to face the Torah, you can’t turn your back to the Torah. Consequently, you need to read the Amidah facing the Ark, whether that is in the east or not.
Facing the Torah instead of Jerusalem is not a small thing. The message behind that decision was that, while in exile, we were able to remain together as a people only because of Torah. After being expelled from Israel, as Prof. George Steiner says, the Jewish people established the Torah as its everlasting homeland. Torah became our portable nation, and we were able to survive and endure by clinging to the insights coming from the written and oral words of our tradition. We were banished and rejected from place to place, we had to leave many kingdoms across the globe and, yet, even though we were scattered all over the world, we remained a unified and unique people, text centered but with a profound longing for our ancient land.
For many centuries we resembled the Moses of Parashat Vaetchanan, the Moses of this last weekly Parasha. We raised our voices in prayer and supplication, willing to set foot in the Promised Land, but to no avail. As Moses says in our Parasha regarding his request: “And [G-d] didn’t listen to me” (Dt. 3:26). However, while Moses was allowed to take a peek at the whole country, for many generations we were able only to dream about Israel. “My heart is in the east, and I am in the uttermost west,” wrote Rabbi Yehuda haLevi in the 12th century, and his yearnings were echoed by every Jew at the end of Passover when they said: “LeShanah haBa’a biYirushalaim… The next year in Jerusalem.” We were dispersed around the world, the Torah became our homeland, but we never gave up the idea of coming back.
And, finally, we came back. And we built an outstanding State. And we were able to overcome all the riddles, all the barriers and all the walls. Our love for Israel was stronger than the hatred of those who wanted to destroy us. And that is still the case in our days.
This past Shabbat is traditionally known as “Shabbat Nachamu,” the Shabbat of consolation. On the wake of Jerusalem’s destruction and the loss of Jewish autonomy in Israel that came with 9 b’Av, we are reminded of the fact that we certainly know how to prevail over catastrophes and misfortunes. We know how to get back on our feet and reach our goals. And with that insight we find comfort and strength to keep going.
But, there is more: If last week we reflected on the tragedies that hit us in the past, and during this last Shabbat we thought about the consolation that comes with our unbreakable desire to rebuild our shattered world, then we need to be aware of the fact that tonight, on the 15th of Av, the Jewish world will celebrate Tu b’Av, the Day of Love. According to the Mishna, there were no other days in the whole calendar as Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur (Taanit 4:8). Those were the big moments of the year: One for repentance and the other for love.
So, maybe, just maybe, Judaism is prompting us to understand that it is out of love that we were able to endure, and it is because of our ability to be kind that we are still around. For, as we read in the Song of Songs (8:6), “love is as strong as death,” and it is through love that we are able to transcend the power of oblivion and the shadows of death.
If we were able to come back to Israel, that is because we were always in love with Israel. I still have not met a person who is not moved by the time his or her plane lands at the Ben Gurion airport. I still have not met anyone who is not overwhelmed while walking through the Old City of Jerusalem and facing the Western Wall for the first time in his or her life. And I don’t know many people that refuse to be in amazement and admiration when they go to kibbutzim and see how Israelis were able to transform deserts into meadows turning wilderness into fertile lands.
We didn’t come back to Israel to engage in war. Once and again, war was imposed on us. But out of a deep love for the land and out of a deep love for of its citizens, Israel was able to defend the country. When the war is over, and I hope that will happen soon, one of the biggest challenges Israel will face will be related to the fragile balance between hatred and love. As our frustration grows and our fears increase, so are the voices that will want to replicate the hatred we receive from Hamas but in the streets of Gaza or the West Bank. The love for the land could be transformed into bigotry against those who are not like us, and that is against the core values of our people. According to Judaism it is to love and to live that we came to this world, and because of that we can’t afford to be swept away by the hatred that is engraved in Hamas’ DNA. We need to be better than that. And we definitely need to once again break the barriers that separate us in order to discover those who are tragically suffering on our side and on the other side, all those good men and women, children and adults, that are waiting for the chance to love and to live in dignity and peace.
I’m not naive. I know that the world is filled with fundamentalists all around. But in spite of that, we need to know that a better future can always be built by bridging the gaps of all those human beings that – notwithstanding their gender, religion or political inclinations – are willing to work together on behalf of a redeemed world.