This post is in honor of 3 Elul on the Hebrew calendar. Today is the 78th yahrtzeit of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the Land of Israel, and the first anniversary of my personal aliyah to Israel.
The rabbis wrote many great things about the Land of Israel. They wrote about the unique connection to God, to mitzvot, and to Torah that happens here. They wrote about how this is the home of prophecy and that your sins can be atoned just by living here. They described the value of living here as “equal to all the mitzvot in the Torah” (Sifrei on Deuteronomy 12:29).
But among all the esoterica, they also wrote about falling in love with Israel’s dirt.
Moses praised the physical land in Deuteronomy 8:7–10 (translation by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan):
God your Lord is bringing you to a good land – a land with flowing streams, and underground springs gushing out in valley and mountain. It is a land of wheat, barley, grapes, figs and pomegranates – a land of oil-olives and honey-[dates]. It is a land where you will not eat rationed bread, and you will not lack anything – a land whose stones are iron, and from whose mountains you will quarry copper. When you eat and are satisfied, you must therefore bless God your Lord for the good land that He has given you.
The Talmud in Ketubbot 112a–112b describes how the rabbis loved the land. Maimonides summarizes (Laws of Kings, 5:10, my translation):
The greatest of scholars would kiss the borders of Israel, kiss its stones, and roll in its earth. As it says, “Your servants desired her stones, and yearned for her dust” (Psalms 102:15).
Rabbi Elazar Azikri, of 16th-century Safed, highlights this love in Sefer Haredim (Commandments of the Land of Israel, 2:17, my translation):
Every Jewish person must love the Land of Israel, and go there from the ends of the earth with great yearning, like a son to his mother’s bosom. The sin that caused generations of tears was our revulsion at the Land [during the sin of the spies], as is written, “They reviled a beloved Land” (Psalms 106:24); and regarding when we will be soon redeemed, it is written, “Your servants desired her stones, and yearned for her dust” (Psalms 102:15) – right after it says “You shall arise and have mercy on Zion” (102:14).
The most passionate expression of all is due to Rabbi Yehudah Halevi of 12th-century Spain, in his collection of poems known as Songs of Zion, and most especially the poem “My Heart is in the East.” From the final stanza, with my translation:
יְפֵה נוֹף מְשׂוֹשׂ תֵּבֵל קִרְיָה לְמֶלֶךְ רָב.
לָךְ נִכְסְפָה נַפְשִׁי מִפַּאֲתֵי מַעְרָב!
הֲמוֹן רַחֲמַי נִכְמָר כִּי אֶזְכְּרָה קֶדֶם,
כְּבוֹדֵךְ אֲשֶׁר גָּלָה וְנָוֵךְ אֲשֶׁר חָרָב.
וּמִי יִתְּנֵנִי עַל כַּנְפֵי נְשָׁרִים, עַד
אֲרַוֶּה בְדִמְעָתִי עֲפָרֵך וְיִתְעָרָב!
דְּרַשְׁתִּיךְ, וְאִם מַלְכֵּךְ אֵין בָּךְ וְאִם בִּמְקוֹם
צֳרִי גִּלְעֲדֵך – נָחָשׁ שָׂרָף וְגַם עַקְרָב.
הֲלֹא אֶת-אֲבָנַיִךְ אֲחוֹנֵן וְאֶשָּׁקֵם
וְטַעַם רְגָבַיִךְ לְפִי מִדְּבַשׁ יֶעְרָב!
Fairest of peaks, joy of the world, City of the King,
For you my soul pines from the corners of the West!
My compassion swells as I recall ages past,
Your glory now gone, your abode now ruined.
Would I could fly on eagles’ wings, then
I could moisten your earth with my tears, making mud!
I seek you, though your King is absent, and
Your balm of Gilead replaced by serpent and scorpion.
How I long to kiss and embrace your stones
And taste your soil, sweeter to me than honey!
Why are we so in love with this dirt?
Throughout the Bible, the chosenness of the People of Israel is entwined with the the chosenness of the Land of Israel, from God’s first call to Abraham to the rebuke of the prophets under threat of exile. We find the connections among Land, People, and God compared to the love between mother and child and between husband and wife.
Thus this love finds a place among the seven blessings over marriage:
The barren one shall be greatly happy and joyous when her children are gathered in to her with celebration. Blessed are you, God, who gladdens Zion with her children.