In preparation for entry into the land after 40 years in the desert, we are told to set up Cities of Refuge for those who kill by accident. Midrash Tanchuma places the cities of refuge into a larger historical/theological context and answers the question: “What’s so special about this land anyways?”
Midrash Tanchuma connects three seemingly disparate events.
Adam’s banishment from the Garden of Eden, the setting up of cities of refuge for those who kill accidentally and our ultimate exile from Israel.
For what crime were Adam and Eve exiled from the Garden of Eden? Eating from the forbidden fruit? Yes and No.
“Why were (Adam and Eve) expelled? Because they brought death to all future generations.”
By ending humanity’s original state of immortality, Adam and Eve indirectly caused the death of billions of people who came after them. So they had to leave the comfort of the Garden of Eden (which was like having a free run of Shuk Machne Yehuda) for a world in which you have to survive by “the sweat of your brow.”
When you think about it, a similar crime is committed by anyone who kills by accident. They have unintentionally killed all future progenitors of the victim. So they too leave their home and live in a city of refuge.
Finally, just like Moses set up 3 cities of refuge, Midrash Tanchuma relates that the 12 tribes were exiled in 3 stages. The first stage was the two and a half tribes who separated themselves from the nation by insisting on settling on the other side of the Jordan. As we noted last week, being exiled first was a punishment for prioritizing their wealth above their family – (pledging to build pens for their animals before playpens for their children).
When Midrash Tanchuma compares the exile to the cities of refuge, perhaps it implies that the Jewish People also committed a crime that jeopardized the lives of future generations. Rabbi Beryl Wein, a noted historian, said that at the time of the Destruction of the Temple, almost 2000 years ago, there were an estimated 7 million Jews and between 13 and 14 million Chinese. Now there are 15 million Jews and 1.6 billion Chinese. (Patterns in Jewish History https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TVV9PssLpZs)
Apropos to the “Nine Days” leading up to Tisha Ba’Av – we can speculate on the fact that if our deeds had not brought about the destruction of the First and Second Temples we too would number over a billion. So like Adam and Eve, and like the one who kills by accident, we have also been banished to cities of refuge for being complicit in the loss of millions of Jews over our long exile.
(Ironically, in our day and age we are so comfortable in our countries of refuge that G-d will have to collect us from “all 4 corners of the earth.”(Isaiah 11:12)
Why the land of Israel was chosen for the Chosen People.
We can all relate to the fact that when Uganda was proposed as a “Homeland for the Jews” it was like a dish missing some key ingredients. – like thousands of years of Jewish History. But what about before that history took place? Before centuries of facts on the ground? Why was the Land of Israel specifically chosen for the Jewish People?
Midrash Tanchuma states unequivocally that G-d matched a beloved People with a beloved Land:
“The Holy One, Blessed be He, had said to Moses, “This land is dear to Me, as stated (in Deut. 11:12), ‘A land for which the Lord your God cares.’ Israel also is dear to Me, as stated (in Deut. 7:8), ‘Because the Lord loves you….’ The Holy One, blessed be He, said, “I will bring My children, who are beloved to Me, into a land that is beloved to Me.”
Midrash Tanchuma offers an analogy to show that the Jewish People are inherently matched to the Land of Israel. It is compared to someone who decided to marry his male servants to his female servants. In the same way G-d matched:
“My own to my own”
But, as usual, the analogy needs to be unraveled:
As we mentioned last week, by accepting the Torah we entered into a covenant with G-d. Regardless if we choose to live an exalted life or run and hide from any obligations, G-d is not abrogating the relationship. G-d considers us “my own.”
But for the analogy to hold up, the Land of Israel must also be a living entity that G-d can also consider to be “my own.”
Do we see any signs that the Land of Israel possesses free will? Goals and aspirations?
Consider the fact that during our long exile, the land’s vegetation seemed inhospitable to any other nation who lived there.
Mark Twain described his visit to Israel in 1867 in Innocents Abroad and it seems that the land was waiting for our return:
“We traversed some miles of desolate country whose soil is rich enough but is given wholly to weeds ― a silent, mournful expanse…Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country. No landscape exists that is more tiresome to the eye than that which bounds the approaches to Jerusalem… Jerusalem is mournful, dreary and lifeless. I would not desire to live here. It is a hopeless, dreary, heartbroken land… Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes.” (source https://www.aish.com/jl/h/cc/48960356.html)
The Prophet Ezekiel takes it one step further by stating that while the Jewish People waited to return to the Land of Israel, the Land waited for our return:
“So says the Lord God, to the mountains and to the hills, to the streams and to the valleys, to the desolate wastes and to the abandoned cities, which have become a prey and a derision to the rest of the nations around…
As for you, you mountains of Israel – you shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to My nation, Israel, for they will soon come.
For behold, I am for you, and I shall turn to you, and you will be tilled and sown.
And I will multiply men upon you – all of the house of Israel, in whole; and the cities will be inhabited, and the desolate places rebuilt. (Ezekiel 36:4, 36:8-10)
Rav Kook, in his “Chazon ha-Geula” (Jerusalem, 5701) wrote:
“The beginning of the redemption is unquestionably unfolding gradually before us. From the time when the mountains of Israel began to shoot forth branches and to yield fruit for Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel), who had started to come back, this beginning commenced….”Source: (https://www.etzion.org.il/en/exile-land-desolation-and-land-lying-fallow)
A Land and a People inextricably bound together. A timely and timeless message that the Jewish people received at the culmination of our 40 year journey through the desert.