May 16, 2022

Yevamot 59

Much of today’s daf (Yevamot 59a) focusses on the laws of marriage for a Kohen Gadol about whom the Torah instructs: וְהוּא אִשָּׁה בִבְתוּלֶיהָ יִקָּח – ‘He may marry a woman only in her virginity’ (Vayikra 21:13), and which is then reiterated in the following verse that, אַלְמָנָה וּגְרוּשָׁה וַחֲלָלָה זֹנָה אֶת אֵלֶּה לֹא יִקָּח כִּי אִם בְּתוּלָה מֵעַמָּיו יִקַּח אִשָּׁה – ‘He may not marry a widow, a divorcee, or one profaned by immorality. He may marry only a virgin from his own people, so that he will not profane his children among his people, for I, the Lord, sanctify him’ (Vayikra 21:14).
Interestingly, there is a linguistic connection between marriage and the Land of Israel in the Torah. In terms of marriage the Torah (Devarim 22:13) states כִּי יִקַּח אִישׁ אִשָּׁה – ‘If a man *takes* a wife’, while in terms of the Land of Israel we are taught in the story (Bereishit 23:13) when Avraham acquires Ma’arat HaMachpelah that: נָתַתִּי כֶּסֶף הַשָּׂדֶה קַח מִמֶּנִּי – ‘I give you the money for the field. *Take* it from me’, and it is from this linguistic connection that our Sages learn (Kiddushin 2a) that the covenant of marriage can be established with a monetary gift (or nowadays, a ring), just like the contract for Ma’arat HaMachpelah was based upon a transfer of money between Avraham and Ephron.
Reflecting on this connection today on Yom Ha’atzmaut, and also as an extension of our discussion of today’s daf, the question I would like to consider is how do we relate to the Land of Israel as a spouse and a wife?
I remember, around 15 years ago, when I was being given a tour by Dayan Ezra Basri of his Kollel in Har Nof which was soon about to expand, he pointed to the foot of a hill behind his existing building and explained that they were going to excavate there and build. And then he used a phrase which I had never heard – or at least couldn’t remember encountering – until that point, saying that the land would be קרקע בתולה – literally ‘virgin land’, meaning that they were going to be the first to build on this land.
Significantly, Dayan Basri is not the originator of this phrase. In fact, it is used in the Gemara (Avoda Zara 32a) the Midrash and by various rabbinic commentaries, and it is also a commonly used phrased when discussing undeveloped land in Israel. Still, when I heard this phrase it reminded me of the above-mentioned connection between marriage and the Land of Israel.
Yet while the phrase קרקע בתולה speaks of the parts of Israel that are new and are being revealed and built upon for the first time, it is also noteworthy that the bracha recited upon new communities in Israel (see Brachot 58b) expresses a very different sentiment and life experience with the words, מציב גבול אלמנה – ‘who sets the boundary of the widow’. Significantly, the word אלמנה (widow) is used here give its usage in Eichah (1:1), Yeshayahu (54:4) and Mishlei (15:25), and what this expresses is how Israel seemingly lost her husband when most of the Jewish people were exiled, leaving Israel alone, like a widow.
Having explained all this, what is Medinat Yisrael and what is the nature of our modern-day marriage to the Land of Israel?
In many ways, our relationship with Israel today is something incredibly young and new – as expressed by the phrase קרקע בתולה. At the same time, our relationship with Israel today is something incredibly old and revitalizing, as if we, the Jewish people and the husband of the land, have undergone a form of resurrection and reunion as expressed by the phrase מציב גבול אלמנה.
Of course, for those of us who know something of our history, when I say the words ‘a form of resurrection’ it is not meant lightly. To quote the stirring words of Rabbi Sacks: ‘Twenty-six centuries ago, in exile in Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel had the most haunting of all prophetic visions. He saw a valley of dry bones, a heap of skeletons. God asked him, “Son of man, can these bones live?” Ezekiel replied, “God, You alone know” (37:3). Then the bones came together, grew flesh and skin, and began to breathe and live again. Then God said: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up. Avda tikvateinu, our hope is lost.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what God says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the Land of Israel.” (37:11-12). It was this passage that Naftali Herz Imber was alluding to in 1877, when he wrote, in the song that became Israel’s national anthem, Hatikva, the phrase od lo avdah tikvatenu, ‘our hope is not yet lost.’ Little could he have known that seventy years later, one third of the Jewish people would have become, in Auschwitz and Treblinka, a valley of dry bones. Who could have been blamed for saying, ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost’? Yet, a mere three years after standing face to face with the angel of death, the Jewish people, by proclaiming the State of Israel, made a momentous affirmation of life, as if it had heard across the centuries the echo of God’s words to Ezekiel: ‘I will bring you back to the land of Israel.’ (Future Tense pp. 152-153).
As someone privileged to live in Israel I celebrate Israel’s youth and as well as its age, its future as well as its past. Every day I encounter innovation, and everyday I also encounter snapshots from our past.
Like a marriage there are good times and more challenging times, and like a marriage, there are situations that call for negotiation and compromise. But equally like a marriage I am loyal to Israel, I stand by her and do what I can to support her, and to protect her. And, most importantly, especially today as we commemorate our modern marriage with Israel, I wish to say, with all my heart, I love Israel.
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