Vaetchanan: Eretz Yisrael: Part Of Our Identity

In Parshat Vaetchanan, we are witness to a dramatic exchange of words between G-d and Moshe. Moshe opens by requesting of G-d that He allow him to enter the Land of Israel. G-d refuses Moshe’s supplication unequivocally, stating: “It is too much for you! For you shall not cross this River Jordan.”(3:26-27) Not only was Moshe banned from entering the Land of Israel in his lifetime due to his sin at the waters of “Meriva” (where he smote the rock), but he was also prevented from being buried there after his death. The reason for this is brought down in the Midrash (Devarim Rabba, 8:2): “G-d said to Moshe, whoever acknowledges his homeland is buried in his homeland. Yosef acknowledged his homeland, as it is written (Breishit 40:15), “for indeed I was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews…” You did not acknowledge your homeland…How? The daughters of Yitro said, “An Egyptian man saved us from the shepherds” (Shmot 2:19). You heard them and remained silent. Therefore you will not be buried in your homeland.”

What Does It Mean: “To Acknowledge Your Homeland”?
Two questions can be raised regarding this Midrash:

  1. How can Moshe be blamed for covering up his identity when the entire reason he fled to Midyan in the first place was because of his unending and burning love for his people?! Back in the book of Exodus, we saw that it was only a strong identification with his people which caused him to smite the Egyptian taskmaster who was striking a Jewish slave, causing his exile to Midyan. This being the case, why should Moshe, this genuine lover of Israel,be turned into one who does “not acknowledge his homeland”, just because hedid not correct the words of the daughters of Yitro? Did Moshe’s loyalty to his people need further proof after his awesome act, one which was motivated precisely by an identification with his people?
  2. Why does the Midrash specifically use the term “homeland”, when apparently what is being referred to is acknowledgment of “people” or “national identity”?!

One can see from this that the criticism against Moshe is not for a lack of identification with the people of Israel. Moshe undoubtedly proved himself in this regard. And so, it is clear that the use of the terminology “did not acknowledge his homeland” is used by the Midrash to teach us that Moshe was being punished for something else.

This matter of “not acknowledging his homeland” means that when fleeing to Midyan, Moshe felt that Egypt was his homeland. This is expressed in just a few verses following the story of the daughters of Yitro. There it is told that Moshe named his firstborn son Gershon, “because I was a stranger (ger) in a strange land”. That is, Moshe felt like a stranger, cut off from his natural habitat, Egypt. When the Midrash says Moshe did not acknowledge his homeland, it is faulting him for his feeling, even on a subconscious level, that Egypt is his homeland. After all, he was born and raised there. And so when the daughters of Yitro reported to their father, “an Egyptian man saved us”, Moshe’s lack of protest was not due to a fear of identifying himself with his nation and possibly endangering himself (especially when considering the reason he was fleeing Pharaoh). Rather, he did not protest because being identified as an “Egyptian” indicated one who resides in a certain geographical area. Moshe didn’t view this as a problem. His response should have been: “Me? A descendant of Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov? An Egyptian? My place is Egypt? Heaven Forbid! Though I have never lived there, my homeland is Eretz Yisrael!” However, as we explained, this feeling did not sufficiently burn within him.

It is absolutely impossible to sever the connection between the Jewish People and the Jewish land. A Jew cannot say: I am a complete Jew, I love my people, and I cling to the Torah – but I do it in Brooklyn, London, or Miami Beach. There is no such thing. Part and parcel to the Jewish identity is his belonging to his land. A Jew who is cut off from his land is blemished, nomatter how “frum” he may be.

This is the reason the sages tell us that mitzvot which are fulfilled in the exile are not fulfilled properly, and are merely observed for practice so that we do not forget them when we come back to the land of Israel. Ibn Ezra writes in our parsha (4:10): “G-d knew they would be unable to do mitzvot properly when they are in lands under foreign control.” The Sforno adds (6:21): “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and since in our servitude we were unable to acquire the perfection directed to us from G-d, He miraculously took us out and brought us to a land where we would be able to acquire it completely.” Therefore, even though Moshe never saw his land, it was incumbent upon him to feel he was a man of Eretz Yisrael, and not of Egypt, which like all exiles, is an inevitable graveyard for the Jew. Moshe’s punishment was measure for measure. You did not acknowledge your homeland and felt that it was possible to be both a good Jew and at the same to be an “Egyptian” (a man of the land of Egypt). Therefore, you will not be buried in your land.

We, on the other hand, were born and raised in our homeland, or at least we live here now. We don’t have the problem of longing for some distant homeland which we have never seen. In any case, because of our long and bitter exile which saw us cut off from our homeland, we are currently in an abnormal situation where we feel a lack of connection and belonging to our one and only homeland, and are even willing to give it away. Eretz Yisrael is not just some “piece of real estate” – it is the land of G-d – the Land of Israel, the Holy Land.

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