In the year 1263, Nachmanides, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, the undisputed leader of world Jewry, was forced to debate Pablo Christiani, an apostate Jew, and defend our faith. The debate took place in Spain and was orchestrated by King James, who promised Nachmanides that he would have complete freedom of speech.
Nachmanides, otherwise known as the Ramban was a tremendous scholar and defended brilliantly the many claims made by his Christian opponent. He actually went on to record the debate and share his version of it in a book called, Sefer Havikuach.
But of course, as the Ramban himself knew, there was no winning in this debate. He may have won the argument, but he knew he lost the war. Sure enough, the Shabbos after the debate, King James himself entered the Great Synagogue of Girona, Spain and asked to address the crowd. According to some historians, King James stood up and proclaimed the Ramban the winner of the debate and gave him a purse of gold. Unfortunately, that’s probably not what happened. Other historians argue (heard from Rabbi Dovid Katz) that what happened was that King James stood up and spent the next hour lecturing the Jews in attendance about the Trinity, about Jesus, and how Judaism is evil.
Just imagine for a moment how the Ramban felt as this was happening. He is the chief rabbi, leader of the community, and he is being humiliated, the holy place he is charged with is being desecrated. But of course, there was nothing he could do.
What all historians agree about is that King James then privately told the Ramban that his life was at risk. The Christian church was too powerful and unless he fled immediately, he would not live. The Ramban, at the not-so-young-age of 72 quickly packed his bags, and in middle of the night left his family, his community, and the home that he lived in for over seven decades.
The Ramban made his way to Eretz Yisrael, to Israel, which was just still reeling from the Crusades. Not too long after he arrived, he wrote the following to his son, who he left behind in Spain, and I quote:
“What can I tell you about the land? There are so many forsaken places, and the desecration is great. The more sacred the place, the greater the devastation it has suffered. Jerusalem, Yerushalayim, ir hakodesh, is the most desolate place of all.”
I imagine the Ramban standing there in Israel, thousands of miles away from his homeland, from his family, an old and broken man. I’m sure he realized that the golden era of Spanish Jewry was coming to an end; the Jewish future looked bleak. And he comes to the Promised Land, a place described in the Torah as overflowing with milk and honey, and instead what meets his eyes is utter desolation.
And then something shocking happened. There was a dramatic paradigm shift that took place in the Ramban’s mind, we don’t know when, but the Ramban went from feeling broken and despondent, to feeling overwhelmingly optimistic.
The Ramban settled in Jerusalem and set out to write what would be his magnum opus, his commentary on the Torah. And in that commentary, written a short time after arriving in this desolate land, he shares something, a comment on the Tochacha, the admonition that we read today. The Tochacha is a long string of curses, of terrible calamities that will befall us if we disobey the Torah. And in the midst of those curses, G-d proclaims, not only will the Jewish People suffer, but the land itself will be punished! “V’hashimosi ani es haaretz, I will make the land desolate.”
This curse was witnessed by the Ramban with his own eyes! The terrible destruction of the land that he described in that letter! And yet, the Ramban, in his commentary, in a fantastically creative leap from the p’shat, from the simple text, explains that those words “Your land will remain desolate” are actually a blessing to the Jewish People.
It was G-d’s way of telling the Jewish People, yes, you will be exiled, and yes you will suffer, but the land, but Eretz Yisrael, the holy land of Israel will be saved for you! No other nation, no other people, will be able to cultivate or live in the land. It’s our land, said G-d; it represents the immutable connection between you and I; between the Jewish Nation and their loving Father. I’m holding on to it for you, waiting for your return. The desolation of the land when you are not there is not a sign of punishment. It is a sign of the unbreakable bond between the Jewish People and G-d! What a paradigm shift!
I’m always taken by the Ramban’s optimism. How he was able to walk through the ruins of Jerusalem, and yet see in its destruction, a deep and loving connection to G-d. And whenever I read these words, I wonder to myself, what the Ramban would say today! Imagine, if instead of sending that letter to his son in the 13th century, he was skyping him from modern day Jerusalem. He would once again look to the land and in it he would see the fulfillment of prophecies, but very different ones. He would see the fulfilment of prophecies to bring the Jewish People home from across the globe, the fulfilment of prophecies of barren wastelands transforming into lush forests. He would see technological advancements that boggle the mind. He would witness Jews of all stripes, arguing, fighting, but ultimately living side by side. He would walk through those same streets of Jerusalem and see them rebuilt in all of their majesty, hear the sweet sound of Torah study, hear the laughter of children, of young and old living as one.
And if he were here, he would most probably turn us and to say, “How are you not jumping for joy at the mere thought of what you have? The incredible gift of a Jewish State! The opportunity to kiss and caress the ancient walls of the Kotel! To live in a time of dizzying fulfilment of prophetic visions of the past!”
And he’d be right! What a gift we have! Tomorrow, is Yom Yerushalayim, the day that 52 years ago the words, “Har Habayit B’yadeinu, the Temple mount is in our hands,” were broadcast around the world. Whether you join us in shul as we say Hallel, or whether you’re at home, take a moment to think about the Ramban. Appreciate what he was able to appreciate in 1263, and appreciate the contrast with what we have in 2019. Take a moment tomorrow, wherever you are, to say, ‘thank you G-d’ for this incredible, truly unbelievable, and unprecedented gift.
But – but – one of the salient themes that we learn in today’s Torah portion is that Israel is not only a gift. Israel is also a responsibility. The land of Israel demands something of us. It is not only there for our pleasure; the land of Israel obligates us to live our lives differently.
There are many Mitzvot that are unique to the land of Israel; the Sabbatical year, the many tithes that have to be taken from produce. But I believe there are obligations for you and I, those who don’t live in Israel, that we must fulfill as well. Along those lines, I’d like to share with you a thought that occurred to me this past week.
I have always been troubled by the name Yerushalayim. Our Sages teach us that Yerushalayim is a hybrid of two names. Noach’s son, Sheim called the city Shaleim, perfection, or wholeness. And Avraham, years later called the city, Yirah, which means fear or awareness of G-d. What does this name mean? Why was Avraham not content with the beautiful name, Shaleim? What does Yerushalayim represent? And what could it teach us?
This past week, I went to a wedding in New York. Before the ceremony I introduced myself to a young man, who told me his name is Yitzy Spinner. Yitzy Spinner, for those who don’t know was a star-soloist for a Jewish group called, the Miami Boys Choir. Apparently, about 22 years ago, he and I looked kind of similar. And, at the time, as a pre-adolescent, I had a pretty good voice. So every once in a while, some kid would come over to me, after hearing me sing and ask to take a picture with the famous Yitzy Spinner, I’d even give an autograph sometimes…
I was quite excited to meet the guy who was my alleged childhood doppelganger. For the record, we do not look alike, but I do see the similarity. Anyway, I digress…
Turns out, one of us still has a good voice, not just a good voice, but a magnificent one. And, he was the wedding singer; he would be singing under the chuppah, which I was really looking forward to. Not only that, but the officiating rabbi, Rabbi Jonathan Morgenstern, the wonderful rabbi of the Young Israel of Scarsdale, also used to sing in the Miami Boys Choir and also has an exceptional voice. At the end of the ceremony, for the final song, Im Eshkacheich, the two of them sang together and let me tell you, it was sublime.
I closed my eyes and I literally felt like I was being carried away, floating higher and higher, one of the most spiritual moments I experienced in a long time. It was absolutely beautiful!
Later that evening, I was thinking about the beautiful chuppah, and I realized, that although at that moment I experienced shleimut, a feeling of wholeness, an incredible spiritual high, I realized that I did not experience any yirah, any sense that I was standing in the presence of Hashem, in the presence of G-d. Shleimut, wholeness, but no yirah, no G-dliness.
I realized that this happens quite often; we have these spiritual experiences, these trance-like moments, where we feel swept up; maybe it’s watching a sunset, a Yom Kippur davening, the birth of a child, and all the small magical moments in between. And when we think about it, we’re lifted up high, but we’re all wrapped up in ourselves, or the people around us, or the moment! That’s shleimut, that is a spirituality, and it’s beautiful. But what Avraham contributed, and what this holy city represents is that spirituality is not enough. Our spirituality must include Hashem; it must include an awareness, a recognition of the fact that we stand in the presence of the Divine. Shleimut fused with yirah; spirituality fused with G-d. That is what Yerushalayim represents.
It’s as simple and as profound as that. To be cognizant of the fact that we stand before G-d. To think about that from time to time, ideally all the time, and certainly in those moments of rapture. That is what Yersuhalayim demands of us; to live a life inspired, infused with a deep awareness of G-d in our lives – yirah and shleimut as one.
There’s a story of a chasid who used to go and study with Reb Chayim Halberstam of Sanz, one of the great Chassid rebbes of yesteryear. (Zalman Schachter-Shalomi – ) This Chasid would travel some distance, and on the way there and back he would pass through a small town, where he used to stay for Shabbos. The rabbi in that town fancied himself to be a shtickl Rebbe, he thought he was big stuff, though he didn’t have many followers. So one day he confronted this chasid, “Anything they’re teaching you there, I could teach you. I’m closer, you won’t have to travel as much. Why don’t you just learn with me?”
“I’ll tell you,” the chasid responded, “in Sanz they are teaching me how to be a yode’a machshovos” — to possess this near-miraculous power to see into people’s hearts, to divine their thoughts and concerns. You can’t teach me that.”
“Really?” said the local rabbi, a little skeptical. “Then what am I thinking about right now?”
“That’s easy,” said the chassid. “You’re thinking about G-d.”
The rabbi smirked, “Aha! No, I’m not!”
The Chasid shook his head. “You’re not thinking about G-d? Nu, now you know why I go to Sanz.”
Yerushalayim is a gift like no other! This was true in the 13th century, and it is so much more true today! But it is not only a gift, it is a responsibility – a responsibility to live a life by the ethos of Yerushalayim; to live an inspired life and to make sure, that in those moments of inspiration – moments like davening mussaf with Yehuda Green – or any moment when we find ourselves swept up, to stop and think about G-d, to bring G-d in to that moment.
In the merit of us doing so, in the merit of us saying thank you to G-d with all our hearts for the incredible opportunity to live in these prophetic times, and in the merit of us thinking about Hashem, fulfilling the most basic commandment of Yirat Hashem, may we merit to sing and dance and to see G-d’s presence in the true embassy, the embassy of G-d, the Bais HaMikdash, bimheira v’yomeinu, speedily in our days, Amen!