from the heart of jerusalem

Knowing who we are, where we’re meant to be


More than 1900 years ago, on the 17th day Tammuz, the end finally began. After two and a half years of siege, the Roman Legions broke through the ancient walls of Jerusalem and began their savage rampage of pillage and looting through the streets of holy city.

Although the Temple mount is a short ten minute stroll from the city walls, it would take the Romans three weeks to set fire to the Temple and end the battle for Jerusalem. Amidst the fire and destruction, Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai smuggled himself out of the city, realizing the war was lost and preferring to begin the long and tortuous process of assuring the Jewish people’s survival in the exile.

In 1948, the Jews of Jerusalem again faced the most awful of challenges: to stay and fight, or leave and live to fight another day.

In her book “Forever My Jerusalem,” Puah Shteiner describes the awful moment when her parents decided they could no longer risk their children’s lives for the sake of their own ideals. Perhaps they, too, saw the writing on the wall. Surrounded by tens of thousands of Arabs, 250 Jewish fighters, defending 1,400 civilians inside the Old City, were in desperate straits. Outmanned, outgunned, and completely surrounded, it no longer seemed a matter of whether, it was only a matter of when.

On the 28th of May, 1948, just two weeks after the declaration of the State of Israel, the Jewish quarter surrendered, and as the Jewish community was led out of the Old City, Rav Goetz, who would one day return to become the rabbi of the Kotel, turned and saw the beautiful Tiferet Yisrael Synagogue in flames. Falling to the ground in agony he cried out the age-old adage: “If I forget thee Oh Jerusalem, let my right arm wither.”

Today, Jewish children once again play and laugh amidst the walls of a rebuilt Jewish quarter, and one wonders how it is that we have merited this miraculous return. Perhaps it is because the Jewish people’s longing for Jerusalem and the land of Israel has never been about land and acquisition but something much deeper.

• • •

This week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, includes the story of the daughters of Tzlafchad.

There are two major lines of inheritance in the Jewish people — our Jewish identity, which follows the mother, and the tribal lineage, which follows the father. Tzlafchad’s daughters are concerned with their rights to inherit a portion of the land of Israel, given that their father had no sons.

At first glance, this story seems to be about a few people wanting the opportunity to “get their fair share,” not exactly the stuff of inspiration. Why does the Torah takes the time to include this vignette? 

It is interesting to note that the Torah in 21:1 uses the phrase “Va’Tikravna’ Benot Tzlafchad” (“And then came forward [close] the daughters of Tzlafchad”), but does not finish the sentence. We do not discover whom they came close to, or why they are coming forward, until after an interruption regarding tribal lineage.

Further, why mention the entire lineage of these women all the way back to Joseph? Would it not have been enough to say they were from the tribe of Menashe? We hardly need to be reminded that Menashe was the son of Joseph!

The tribe of Menashe was unique, in that its portion straddled land on both sides of the Jordan River. The tribes of Gad and Re’uven chose to live on the eastern side of the Jordan (see next week’s parsha), due to its rich farm and grazing land and the prospect of economic prosperity, rather than enter the land of Israel.

And as a result of the granting of their request, Moshe ultimately splits the tribe of Menashe, with half the tribe residing on either side of the Jordan. Generally, the rabbis view this as an assurance that the two sides of the Jordan will remain part of one people and that the tribe of Menashe, which did not seek to live outside of the land, would also be an influence for maintaining the love of the land of Israel even on the eastern side of the Jordan.

Here’s why this is relevant to this week’s story: the daughters of Tzlafchad could have received rich land on the eastern side of the Jordan, where the technical conditions of inheritance in the land of Israel based on tribal lineage did not apply.

Perhaps then, the real motivation of the daughters of Tzlafchad was a burning love for the land of Israel. Indeed, this was their true tribal inheritance. Joseph, despite spending most of his life in Egypt, dies with one wish in his heart — to be buried in the land of his forefathers, the land of Israel.

Perhaps this is why these women’s tribal lineage is listed back to Joseph.

• • •

Menashe, the first Jew born in the exile, in Egypt, never gives up on the dream of returning home. Indeed, it is the tribe of Menashe whose members, according to the midrash, miscalculate the end of the exile, and in their zeal attempt to conquer the land of Israel too soon, an adventure that ends in disaster.

The daughters of Tzlafchad represent this same idea, namely a case that has value because the motivations were pure. Perhaps for this reason it was important for this case to come as a result of their desire to see their struggle through.

“Va’Tikravna (And they came close).”

It was precisely because they decided that they wanted to live in the land of Israel and close among the people that this story is so important. They had to work their way up through the entire system of the courts until they finally arrived before Moshe. Only a burning love for the land of Israel motivated them to such a high degree.

Today, thousands of years after Joseph’s bones were brought home and the daughters of Tzlafchad merited building homes in the land of Israel, we are still struggling for our right to live and love in the land of Israel.

For 2,000 years we wandered the face of the globe and today, ours is the generation that has merited the privilege to put our real motivations to the test. Each of us, in our own way, has to decide what this country and this magnificent city mean to us.

Who we are as a people is a function of what we do and why we do it. Where we choose to be, and why we choose to be there, will ultimately determine whether we become who we are meant to be.