May 29, 2024
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Facing or Following in the Land of Israel

There are approximately 15 agricultural mitzvot belonging to the category of mitzvot teluyot ba’aretz, mitzvot that are hinged specifically to life in Israel. Yet, at a practical level, the prohibition of arla isn’t bound to the Land of Israel. Though the text describes trees in Israel, this prohibition of arla applies to any trees and its first three years of growth (the expansion to trees outside of Israel is delivered through a halacha l’Moshe miSinai, a non-textual tradition). Yet, despite the universal nature of this prohibition, the Torah introduces arla in a very Israel-centric fashion: When you enter the land and plant trees… etc. Why does this mitzvah, which applies outside of Israel, receive such a dramatic introduction framed by planting in Israel? For that matter, why does the Torah invest in describing the planting process at all? Had the Torah simply referred to “fruits of trees” we could have easily inferred that these trees were actually planted.

The Midrash provides a solution: the specific experience of arla may not be limited to Israel. However, the planting process is a crucial stage of entering the land. Therefore, even though the portrait of planting trees in Israel isn’t a halachic qualifier, it does convey an important message about life in Israel. The Midrash explains: Just as Hakadosh Baruch Hu planted trees immediately after completing Creation, similarly, trees should be planted immediately when entering the Land of Israel. Furthermore, by replicating the planting process of Gan Eden we “mimic” Hashem and—as the Midrash articulates—we walk “after” Him (lalechet acharai).

Without question, there is a universal tone to this midrash independent of planting specifically in Israel. By “planting trees” Hashem renovated Gan Eden, and we similarly are tasked with improving an entire planet—not just the environs of Israel. In our attempt to shape our personalities and actions in the image of Hakadosh Baruch Hu, improving our world casts us in His original role during Creation. Improving our world reproduces Hashem’s actions regardless of where the trees are planted.

However, the primary thrust of the midrash highlights tree planting specifically in Israel, as implied by the preface of the pasuk “When you enter the Land of Israel…” More so, planting doesn’t just simulate Hashem but also yields an interaction with Him, which is captured by the term acharai—after Me, or in My wake. What unique Divine relationship does tree-planting afford and how is it captured by the term acharai?

Ideally, a Jew experiences a frontal relationship with Hashem termed “l’fanai,” or before Me. This phrase implies a direct relationship where a human being faces Hashem: he embraces His Presence, fulfills His commands and consciously communicates with Him. This relationship of l’fanai characterizes those who fully experience Hashem through religious commandments and are conscious of this relationship. Often, this term describes heightened religious experience in specific geographical locations, such as the Mikdash: lifnei Hashem. Other times it defines more emotionally intense awareness of that interaction, independent of location. While receiving the instructions to milah in the end of Lech Lecha, Avraham is coached to be hit’halech l’fanai. Avraham’s location isn’t altered, but his identity and general awareness of Hashem is utterly transformed.

For those for whom l’fanai, or standing in front of Hashem, is elusive, life in Israel offers a different form of Divine interaction. This interface is clearly incomplete and obviously inferior to the ideal of l’fanai labeled above. This alternate interface is defined as acharai, which implies walking behind Hashem. It doesn’t possess the same “facing” of Hakadosh Baruch Hu that l’fanai connotes. Additionally, acharai also implies being drawn after Hashem in a way that isn’t fully voluntary or about which a person isn’t fully conscious. Acharai suggests being physically drawn or being persuaded, and it certainly doesn’t capture the mutual interaction of l’fanai. Yet, despite its inferiority, acharai still signifies a relationship with Hashem.

Many have struggled with the secular nature of our state and those who have returned to rehabilitate it. Many secular Israelis experience their Judaism in a manner that classically Orthodox Jews find difficult to process. It seems as if secular Israelis enjoy no relationship or interface with Hashem and therefore cannot be holy partners in this process of return. This midrash reminds us that Hashem provided an alternate—lesser but meaningful—access point. For those who can’t achieve l’fanai, Hashem offers acharai. By returning to our homeland and “planting,” Jews from across the religious gamut enjoy a relationship with Hashem. Of course, planting trees is a metaphor for general investment in national infrastructure: social, military, economic and political. For the past 70 years, while we have dreamed of l’fanai, we have partnered with those who are limited to acharai. As unfamiliar as acharai feels, it is affirmed by this midrash as a meaningful relationship with Hashem. It reminds us that a Jew can be drawn into this relationship even without self-consciousness of the force drawing them. Even without coherent awareness of Hashem, Jews who are drawn to remodel Israel are being drawn by Hashem and are thereby engaged with Him. Our hope is to witness their transformation from a posture of acharai to one of l’fanai.

As a narrative of Jewish history, Shir Hashirim reminds us that Jews have not always been capable of l’fanai—either geographically or spiritually. The fourth verse in the sefer describes the Jews leaving Egypt with the phrase “Moshcheini acharecha narutzu,” Draw us and we will follow. The Jews in Egypt pleaded with Hashem to draw them out and they would trail in His wake. Two-hundred-plus years of slavery had beaten the Jews into religious dysfunction and the most we could muster was “acharai” or acharecha. Seven weeks later we had matured to the point that we could stand and face Hashem and experience l’fanai. As we re-experience this seven-week transition, we hope to witness a national religious revival and a repeated transition from acharai to l’fanai.

By Rabbi Moshe Taragin

Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion located in Gush Etzion where he resides.

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