May 20, 2024
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The Walls That Protect Us

Our attention was recently focused once again toward the State of Israel, not only due to the 51st anniversary of Yom Yerushalayim or even due to the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Instead, we witnessed an array of rocket activity as tensions escalated between Israel and Iranian forces located in Syria in the aftermath of President Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Iranian nuclear deal. Before we lived in a world where a country’s power was defined by its rockets and nuclear missiles, the symbol of physical security was represented by a wall surrounding the city. There is an interesting statement in Parshat Behar, which we just read, concerning the halachot of Yovel and its implications for the return of homes purchased within a walled city. The Torah describes the following scenario:

ויקרא פרק כה

(כט) וְאִישׁ כִּי יִמְכֹּר בֵּית מוֹשַׁב עִיר חוֹמָה וְהָיְתָה גְּאֻלָּתוֹ עַד תֹּם שְׁנַת מִמְכָּרוֹ יָמִים תִּהְיֶה גְאֻלָּתוֹ: (ל) וְאִם לֹא יִגָּאֵל עַד מְלֹאת לוֹ שָׁנָה תְמִימָה וְקָם הַבַּיִת אֲשֶׁר בָּעִיר אֲשֶׁר לא (לוֹ) חֹמָה לַצְּמִיתֻת…:

If a person will sell a home in a walled city, then it can be redeemed within the first year of the purchase… If that doesn’t happen, then the house will remain in perpetuity in the possession of the new owner…

There is an oddity, though, in the text, as there are times when the tradition of how words are written in the Torah are not the same as how they are pronounced. When describing the walled city, the way the Torah writes the word, is אֲשֶׁר לא חֹמָה, which means that there is no wall. That doesn’t make much sense, given what has just been described as a home in a walled city in the previous verse, and the kri (version read) reads אֲשֶׁר לוֹ חֹמָה, with a vav, meaning that it does have a wall around it. Rav Soloveitchik offered the following drash to explain the discrepancy between the kri and ktiv. Rav Soloveitchik used the story of Megillat Ruth, which we will read on Shavuot, to explore how Elimelech, the wealthy aristocrat, attempted to build a wall of economic security by moving his family from Beit Lechem to Moav when a famine struck the Land of Israel. Chazal tell us that Elimelech was worried how the abundance of poor people in Israel leaning on him for assistance would deplete his savings, which led him to move away. Ultimately, what was his fate? Shortly thereafter, Elimelech and his sons die, and he becomes insignificant to Jewish history. In contrast, his daughter-in-law Ruth, who according to tradition is the daughter of the king of Moav and comes from wealth, clings to Naomi (her mother-in-law) and follows her, despite her impoverished state, back to Israel into a metaphorically unwalled city. In Israel, Ruth meets Boaz, who did not abandon the holy land when famine struck in search of the security of a “walled city.” Boaz and Ruth get married and they are the progenitors of the Mashiach ben David.

There is a contradiction. On the one hand, the Torah in Behar gives special status to a walled city in that the homes don’t return to the original owner. Yet, those who strove for the security of a walled city were punished in the story of Ruth? The Rav explains that it all depends on what is your mesorah. Unlike Elimelech, Ruth and Boaz didn’t put their faith in the physical walls for their protection; they had the ktiv of אֲשֶׁר לא חֹמָה and they recognized that their true protector is Hashem, אֲשֶׁר לוֹ חֹמָה for He, Hashem, is their protector. Because they did not put faith only in their physical surroundings they are ultimately rewarded with eternal relevance.

The Torah is telling us that having walls can be a good thing, but we can’t lose faith when those physical walls aren’t there. We must remember that Hashem is אֲשֶׁר לוֹ חֹמָה, our true wall. We have to have both the mesorah of the kri and ktiv.

Rav Soloveitchik points out that Jewish history has often felt like a state of אֲשֶׁר לא חֹמָה, that we are exposed to our enemies and unprotected. We are surrounded by millions of people who want to destroy us and by countries that publicaly call for the State of Israel to be wiped off the map. The ktiv, the written word, is what we see, and there it appears as אֲשֶׁר לא חֹמָה, but the truth is that our continued existence is due to the fact that we are protected from above, אֲשֶׁר לוֹ חֹמָה, for Hashem is our wall of protection.

Despite the anxiety we feel for what the future will bring given recent major decisions, we should be encouraged by the fact that our nation has an army to defend itself and the support of its allies. On top of that, it is also a people who have learned over time that we will be OK because we have the ultimate security—the protection of Hashem, אֲשֶׁר לוֹ חֹמָה. In this critical time for the State of Israel let us double our efforts to work as one nation to strive to be a more committed people, and let us daven that God will serve us as our protective wall, אֲשֶׁר לוֹ חֹמָה.

By Rabbi Jeremy Donath

 Rabbi Jeremy Donath is the rabbi of Congregation Darchei Noam in Fair Lawn.

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