Sunday, August 7, 2011

If You Could Ask for Only One Thing

If you could only ask for one thing from God, what would you ask for? Health? Prosperity? Success? It's an important question, because when we boil down our hopes and yearnings to one specific request, it says a lot about who we are.
Throughout the Torah, Moshe Rabbeinu asks God for many things: for guidance, assistance, forgiveness, support. It's a long list. Yet, when we examine his requests carefully we notice that Moshe never really asks for anything for himself. Throughout the Torah, Moshe never makes a personal request for anything – except once. And then when he asks, he doesn't just ask. He begs. He pleads.
וָאֶתְחַנַּן, אֶל-ה', בָּעֵת הַהִוא, לֵאמֹר.... אֶעְבְּרָה-נָּא, וְאֶרְאֶה אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה, אֲשֶׁר, בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן:  הָהָר הַטּוֹב הַזֶּה, וְהַלְּבָנֹן. (דברים ג:כג-כה)
And I pleaded with God at that time saying…Let me go over, I pray to You, and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that goodly hill-country, and Lebanon.' (Devarim 3:23-25)
Moshe pleaded with God for one thing: Please allow me to enter into the Land of Israel.
I've recently become reacquainted with the Me'am Loez, and find myself taken both by its simplicity, but also by its powerful honesty. What is Me'am Loez? According to Wikipedia,
Me'am Lo'ez, initiated by Rabbi Yaakov Culi in 1730, is a widely studied commentary on the Tanakh written in Ladino - it is perhaps the best known publication in that language. In Rabbi Culi's time, many individuals in Turkey were not sufficiently fluent in the Hebrew language to study the Torah and its commentaries in the original. Rabbi Culi thus undertook the "colossal task" of writing a compendium of the major fields of Torah study. The commentary was to be user-friendly and was thus written in Ladino, the Jewish language spoken by the Jews in Turkey. The book was divided according to the weekly Torah portion (Parashat hashevua); Rabbi Culi explains each chapter in detail according to the Midrash and Talmud. In his introduction Rabbi Culi personally guarantees that "everyone who reads the Me'am Loez every day will be able to answer in Heaven that he has learned the whole Torah, because all aspects of the Torah are covered on it".
I guess you could say that Meam Lo'ez was the world's first Artscroll – an attempt to adapt Torah to everyday people in an easy, readable way. And it power and simplicity offer timeless messages that resonate, especially today.
In answering why Moshe so badly wanted to enter into Eretz Yisrael, Me'am Loez gives ten answers. Here's number six (from Rabbi Kaplan's translation of the Me'am Loez):
As long as the Israelites are in the land of Israel they are called God's children, as it is written, "You are children to God your Lord" (Deut. 14:1). Just as a son can find all his father's hidden treasures and can enter any place he wishes, similarly the Israelites can discover all the mysteries of the Torah when they are in the Holy Land.
However, when the Israelites are outside the land of Israel they are called slaves, and a slave may not know all the hidden secrets that his master has.
We thus find that when Moses pleaded before God he called himself a servant, as it is written, "You have begun to show Your servant" (Deut. 3:23). Moses pleaded with God in order to reach the level of a son. God said to him, "You already reached this level when I told you to make the Tabernacle. At that time I called you and revealed to you all My secrets."
It's worthwhile to take some time to study the words of the Me'am Loez. I've copied the relevant sections from Parshat Va'atchanan, both in Hebrew and in English.
Reading these powerful words today, one might get the feeling that they were written by someone from the Religious Zionist movement trying to convince Jews in America to move to Israel. But in truth, they were actually written in the mid-1700's before there even was a Religious Zionist movement. Or, to be more accurate, they were written when all of Orthodox Judaism was a religious Zionist movement. Somehow, we've lost that collective sense of the unique special nature of the Land of Israel and the close connection that it brings between God and His people.
Each year, when Tisha B'av comes around, I find myself struggling for a reason to mourn. Of course, I know that we're mourning the past and the tremendous suffering that the Jewish people have endured. I also know that we yearn for the Beit Hamikdash. But it sometimes seems so abstract. What does that really mean for the Jewish people? Me'am Loez writes,
When the Temple existed and we were in our own land, all blessing and bounty came from God's hand, while the other nations only had what was left over, like a slave dependent on his master. However, now, due to our sins, this has changed. God gives all good to the nations and we can only hope for what they leave over. However, even now when the Temple is destroyed and the land is desolate, through the merit of the land of Israel all the world is fed.
Today these words continue to ring true. Israel depends on the generosity and assistance of the nations of the world for financial and military assistance as well as for its national and political security. We haven't reached true independence, and certainly don't serve as a source of sustenance for others yet. We mourn the fact that as much as we have achieved, we have not come close to reaching our true national potential.
As much as Tisha B'av is about focusing on what happened in the past, we must also utilize the day to consider just how great we can be – and how far we must go to finally reach that great goal.