Growing up in New York accustomed me to consider certain precautions necessary, certain fears justified. Children below a certain age can never play outside alone, even in the suburbs. The door must always be locked when you’re home and alarmed or double-locked when you’re away. My father taught me never to leave anything in the car that I couldn’t live without, lest it be stolen in a break-in. All of these policies were informed by lived experience, by real instances of theft and statistics of crime in my hometown. So to see people act otherwise, without fear of robbery or kidnapping, is always a shock to the system for people in my family.
For example, my parents recently visited cousins in Shaarei Tikvah in Israel. When they arrived at the door, my mother saw a baby boy, probably around one-year-old, crawling by himself outside the house. He looked up at her, curious about his visitor, but completely undaunted by the appearance of a stranger in his midst. Later she learned that this was far from an accident; his parents were unafraid for his welfare, knowing that, in the neighborhood in which they lived, there was hardly any crime, and if the baby were in trouble, neighbors would certainly help.
This was an attitude of freedom and בטחון, trust and security, that my parents and I have never really had. During my first summer in Sharon, I was stunned to learn that the houses in which I stayed did not have alarm systems and almost always had the doors unlocked. There was no need; crime was so rare that the police website was filled with reports of just securing local events and saving cats from trees. Residents of towns like Shaarei Tikvah and Sharon have a privilege that people hardly experience today in much of the world, but one that is also promised to the Jewish People in our פרשה.
Three times in the חומש, the תורה discusses the מצוה of what is called עליה לרגל, going up to Jerusalem at set times, referring to שבועות, פסח, and סוכות. The first two references are in ספר שמות, once in פרשת משפטים and once in פרשת כי תשא, and the third is in our פרשה of ראה. Most of the legal details are in ראה, which we read this morning. However, in פרשת כי תשא, one non-legal detail is included that does not explicitly appear anywhere else:
כִּי־אוֹרִישׁ גּוֹיִם מִפָּנֶיךָ וְהִרְחַבְתִּי אֶת־גְּבוּלֶךָ וְלֹא־יַחְמֹד אִישׁ אֶת־אַרְצְךָ בַּעֲלֹתְךָ לֵרָאוֹת אֶת־פְּנֵי ה׳ אֱלֹקיךָ שָׁלֹשׁ פְּעָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה׃
For I will drive out nations from your path and enlarge your territory; no one will covet your land when you go up to appear before Hashem your G-d three times a year.
ה׳ promises that no one will want to take the land of the Jewish People while they travel to appear before G-d on the holidays. The reason this guarantee is necessary is obvious when you think about it. If the entire Jewish People leave their homes and head to a single location (specifically, the men but often the entire family would go), who is protecting those areas from attack? Three times a year, the border will be extremely vulnerable to foreign invasion as the vast majority population heads to a mountain in the center of the country. So G-d assures בני ישראל that not only won’t foreign nations invade, but they won’t even be interested in doing so. However, the גמרא takes this much further.
When I leave home for a week, I not only make sure to lock the door, but we sometimes set up timers and other tricks to try to keep away potential robbers. The technology we rely on, however, did not exist in ancient Israel. Moreover, since they were traveling by foot or donkey, it would have been very difficult for people to take all of their valuable items, including their cattle and flocks, with them to ירושלים. What would protect their home from a break in?
In 2005, there was massive electrical grid failure in New York City, causing a metro-area-wide blackout. My family had just visited the USS Intrepid Museum and were in Penn Station rushing to catch a train back to Long Island when the entire city shut off, all at once. We were ushered outside along with tens of thousands of other stranded travelers, none of us knowing where to go or how to get home. With all security, traffic, and communications systems shut down and the relative chaos that that entails, there was a fear of wide-spread crime gripping the city. To everyone’s great surprise and delight, crime actually significantly decreased in those 24 hours – even the criminals didn’t want to take advantage of a city-wide disaster. My mother, who had been in Manhattan on 9/11 and the day after, said the same thing happened at that time. In two moments of the city’s greatest vulnerability, people had the respect and human dignity not to cash in on the criminal opportunity.
The גמרא in פסחים, realizing that every Jewish home would be vulnerable to the same danger as Manhattan during the blackout, interprets the פסוק in כי תשא to extend to individual protection as well.
מלמד שתהא פרתך רועה באפר ואין חיה מזיקתה תרנגולתך מנקרת באשפה ואין חולדה מזיקתה
this teaches that your cow can graze in the meadow and no beast will harm it, and your rooster can peck in the refuse and no weasel will harm it.
Ultimately, the גמרא concludes that this kind of total protection for each individual Jewish home, the sense of security that every member of בני ישראל can rely on as they leave for the holiday, is derived from our פרשה. The Torah says that the קרבן פסח should be slaughtered, roasted, and eaten in ירושלים but that on חול המועד, everyone should start heading home. The פסוק says:
וּבִשַּׁלְתָּ וְאָכַלְתָּ בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ וּפָנִיתָ בַבֹּקֶר וְהָלַכְתָּ לְאֹהָלֶיךָ׃
You shall cook and eat it at the place that Hashem your G-d will choose; and in the morning you may start back on your journey home.
Noticing the unnecessary word לאהלך, to your homes, when it could have just said “והלכת” and you’ll leave, the גמרא infers:
מלמד שתלך ותמצא אהלך בשלום
This teaches that you shall go and upon your return find your tent in peace, unharmed.
The מדרש offers examples of how this kind of protection worked. For example, a family once left their chicken coup unlocked when they headed to ירושלים but came home to find two wild cats dead on the floor but not a single chicken harmed. Similarly, a family left their door unlocked and came home to find a snake wrapped around the door handles, preventing anyone from getting in.
In a third instance, two non-Jewish robbers conspired to rob Jewish homes during the חג while everyone was in ירושלים. However, throughout the holiday, they kept seeing people walking around the house. When the owners came home, the non-Jews asked who it was that had stayed in their homes. To their surprise, the Jewish owners said that no one had been in their house. Evidently, says the מדרש, angels had been protecting their homes, taking on the appearance of guests who had stayed behind. Said the non-Jews:
בריך אלהא קודשא דיהודאי דלא שביקן ולא שביק להון
Blessed is the Holy G-d of the Jews, for they did not leave Him and He did not leave them either.
In other words, בני ישראל enjoyed, during the Temple period, a kind of national security of which we can only dream. They had that which is described in איוב:
You will laugh at violence and starvation, and have no fear of wild beasts. For you will have a pact with the rocks in the field, And the beasts of the field will be your allies.
וְיָדַעְתָּ כִּי־שָׁלוֹם אָהֳלֶךָ וּפָקַדְתָּ נָוְךָ וְלֹא תֶחֱטָא׃
You will know that all is well in your tent; and you will visit your pasture, and you will never fail.
They were able to leave their homes knowing they would be safe, that their property would be safe, that they would come back to the same reality they left, only more spiritually uplifted. Unfortunately, that is not the situation today.
Over the past week or two, more than 100 rockets have rained down on the residents of ארץ ישראל. Thankfully, many Israelis have access to a מקלט, a shelter, there are alarms installed throughout the country to warn people to run to those shelters, and the Iron Dome shoots down most of the rockets that pose a serious threat. But the danger is real; since the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, there have been more than 11,000 rockets fired at the more than 5,000,000 Israelis living in the firing range. As Rabbi Chaim Jachter points out in his book, Reasons to Believe, under normal circumstances, even with all of the Israeli precautions and technological tools, this should have caused tens of billions of dollars’ worth of damage and cost many Israeli lives. And yet the casualty rate has been miraculously low.
We certainly need to thank ה׳ for the tools Israel has to protect itself and the shield He has afforded its citizens. But if you watch videos of what happens during a rocket attack, the experience is far from וְיָדַעְתָּ כִּי־שָׁלוֹם אָהֳלֶךָ, from knowing peace in your home. These attacks are traumatic, they are extremely dangerous, and they are making life very difficult.
This weekend, there is another protest at the Gaza border, with members of Hamas lobbing bombs and grenades at the IDF, forcing them to respond to protect themselves, thus reigniting anger around the world all over again. The Gaza March of Return is hardly a fulfillment of וְלֹא־יַחְמֹד אִישׁ אֶת־אַרְצְךָ, of no person coveting your land. So what are we to do in the face of all of this? How are Israelis meant to respond? What can we do to deserve ה׳’s continued protection? Perhaps the answer is in the words of שלמה המלך in שיר השירים:
מַה יָּפוּ פְעָמַיִךְ בַּנְּעָלִים
How beautiful are your feet [fe’amayikh] in sandals
The גמרא in חגיגה explains that this refers to ה׳’s love of our resilience in going to ירושלים:
כמה נאין רגליהן של ישראל בשעה שעולין לרגל
How pleasant are the feet [raglehen] of the Jewish people when they ascend to Jerusalem on the pilgrimage Festival
This is a play on words because רגל sometimes means foot and sometimes it means time, just like פעם can mean either feet or time. In response to this love for our resilience, says ה׳, we are בנעלים. The תורה תמימה explains to mean that we are נועלין בפני הצרה, we are protected from danger as a result of our determination to do the מצוה. In the merit of the Jewish People’s resilience to stay in their homeland, despite the danger, and to protect themselves in the most humane way they can, may ה׳ continue to protect Israel and all of its inhabitants. May we soon merit to see the day when we can be certain of our security and peace, that our אהל is בשלום, in realization of the פסוק:
ה׳ עז לעמו יתן ה׳ יברך את עמו בשלום
Hashem will give strength to his People, Hashem will bless His people with peace.