Grief, Gratitude and … Grapes? Tears on Tishah Be-Av as Tools of Tikun and Thanksgiving

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Steven Weiner

Witnessing the Kotel Plaza on Tishah Be-Av afternoon jam-packed with worshippers lamenting “the city that is … laid waste, scorned and … desolate without inhabitants” leads many to question the logic of tears on Tishah Be-Av in our times. I propose to shed light on the meaning and importance of our tears by examining a thread that connects birkat ha-mazon, bikurim, the righteous daughters of Tzelofhad, and the sin of the spies.

“Desirable” Land – Mysterious Adjective

Every time we enjoy a meal and recite birkat ha-mazon, we thank God for giving us a land that is “desirable, good, and spacious”: eretz hemdah tovah u-rehavah. The Talmud (Berakhot 48b) states that one who does not praise the land of Israel with these words in the second blessing of birkat ha-mazon does not fulfill his obligation. Rambam (Berakhot 2:3), Tur (Orah Hayim 187) and others endorse this rule as authoritative.

Why are these particular kudos – desirable, good, and spacious – deemed so essential? Surprisingly, the Talmud does not seek or offer any source.

The phrase eretz tovah u-rehavah distinctly echoes God’s promise to Moshe, at the scene of the Burning Bush, to liberate the Children of Israel from slavery and bring them to a “good and spacious land” (Shemot 3:8). Talmidei R. Yonah note this connection, and Meiri adds that this marks the first time that God promises Eretz Yisrael to Israel as a nation, i.e. after the era of the individual patriarchs. Evoking God’s original promise of the land with the words eretz tovah u-rehavah fits perfectly in a blessing which expresses our thanks for the gift of the Promised Land.

So far so good: we have found a meaningful biblical source for “good and spacious.” But the adjective hemdah, desirable, is much more puzzling. Nowhere in the Pentateuch is that word used to describe the land of Israel.

Talmidei R. Yonah cite Yirmiyah 3:19, which praises the land of Israel as eretz hemdah. However, they do not explain why that verse or word is particularly relevant to the context of birkat ha-mazon. Instead, Talmidei R. Yonah offer only a general suggestion that our blessing employs adjectives which the Bible uses to praise the land. But if that were the only selection criterion, there are other biblical kudos to choose from. Surely a more familiar praise like “flowing with milk and honey” would come to mind well before the obscure hemdah! Indeed, Kaftor va-ferah[1] (chap. 10) is troubled by this question and leaves it unanswered[2]. Moreover, the context of Yirmiyah 3:19 seems incongruously sad in a blessing of thanks. God gave us this desirable land, but we repaid Him with faithlessness. Why select an adjective of praise that is not only obscure, but carries with it such a dark association?

Shibolei Ha-leket (157) offers an alternative explanation for hemdah, later quoted by R. Yosef Karo (Beit Yosef, Orah Hayim 187) and others. According to Talmudic tradition, Joshua composed the second blessing in birkat ha-mazon upon his entry to Israel (Berakhot 48b). Shibolei Ha-leket suggests that having witnessed first-hand his great teacher Moshe’s deep, unfulfilled longing to enter Israel, Joshua was moved to praise the land as an object of great desire — eretz hemdah — in humble gratitude for meriting to enjoy the produce of Israel, a privilege that his master sadly never shared.

I find Shibolei Ha-leket’s explanation incredibly moving, particularly in our own days, when our nation has tasted our own version of what Joshua experienced. By God’s grace, we have merited to once again walk the streets of a free Jewish Jerusalem – “a dream of hundreds and [of] thousands of years, a dream which many gedolei Yisrael did not merit to realize,” as R. Aharon Lichtenstein poignantly wrote.

Nevertheless, as powerful as this interpretation of eretz hemdah feels, we may be bothered by the lack of a biblical source text corresponding to Joshua’s supposed use of the phrase eretz hemdah. Can we locate a Biblical source for eretz hemdah that is also clearly pertinent in the context of birkat ha-mazon?

“They Scorned the Desirable Land”

I suggest that the phrase eretz hemdah in birkat ha-mazon alludes to the following verse:

Va-yimasu be-eretz hemdah; lo he-eminu lidvaro (Tehilim 106:24).

Recounting the Sin of the Spies, the Psalmist laments that the Children of Israel “scorned the desirable land and did not trust His word.”

Why is this verse, with its dark connotation, an appropriate reference for expressing gratitude in birkat hamazon? After all, the verse speaks explicitly of rejecting the land.

The power and poignancy of recalling our forebears’ tragic scorn for eretz hemdah when we recite birkat ha-mazon will become clearer when we reflect on the concept of “elevating sin” through sincere repentance.

Elevating Sin Through Love – and Fruit

According to Hazal, the national catastrophes of hurban and exile that we mourn on Tishah Be-Av were rooted in an earlier failure occurring on the same date: the sin of the meraglim, the “spies” dispatched by the Israelites to scout out the land of Israel. The disheartening report of those scouts provoked a tearful rejection en masse of the Promised Land. In response, God decreed forty years of wandering in the desert, until a new generation would arise, worthy of entering Israel. According to the Rabbis (Ta’anit 29a), God further decreed:

You have wept for no good reason; you will henceforth have good reason to weep on this date in future generations.

At first blush this teaching sounds almost hopelessly fatalistic. Our ancestors erred grievously and irreparably on the Ninth of Av. The date is cursed. Epic national tragedy on that date seems preordained and unavoidable.

However, R. Menachem Ziemba zt”l, a Warsaw Ghetto martyr, popularized a beautiful teaching of R. Yitzhak Luria (the Ari Ha-kadosh). According to R. Luria, bringing bikkurim (first fruits harvested in Israel) to the Temple repairs the Sin of the Spies. R. Ziemba added insightful support for R. Luria’s idea by pointing out that the exemplars of bikkurim mentioned in the Mishnah [Bikkurim 3:1] are the same three fruits that the spies brought back with their damning report: figs, grapes, and pomegranates[3].

Indeed, not only are the species of fruit themselves reminiscent of the spies’ failed mission, as R. Ziemba noted, but the introduction and conclusion of the farmer’s declaration also evokes the first words of the spies’ report:

They [the spies] reported and said: “We came into the land where you sent us … and here is its fruit.” (Bamidbar 13:27)

I declare this day to the Lord your God that I have come into the land which the Lord swore unto our fathers to give us … and now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which You, O Lord, have given me. (Devarim 26:3, 10)

But how, and in what sense, can one “repair” the harm done through a past misdeed by performing a different mitzvah centuries later?

I picture the farmer who brings his first fruits to the Temple doing so with much deeper gratitude when he connects with feelings of remorse for our people’s historic rejection of the land of Israel. The desire to make amends invests the farmer’s pilgrimage with even greater devotion. In phrasing reminiscent of the spies’ report, the farmer affirms that he too has come into the Promised Land and has brought a sample of its fruit. But this time, instead of cynical rejection, the report is one of heartfelt gratitude and appreciation. Recalling our nation’s failure in the Sin of the Spies only serves to intensify the farmer’s passionately grateful embrace of our formerly-rejected land.

Bringing bikkurim can therefore “elevate” the Sin of the Spies into a source of inspiration and merit. I am applying here the beautiful concept of “elevating sin” through loving repentance that is developed at length by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in the essay “Blotting Out Sin, Or Elevating Sin?”[4]:

The future can be built on the foundations of the past. How so? By elevating and exalting evil. How does one exalt evil to such an extent that is ceases to be evil?… Repentance [motivated by love]… infuses [man] with a burning desire to come as near as he can to the Creator of the universe and attain spiritual heights undreamed of before he sinned…

The intensity of sin and the sense of guilt and shame that overwhelms man in its wake are such strong drives that they impel the penitent upward and outward in the direction of the Creator of the universe. The years of sin are transformed into powerful impulsive forces which propel the sinner toward God…

The Sin of the Spies is transformed into a spur for even greater closeness to God by bringing the first grapes, figs, and pomegranates of one’s harvest to the Temple in a sincere expression of gratitude.

Eretz Hemdah: Transforming Sin to Merit

Similarly, we can repair the Sin of the Spies while reciting birkat ha-mazon. The key to this effect lies precisely in the words eretz hemdah, alluding to the Sin of the Spies and our scorning of the desirable land.

By thanking God each time we eat a meal for the gift of Eretz Yisrael and praising it as eretz hemdah – land of desire – we evoke and admit the folly of our ancestors in rejecting a land they should rightly have desired. We affirm that the Land of Israel is indeed desirable in our eyes, that we truly desire and love the land that our nation once mistakenly rejected. Alluding to the Sin of the Spies in this manner deepens our appreciation for the precious opportunity we have been given to enjoy the eretz hemdah. Our hearts are opened to acknowledge this gift with even greater sincerity. The same phrase which described the essence of the Sin of the Spies – rejection of eretz hemdah – thus rectifies and elevates that sin, becoming an instrument for expressing our deepest gratitude for that same land.

A stirring message emerges from juxtaposing eretz hemdah with tovah u-rehavah. Alluding to the Burning Bush (tovah u-rehavah) recalls the innocence and purity of God’s original vision and promise; with hemdah, we remorsefully recall how that vision was nearly derailed as a consequence of our rejecting the “desirable land.”

Thus, the second blessing of birkat ha-mazon embodies a powerful virtuous cycle. Thanking God for the Land of Desire intensifies our remorse for the past error of rejecting it, while that very sense of remorse in turn intensifies our appreciation for a gift made even more remarkable by forgiveness and second chances. This blessing, devoted at its core to gratitude for the gift of the land and its produce, is thus a perfect vehicle through which to recall, recant, and rectify our historic scorn for that land. With every meal, we have the power, through remorse and loving repentance, to transform the Sin of the Spies into fuel for a more passionate appreciation of the Promised Land.

The Daughters of Tzelofhad

Rambam and Ibn Ezra both famously write that the death of dor ha-midbar during the 40-year delay in the desert allowed for the growth of a new generation born in freedom, unaccustomed to slavery, and less fearful of combat[5].

We can go further. The death of dor ha-midbar in the desert presumably intensified the next generation’s desire for the land of Israel. In Moshe’s farewell address to the generation poised to enter Israel, he poignantly describes their parents’ belated pangs of regret (Devarim 1:41-45):

You replied to me saying: “We stand guilty before the Lord! We will go up now and fight, just as the Lord our God commanded us….”

But the Lord said to me, “Warn them: Do not go up and do not fight, since I am not in your midst…”

You flouted God’s command and willfully marched up to the hill country. The Emorites who lived in those hills came out against you and chased you like bees, crushing you at Hormah in Se’ir.

Again you wept before the Lord but the Lord would not heed your cry or give ear to you.

The yearning of parents who never made it to the Promised Land surely left a powerful mark on their children, imbuing in them a burning eagerness to enter Israel and to not repeat the prior generation’s mistakes.

The daughters of Tzelofhad exemplify this impact. They successfully plead with Moshe to inherit their father’s portion in the land, because he left no sons. Supporting their claim, the daughters unashamedly assert their father died “of his own sin” – explained by R. Yehuda b. Beteira (Shabbat 96b-97a) as being one of the ma’apilim who died in the failed attempt to ascend and enter Israel despite God’s decree. The daughters’ keen, resolute desire to possess the land in their father’s name was itself likely inherited by witnessing their father’s painful regret over his initial rejection of the Promised Land, and his tragic death in the wake of that regret[6].

We have now seen three illustrations of how the Sin of the Spies and the resulting decree could be transformed into powerful fuel for good:

  • cementing the next generation’s resolve to courageously enter and settle Israel under Joshua’s leadership;
  • deepening the meaningfulness of the Israeli farmer’s gesture in bringing his first fruits to the Temple; and
  • intensifying our thanks in birkat ha-mazon for a desirable land, eretz hemdah.

Sowing with Tears and Joy

“Those who sow with tears and joy combined shall reap.” So runs the re-punctuated, Hasidic rendering of Tehilim 126:5.

God has generously graced us with the remarkable gift of renewed Jewish sovereignty in Israel and Jerusalem. Yet we continue to mourn our historic national calamities on Tishah Be-Av, the anniversary of the Sin of the Spies, with unresolved grief. Why? What precisely should we aim to feel nowadays on Tishah Be-Av?

Personally, my own Tishah Be-Av experience is most meaningful when I regard our tears and grief as means to transform the tragedies and failings of our past into fuel for an even deeper appreciation of the precious and fragile gifts with which God has only recently entrusted us again. The farmer bringing bikkurim to the Temple, the individual blessing God for eretz hemdah after finishing a meal, and the righteous daughters of Tzelofhad – each stoke their feelings of love and appreciation for the land of Israel by recalling the Sin of the Spies and its heartbreaking consequences. How privileged are we that our Tishah Be-Av liturgy today carries similar power and meaning.

Tishah Be-Av in our days reminds us that the Jewish sovereignty we now enjoy is a delicate, priceless prize that our people sadly mishandled and forfeited in the past. Twice burned, thrice shy. If God does not protect Jerusalem, its mortal guardians toil in vain[7]. Our goal on Tishah Be-Av is an emotional experience ensuring we never take Jerusalem for granted.

In our traditional prayer of Nahem we beseech God to:

Console the mourners of Jerusalem and the city that is… laid waste, scorned and desolate; in mourning bereft of her children, laid waste of her dwellings, robbed of her glory, and desolate without inhabitants…

May our painful recall that Jerusalem was “laid waste, scorned, and desolate” for nearly two millennia inspire us to sharper awareness of how precious is the gift of sovereignty over a thriving Jerusalem aglow with spiritual and physical beauty — and that this rare, exquisite gift demands our loving attention, gratitude, and devotion to righteousness and Torah.

May the seeds we sow annually on Tishah Be-Av – with tears, even in our joyous era – help us to speedily reap and enjoy a harvest of geulah shleimah.

[1] A fourteenth-century work written in Israel by R. Farhi, focused mainly on laws pertaining to Israel.

[2] Orhot Haim (Birkat Ha-mazon 55) suggests that eretz hemdah implicitly includes the praise that Israel flows with milk and honey. This seems rather forced. “Flowing with milk and honey” more clearly implies “desirable” than vice-versa. Why choose the less familiar, non-Mosaic phrase?

[3] Wellsprings of Torah, an anthology of divrei Torah on the weekly parshah, for parshat Shelah.

[4] From On Repentance: The Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, by Pinchas H. Peli.

[5] Moreh Nevukhim III:52; Ibn Ezra on Shemot 14:13.

[6] See Rav Elhanan Samet, Studies in Parshat Ha-shavua Vol. 2II, Parshat Shelah.

[7] Tehilim 127:1

Steven Weiner is an Intellectual Property attorney, and a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania. Steven had the privilege and good fortune to learn Torah at Yeshivat Har Etzion and the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia, and he teaches Talmud classes frequently for adults in his community.