This week’s portion includes the passage well-known to us from the siddur: the second paragraph of the Shema. The conclusion of this passage seems difficult to accept at face value: “so that your days will be lengthened on the land which the L-d promised to your ancestors, to give to them.”
The Torah promises longevity in the land of Israel for those who fulfil the previously mentioned commandments, such as Tefilin, Mezuzah and Torah study. The Talmud (Berachot 8a) states that the Palestinian Amora, R Yochanan expressed surprise that there should be elderly people in Babylon seeing as the blessing of longevity only applies to the land of Israel. But when he was informed that these senior citizens arrive early and leave late from the synagogue every day, he understood. It was through their attachment to shul that they merited old age.
The great early seventeenth century leader of Prague, R Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, in his commentary, Kli Yakar, questions how the explanation that the Babylonian elders were loyal shul attenders, answers the question. After all, they were not living in the land of Israel.
His explanation is based on another Talmudic passage in Megillah 29a, where R Eliezer states that in the Messianic Age, the synagogues and study houses will be relocated to the land of Israel.
The implication is both beautiful and profound. For those who are living outside Israel, the synagogue represents the terra sancta of the land of Israel. Just as the Embassy of a foreign country has the legal status of that country within its walls, so too, the synagogue represents Israel-in-potential.
Theodor Herzl in his Der Judenstaat, (The Jewish State, published in 1896) foresaw the organised transfer of Jewish communities to the Jewish state as the bedrock of civic life in a new state. His dream is not unconnected to the Talmudic vision of the Messianic relocation of the shul and yeshiva to the land of Israel. The underlying principle being that it is through our connection to our community that our bond to Israel is maintained.
As we continue to have Israel, its soldiers and its citizens uppermost in our prayers and thoughts during these difficult times, let us also strengthen our bonds with our communities. Our very synagogues are extensions of Israel’s embassies. A proud and vibrant community is a vital part of the message and mission of Israel in the world.