In the parshios of Acharei Mos and Kedoshim we were warned several times not to follow the customs of the Canaanites. They were guilty of the worst immorality and it would seem unnecessary to warn us so many times not to follow their example. We, the descendants of Avrohom, Yitzchak and Yaakov, should stoop to such depths? Surely not. So why does the Torah keep repeating this warning?
In the parsha of Metzora we read that if certain white blemishes were found on the wall of our house we had to destroy the wall. And if the blemishes returned or spread further we might have to destroy our whole house. The meforshim say that these blemishes, and similar blemishes on our clothes or body were a punishment for speaking loshon hora and transgressing other mitzvos of the Torah. Rashi brings a very surprising medrash that when the Jews destroyed their houses following inspection by the kohanim, they would find treasures left behind by the Canaanites, when they fled from the invading Jewish army. Thus Jews, who were guilty of serious aveiros, became enriched by their find. Does this seem fair or just? As the Gemara often says, “vechi hachotei nischar?” “Should a sinner be rewarded?”
One of the most mysterious epochs in Jewish history was in the days of Ezra shortly after the second Beis Hamikdash was established. The Babylonian Emperor Koresh and later the Persian Emperor Darius, son of Achashveirosh and Esther, gave permission for all the Jews in their empire to return to Eretz Yisroel and rebuild the Beis Hamikdash. These amazing proclamations by the most powerful rulers of their day should have been greeted with tremendous joy by the Jewish exiles. A mere seventy years after the destruction of the first Beis Hamikdash and subsequent exile to Babylon, the Jews were given the opportunity of returning to their homeland, rebuilding the Beis Hamikdash and starting afresh. Both these kings gave the Jews all the money they needed to rebuild the Beis Hamikdash and even promised that those Jews who could not afford travelling expenses would be subsidized by the non-Jews from whichever town they lived in. Surely it was an opportunity to be seized with both hands. Yet the Book of Ezra tells us that a paltry forty-two thousand three hundred and sixty decided to go. Why so few? How can we understand this?
To add to the mystery, we have to know that two hundred years earlier, Yeshaya Hanovi had prophesied explicitly that a king by the name of Koresh would be aroused by Hashem to allow the Jews back from their golus in Babylon to rebuild the Beis Hamikdash (44:28). So it should not have been a surprise. Furthermore Yirmiya Hanavi (29:10) had also said explicitly that after seventy years in Bovel they would be allowed to return. He even told them that Hashem told him to buy a field but to be sure to keep the relevant documents because he would need them when everyone returns. Surely the Jews would have been counting their years in Bovel – sixty years to go, fifty years to go … just as we count the days of the Sefira as we look forward to the giving of the Torah. With five years to go, surely they would have already packed their suitcases ready for the big day. But apparently this didn’t happen. Ezra appealed for more to come but the people didn’t respond. He punished the Levi’im (Yevomos 86b) who wouldn’t come by denying them maaser rishon which the Torah says is to go only to them, with little effect. How can we understand this? Only seventy years before, the first exiles, with superhuman courage, refused to sing in front of Nebuchadnezzar and bit off their thumbs so that they could not play their harps, saying, “How can we sing in a strange land?” Now their children and grandchildren preferred to stay in Bovel! And let us remember that the time of Darius was after the Purim story when the Jews all accepted the Torah anew. Reish Lachish (Yuma 9b) said that if the Jews had responded and come with Ezra, we would never again have gone into galus, the second Beis Hamikdash would have been permanent and this would have been the final redemption. Why didn’t they go?
Melachim II (2:19-22) tells us that Elisha was once in Yericho. The residents told him, “This is a very good place to live, but the water is poisonous and it causes people to die. Elisha then put some salt in the water which miraculously purified it, (to the annoyance of local youth who were making money bringing clean water to the city!) Chazal ask “If the water was killing people, why was it such a good place to live?” They answer that people like the place where they live. (Sotah 47a). Rashi says that even a bad place seems good to those who live there.
Kesuvos (110a) says that there are three parts of Eretz Yisroel and a man cannot force his wife to move from one section to another even if the new place is very similar to the old place. People like the place they know. They are used to its customs. They are comfortable with the climate and the people. Why move to a new place which they don’t know? “Home Sweet Home” is not a new concept.
Rashi (Kiddushin 69b) says that the residents of Bovel were living in peace and they were reluctant to lose that security (this was just before Homon came on the scene!) to move to Eretz Yisroel with all the challenges such a move could bring. They were happy where they lived.
(This could be why the Anshei Knesset Hagedola who wrote down the text of the Shemone Esre shortly after this time, inserted many references to the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash to try to maintain our connection with Eretz Yisroel and to keep in our hearts the desire to return so that we won’t squander future opportunities.)
Before the Jews moved into the land of Canaan they had to be warned time and time again not to follow in the ways of the Canaanim even though most of them would not be there any more. It is easy to be influenced. Don’t English Jews like their cup of tea and their Marmite? Don’t French Jews wear berets and American Jews love their apple pie?
The one who had to destroy his home but found treasures left behind was not being given a reward but was being warned that if the Jews continue the customs of the Canaanites and don’t follow the Torah they too will exiled, leaving everything behind just like the Canaanites who fled, leaving their treasures behind.
Our homes should be sweet. With Torah they are even sweeter.