Father of compassion (Av HaRacḥamim), Who dwells on high; may He remember in His compassion, the pious, the upright and the blameless – holy communities who sacrificed their lives for the sanctification of God’s name … may He exact retribution for the shed blood of His servants, as is written in the Torah of Moses, the man of God: “O nations, acclaim His people, for He will avenge the blood of His servants and wreak vengeance on His foes, and make atonement for His people’s Land.” [D’varim 32:43] And by Your servants’ the prophets, it is written “I shall cleanse their blood which I have not yet cleansed, says the Lord Who dwells in Zion.”
(Translation of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks)
The Av HaRacḥamim prayer is a memorial prayer for those killed for the sanctity of God’s name in Am Yisrael’s exile, and in particular for those killed in the First Crusade (in the year 4856, 1096 of the Common Era). The author of the prayer is unknown. There is a legend which says that the prayer was found on the Torah reading table in a synagogue in Worms, Germany. In any event, the prayer was universally accepted in Ashkenazi communities and given a place of prominence at the commencement of Musaf on Shabbat.
Reflection on the prayer raises a question: why is it appropriate to mention Eretz Yisrael in connection with the memory of the holy ones murdered throughout the generations in the lands of the diaspora, far from the Land? Why were two verses which deal with the Land and with Zion chosen for inclusion in the prayer, when Eretz Yisrael seemingly is unrelated to the events which transpire to the nation in exile?
In order to understand the important message hidden in the choice of verses, we shall analyze the first.
Make Atonement for His People’s Land
The first verse quoted in Av HaRacḥamim is taken from the Song of Ha’azinu:
O nations, acclaim His people, for He will avenge the blood of His servants and wreak vengeance on His foes, and make atonement for His people’s Land.
Or haḤayyim explains “make atonement for His people’s Land” to mean that the Land’s destruction and desolation will atone for the sins of Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel). In effect, Or haḤayyim relates to the Land as a living entity! Amazingly, the Land is not to be seen as an inanimate object, but as living and possessing the ability to suffer on behalf of her children and to achieve atonement for their sins. Eretz Yisrael, therefore, is deeply connected to the events her nation experiences while in exile from her.
The suffering of the exile is not our suffering, but that of the Land as well. The Land suffers and even demands comfort from and conciliation with God. One of the lamentations for Tisha b’Av includes the words “My suffering is light when I see your suffering,” meaning that the suffering of Am Yisrael in exile is “light” compared to the suffering of the Land. The Land’s suffering is not without impact; it effects atonement for the sins of Am Yisrael.
Is the living bond between Eretz Yisrael and her children tangible even at times of exile? Perhaps it is merely an allegory? Chazal (Our Sages) teach that the gentiles who attempt to settle the Land when Israel is exiled from her will be totally unsuccessful, as Scripture states “I will devastate the Land, so that your enemies who come to live there will be appalled by it.” [Vayikra 26:32; Midrash Sifrei] Descriptions of the Land during Am Yisrael’s exile from her refer to desolation and abandonment, with a poor and undeveloped population. This situation indeed expresses the Land’s yearning for her children’s return and her suffering on their behalf.
The great leaders of Israel, within the fiber of their souls felt the pain and suffering of the Land when her children were in peril. Rabbi Shear – Yashuv Cohen, son of the Nazir (Rabbi David Cohen 1887 – 1972, one of the closest disciples of Rabbi Kook) related what his father told him:
One Motzaei Shabbat, following seudah shlishit, ma’ariv and havdala, I attempted to approach Rabbi Kook, as was my custom, but his countenance was aflame and his wonderful eyes full of tears. He walked back and forth in the room with quick steps, while a kind of moaning came from his throat. The words which broke through with a shout were “O nations, acclaim His people, for He will avenge the blood of His servants and wreak vengeance on His foes, and make atonement for His people’s Land.” Time after time, while walking, almost running back and forth, these words came out of Rabbi Kook’s mouth. He continued without stop as tears rolled down his cheeks for an extended time.
Rabbi Shear Yashuv adds that only years later did he learn from his father and from Rabbi Kook’s son-in-law that the news of the pogrom in Hebron (5689, 1929) reached Hadassah Hospital that Shabbat and upon hearing the news, Rabbi Kook fainted and required medical attention. Immediately after Shabbat, everything spilled out of Rabbi Kook’s heart.
The Land Atones as Well When We Return to Her
Rashi comments “And make atonement for His people’s Land” – “And what is His Land? His people; when His nation is comforted, His Land is also comforted. Thus Scripture says ‘O Lord, You have appeased Your Land,’ [Psalms 85:2] how have You appeased Your Land? By ‘returning the captivity of Jacob.’”
Rashi explains that it is God Who atones, and He atones for His Land and nation; that is, God’s Land and God’s nation are connected as a single living entity. Rashi supports his exposition with the verse from Psalms, which demonstrates this wondrous matter – the Land is alive and is emotionally bonded with the Nation of Israel. The Land is “appeased” by the return of Jacob, her sons, to her.
This reveals an additional facet, the Land rejoices with her children when they settle her, develop her and cause her to blossom. More than this, with the very fact of our settling the Land, in her love for us, she atones for us even more.
In our days, Am Yisrael is settling the Land, a process which began more than one-hundred-twenty years ago, led primarily by Jews who were not observant of mitzvot. The early settlement of the Land was founded upon clear secular values, with no attention paid to even the most basic halachot. For this reason, some of the rabbis of the generation were opposed to the Zionist movement and called for boycotting it. Rabbi Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal HY”D, who initially was an opponent of Zionism, wrote in his book Eim haBanim Smeiḥa that Eretz Yisrael herself turns all the acts of the settlers into mitzvot; the mitzva of settling Eretz Yisrael is considered true atonement for all previous sins (taking into account that the settlers were in the category of “tinok shanishba.”) Rabbi Teichtal based this approach on the writings of Rabbi Yehonatan Eybschutz and others.
Eretz Yisrael, which is so desirous of her sons returning to rebuild her and end her suffering, atones for them with great love when they return to her. Rabbi Kook hints at this in the final sentence of Orot Yisrael: “The pleasant land seeks her children, opening her arms to them with love, and in her love conceals all transgressions.”
We have seen that Eretz Yisrael experiences the pain we experience during our exile from her and now, as we build her up, she rejoices in us and casts a positive light on our actions. How great, then, is the significance of our continuing to settle and develop the Land, contributing to her thriving in all areas. In this way, we assist in God’s appeasement of the Land, with ”the return of Jacob.” We are the children the Land yearned for, on whose behalf she suffered through the centuries of her desolation, and with our return to her made her blossom again. We are privileged to reveal the vitality of the Land; we have been given the opportunity to repay the Land’s kindness to us by realizing the positive and vibrant forces which are inherent within the Land.
We must truly appreciate the opportunity which we dreamt about for years and continue to build up the Land, through work on the educational and national levels and publicizing our love of the Land.