by R. Eliezer Simcha Weisz
The poignant verse “My heart is in the East, and I am at the end of the West” (לִבִּי בְמִזְרָח וְאָנֹכִי בְּסוֹף מַעֲרָב) from Rabbi Yehuda Halevi’s poem “Libi B’Mizrach” expresses a deep longing for the Land of Israel. This idea, of constantly remembering and holding onto our connection to Israel, has remained a central theme throughout Jewish history, both in the land and in exile. We can even find its early expression in this week’s Parshat Terumah, regarding the building of the Mishkan.
After the destruction of the בית המקדש (Beit HaMikdash), the Rabbis instituted several practices to ensure that Jerusalem would never be forgotten, wherever Jews found themselves. One such practice is leaving a square cubit area on the eastern wall of every home unplastered, facing Jerusalem. Another custom is placing a “Mizrach,” a sign bearing the word “East” in Hebrew, on the eastern wall as a constant reminder of Jerusalem’s direction, to give us hope and strength that even in the times of greatest darkness our salvation is at hand and Eretz Yisrael is always in our hearts. And our future is there…
Parshat Terumah offers an initial exploration of this idea of remembering Israel. Rashi raises the question regarding the use of acacia wood – atzei Shittim – in the building of the Mishkan:
ועצי שטים. וּמֵאַיִן הָיוּ לָהֶם בַּמִּדְבָּר? פֵּרֵשׁ רַבִּי תַּנְחוּמָא: יַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ צָפָה בְּרוּחַ הַקֹּדֶשׁ שֶׁעֲתִידִין יִשְׂרָאֵל לִבְנוֹת מִשְׁכָּן בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְהֵבִיא אֲרָזִים לְמִצְרַיִם וּנְטָעָם, וְצִוָּה לְבָנָיו לִטְּלָם עִמָּהֶם כְּשֶׁיֵּצְאוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם
And Shittim wood – But from where did they get this acacia-wood in the wilderness? Rabbi Tanchuma explained: Our father Jacob foresaw by the gift of the Holy Spirit that Israel would once build a Tabernacle in the wilderness: he therefore brought cedars to Egypt and planted them there, and bade his children take these with them when they would leave Egypt.
Rashi explains that the acacia wood used to build the Mishkan in the desert came from trees (atzei Shittim) specifically brought by Yaakov with him to Egypt. Aware of the potential for assimilation in Egypt, Yaakov wanted to ensure his descendants wouldn’t forget their eventual return.
Imagine a man in Egypt, long after his ancestor Yaakov brought special trees (atzei Shittim) from the Land of Israel. He lives under the rule of a Pharaoh, with rumors of freedom someday. His life is hard. He’s been a slave his entire life, his father was a slave, his grandfather was a slave, and you can imagine the frustration and burnout of a lifetime of slavery. But when he looks up at the end of the day, what does he see? Atzei Shittim – these thick, towering trees planted by his great great great grandfather in his ancestral land the Land of Israel. These trees represent a connection to the past, and a sign of hope towards a brighter future. He can connect to a Yaakov, a Yitzchak, an Avraham, and he understands that he is a part of history, a part of something special, and that there is light at the end of the tunnel – a place from where those trees came from to return to.
Numerous customs further illustrate this dedication to memory. Breaking a glass at weddings symbolizes the destruction of Jerusalem, while the tradition of planting acacia trees (atzei Shittim) for newborns served to provide wood for their future wedding canopies, linking them to the Land and their ancestors. This tradition echoes Yaacob’s act of bringing acacia wood (atzei Shittim) to Egypt, reinforcing the enduring connection wherever they may be to the Land of Israel across generations.
Throughout history, remembering the land of Israel has served as a source of strength and hope. This memory sustained the Jewish people during exile and fueled their desire to return to their homeland. In times of assimilation, these customs remain especially important symbols of the Land of Israel and tangible reminders of the Jewish people’s enduring connection to it.
This bond, strengthened by memory, continues to offer strength and hope for generations to come. Would that our love of Israel today be as that expressed by Yehuda Halevi.
Full poem “Libi B’Mizrach” by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi:
לִבִּי בְמִזְרָח וְאָנֹכִי בְּסוֹף מַעֲרָב
אֵיךְ אֶטְעֲמָה אֵת אֲשֶׁר אֹכַל וְאֵיךְ יֶעֱרָב
אֵיכָה אֲשַׁלֵּם נְדָרַי וָאֱסָרַי, בְּעוֹד
צִיּוֹן בְּחֶבֶל אֱדוֹם וַאֲנִי בְּכֶבֶל עֲרָב
יֵקַל בְּעֵינַי עֲזֹב כָּל טוּב סְפָרַד, כְּמוֹ
יֵקַר בְּעֵינַי רְאוֹת עַפְרוֹת דְּבִיר נֶחֱרָב
My heart is in the east, and I in the ends of the west,
How can I find flavor in food? How shall it be sweet to me?
How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while yet
Zion lies beneath the fetter of Edom, and I in Arab chains,
A light thing would it seem to me to leave all the good things of Spain –
Seeing how precious in mine eyes to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.