Shir haMa’alot and the Sanctity of Eretz Yisrael
The custom is to recite Psalm 126 before saying the Grace After Meals on Shabbat and holidays. Zohar [2:157] provides a reason for this custom:
One who enjoys his table and delights in his food should remember and be concerned with the sanctity of the Holy Land.
Where is Eretz Yisrael mentioned in this psalm? Apparently, Psalm 126 deals with the return to Zion, not with the Land herself.
Can we find a connection in the psalm between eating and the Land which makes it the appropriate precursor to the Grace After Meals?
(1) A song of ascents: When the Lord returns the returnees to Zion, we shall be like dreamers.
(2) Then our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues with songs of praise; then they will say among the nations, "The Lord has done great things for them."
(3)"The Lord has done great things with us; we were happy."
(4) Return, O Lord, our captivity like watercourses in arid land.
(5) Those who sow with tears will reap with song.
(6) He will go along weeping, carrying the valuable seeds; he will come back with song, carrying his sheaves.
Am Yisrael’s Future Redemption
The psalm deals in general with Am Yisrael’s future redemption, while they were still in Babylonian exile - that is, the psalm was said prior to the redemption, not after it.
The psalm commences with the improvement in Am Yisrael’s status as the result of their redemption. The phrase “We shall be like dreamers” is expounded by Radak to refer to Am Yisrael’s tribulations – as the result of the redemption, all the difficulties and suffering will be considered as merely having been a dream and not something which actually occurred.
“Our mouths will be filled with laughter” – that is, at the time of redemption, all the joy that was hidden within Am Yisrael will burst forth, and “Our tongues (will sing) songs of praise” [Malbim].
For the gentiles, Am Yisrael’s redemption will be a novel situation and they will be impressed and declare “The Lord has done great things for them," praising Am Yisrael. In contrast, the Am Yisrael itself was aware of its greatness and lofty status, though in exile these could not be fully realized; “the Lord has done great things for us (in the past); we were happy.” Even prior to the redemption, Am Yisrael rejoiced in the great things God had done for the nation; however, this was a restrained joy, not on the level of “Our mouths filled with laughter and out tongues with songs of joy” [Malbim].
The Psalmist continues with the prayer that even in times of exile (“arid lands”) we shall merit redemption (“streams of water”): thus, he prays “Return, O Lord, our captivity like streams of water in arid land,” that God redeem Am Yisrael from its exile.
“Those who sow with tears,” who worked hard in exile, the “arid land,” work which was done in tears, without knowing whether their work would be productive, will “reap with song;” they will benefit from their labor.
The conclusion of the psalm teaches Am Yisrael’s great faith in its ultimate redemption. The one who sows with tears, even when he goes to harvest, does not yet know with certainty that he will reap with song; the harvest as well may be with tears; he goes out (still) weeping, not knowing what his field has yielded. However, when he reaches the field, the Israelite farmer will come back (to his home) with joy, carrying his sheaves of bountiful produce. [Malbim]
Where does the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael appear in this psalm?
General Redemption and Individual Redemption
The answer to our question is to be found in our commentators’ understanding of the psalm.
The psalm has two themes: the first is general, the redemption of Am Yisrael, which carries with it great joy; the second is individual redemption, the redemption arriving through the hard work and effort of those “who sow in tears,” who “go along weeping.”
At the conclusion of the psalm we learn that all the great toil, which was at risk of being in vain, yields a bountiful harvest. The conclusion teaches that the commencement was also in joy, though then the joy was merely potential.
Rav Kook zt”l explains in Orot HaTeshuva (Perek 6:7) that Eretz Yisrael connects heaven and earth, she connects the “tree” and its “fruit,” the taste of the tree being the same as the taste of its fruit, as was God’s intention in creating the world (see Rashi, Genesis 1:11), she connects the toil of working the fields with the joy of harvesting.
However, only with the return to Zion, when Am Yisrael returns to its Land, will we fully reveal that exile is part of the process of redemption. When we return to Eretz Yisrael and to Jerusalem we will realize the exalted level of the Land, in which all the toil is part of her fruit, that all the difficulties experienced within her are part of acquiring her. This is the meaning of Chazals’ (our Sages’) statement that Eretz Yisrael can be acquired only through suffering. [Gemara Berachot 5a]; not only the fruit, the end product, but the process as well is important in acquiring the Land.
Based on this, we can see that the essence of Eretz Yisrael envelops Tehillim (Psalm) 126. The connection between means and ends, the unique ability to unite all aspects of the process, and to reveal at the end complete joy and singing, to make all the travails seems as but a dream, is what Eretz Yisrael is all about.
Thus, Zohar’s wording is exact “One … must be concerned with the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael,” not simply with Eretz Yisrael herself, but with her sanctity. “Sanctity” implies uniqueness, and the uniqueness of Eretz Yisrael is the ability to connect the means and the ends.
Planting and Reaping in Redemption
The parable of awaiting redemption presented by the psalm is the planter and harvester, that is, the processes which necessarily precede having food. This fact can teach us that eating, too, is service of God. Ideally, we eat not only as a matter of desire, but to maintain our bodies in order to be able to fulfill mitzvot and study Torah. This too is difficult work, and often we see the results only after a period of time. Tehillim 126 teaches this exact process: of difficult work which is suffused with faith that it will succeed.
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