The Almond Branch of Exile

מרן הגאב"ד שליט"א
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In the Haftorah read on the first Shabbos of Bein HaMeitzarim, we find the following passage:

ויהי דבר ה' אלי לאמר מה אתה רואה ירמיהו ואומר מקל שקד אני רואה ויאמר ה' אלי היטבת לראות כי שוקד אני על דברי לעשותו

“And Hashem’s word was upon me, asking, ‘What do you see, Yermiyahu?’

‘I see an almond (shakeid) branch,’ I answered.

‘You have seen well,’ said Hashem, ‘since I am intent (shokeid) upon My plan to perform it.’”[1]

This marked the beginning of Yermiyahu’s role as the prophet who would warn Bnei Yisrael of the impending destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, and ultimately mourn its loss together with them.  The Talmud Yerushalmi explains that the almond flower swiftly develops into a nut over the course of just twenty-one days, corresponding to the twenty-one days of Bein HaMeitzarim.  Therefore the almond wood branch was chosen as the sign to foreshadow the Golus that would soon befall Bnei Yisrael.[2]

The Gemara states that almonds in certain stages of their growth are too bitter to eat, but they can be roasted in fire to make them edible.[3]  As a harbinger of the Exile the almond thus teaches us that the unbearable bitterness of Golus can be sweetened and made palatable through the Torah study, which is compared to fire, as it is written, הלא כה דברי כאש נאם ה' - “Behold, My words are as fire, says Hashem.”[4]

David HaMelech said,  לולי תורתך שעשועי אז אבדתי בעניי - “Had Your Torah not been my delight, I would have been lost in my suffering.”[5]  The Midrash explains this verse as a reference to Klal Yisrael in Egypt, who drew strength and encouragement from the Torah scrolls they had in their possession, which they would study when they rested from their labors on Shabbos.[6]  Torah study gives a person the emotional strength to cope with his difficulties and the intellectual perspective by which to remain sensible and calm, with the understanding that everything Hashem does is for the best.

Our Sages tell us that the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed and Klal Yisrael were exiled from our land for failing to recite the blessing before Torah study.[7]  The Ran explains that they pursued Torah as an intellectual exercise, not for the sake of fulfilling Hashem’s will.  Therefore they took it lightly and did not deem it worthy of a beracha.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that the blessing they omitted was specifically the middle beracha, והערב נא, in which we pray that Hashem may let the words of Torah be sweet in our mouths.[8]  It is this same sweetness that makes the hardships of Golus not only bearable but productive, like the bitter almond made sweet by fire

The hardest episodes of our Golus were thus marked by our greatest advancements as a nation.  The Talmud was written in Bavel; the commentaries of the Baalei HaTosefos were written during the horrors of the Crusades; and Rebbe Meir of Rottenberg’s monumental commentary on Maseches Ohalos was written during his imprisonment in the Tower of Ossenheim.  It was only their love of Torah that helped them weather these tragic eras of our history, using their hardships as the springboard for their spiritual advancement.

Furthermore, if our failure to appreciate Torah study caused the Golus, then surely by cherishing the holy Torah we can draw our Golus to an end and hasten the Redemption.  By studying Torah in the shuls and yeshivos, the microcosmic models of the Beis HaMikdash,[9] we can merit to see the Third Beis HaMikdash rebuilt speedily and in our days.

The Ohr HaChaim writes, based on the Zohar, that Bnei Yisroel passed through four stages of exile.  We were redeemed from the first three in the merit of the Avos: Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov; and we will be redeemed from this fourth and final stage in the merit of Moshe Rabbeinu.  The Ohr HaChaim then adds, “For this reason our final redemption has been delayed so long.  As long as our dedication to Torah and mitzvos is lax, Moshe does not wish to redeem us.[10]

How could the Ohr HaChaim say that Moshe Rabbeinu does not wish to redeem us?  As Moshe led Bnei Yisroel through the desert for forty years, he bore our complaints with loving patience.  He prayed for us when we sinned and confronted Hashem on our behalf, demanding that his name be erased from the Torah, if Hashem were to destroy us.  Why then would he refuse to redeem us now for our laxity in Torah study?

Clearly the Ohr HaChaim did not mean that Moshe does not want to redeem us, but that he is simply unable.  When the Zohar says that the Redemption was spurred by the merit of Avraham Avinu, it refers specifically to the merit of the chesed (lovingkindness and charity) that he taught us, since Avraham was the very pillar of chesed, as we say in davening,  תתן חסד לאברהם “Give chesed to Avraham.”  In this merit our forefathers were redeemed from Egypt, as the Midrash states in Tanna D’Vei Eliyahu:

כשהיו ישראל במצרים ... נתקבצו וישבו, שהיו כולם אגודה אחת, כרתו ברית שיעשו גמילות חסדים זה עם זה, וישמרו בלבבם ברית אברהם יצחק ויעקב,

When Bnei Yisrael were in Egypt they gathered together in unity and made a pact to be kind to one another and guard in their hearts the covenant of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.[11]

So too, we were redeemed form the next two stages of Golus in the merit of the gevurah (discipline) we inherited from Yitzchak and the truthfulness we inherited from Yaakov.[12]

The ultimate redemption must be spurred not only by the merit of Moshe’s personal greatness but in the merit of the Torah that he taught us to study and observe.  Only when we apply ourselves to Torah study with love and dedication will we be able to call out to Hashem in the merit of Moshe Rabbeinu that He may hasten to redeem us from our suffering.  Then, the Beis HaMikdash that was destroyed by fire will be rebuilt by the fires of Torah study, as we say in the addition to the beracha of Boneih Yerushlayim on Tisha B'Av:

"כי אתה ה' באש הצתה ובאש אתה עתיד לבנותה"

“For You, Hashem, destroyed it with fire,

and with fire You are destined to rebuild it.”

May it be soon and in our days.

[1] Yermiyahu 1:11-12

[2] Taanis 23a

[3] Eiruvin 28a

[4] Yermiyahu 23:29

[5] Tehillim 119:92

[6] Midrash Socheir Tov 119

[7] Nedarim 81a

[8] Degel Machaneh Ephraim, Parshas Beshalach

[9] See Megillah 29a

[10] Ohr HaChaim, Shemos 27:20

[11] Tanna D’Vei Eliyahu Ch. 21

[12] See Ramban, Emunah U’Vitachon ch. 15