I recently noticed a new wrinkle on a very familiar face. The first thought that popped into my head was to buy a gift of some new miracle cream, one of the many products of the burgeoning anti-aging industry. But after some further thought, I looked at the wrinkle again and thought, “Maybe it’s not vital that it be erased; perhaps it need not be a source of shame.” I thought about this week’s parsha: Moshe is going to die outside of the Promised Land. He prophesizes, for those who will enter the land, a future that is difficult and painful; a long history of suffering is described to a nation which, after forty years of wandering in the desert, is eager for a little rest.
“I make heaven and earth witness to you this day, that you will soon perish from the land which you are passing over the Jordan to possess; you will not lengthen your days upon it, but shall surely be destroyed. And God will disperse you among the nations, and you will be left few in number among the nations to which God will lead you.” (Devarim 4:26-27)
Only after a great many trials and tribulations will Am Yisrael reach a situation of, “When you are in distress, when all these things have come upon you at the end of days, you will return to the Lord your God…”.
How will the nation look, after enduring this long, terrible path? What scars will it carry? Will the nation still have the ability to represent God in the world and sanctify His name?
The Sages of the Midrash provide a wonderful answer:
“’A young olive tree, beautiful with good fruit – so has God called your name’ (Yirmiyahu 11:16) – Are Israel then compared only to an olive tree? Are they not compared to all kinds of pleasant and beautiful trees?… But these olives – when they appear on the tree they are picked, then they are beaten, then taken to the press, then bound with ropes and crushed with stones – and then they give their oil. So it is with Israel: the gentiles come and persecute them from one place to another, they oppress them and bind them and chain them – and then they do teshuvah and God answers them, as it is written, ‘When you are in distress, when all these things have come upon you…’”. (Shemot Rabba 36:1)
The verse that is quoted from the Book of Yirmiyahu is a very difficult one: anyone who lives in Israel knows that a beautiful olive tree is not a young one. Young olive trees are not impressive at all; only after hundreds of years does an olive tree reach its real beauty. In what sense, then, does Yirmiyahu relate beauty to a young olive? The Sages teach that an olive tree expresses beauty of a different type. The folds and wrinkles, reflecting the twists of fate and experience – it is these that give the olive trunk its special appearance. And the olive tree is special in that despite its great age, it continues to produce fresh, young fruit.
The face of our nation is likewise lined with wrinkles and suffering. Our road is a long and difficult one, and sometimes it is only through suffering and trouble that we learn. “When you are in distress and all these things find you – then you shall return”. A youthful appearance is beautiful, but the beauty of our nation is of a different type. We are compared to an olive tree, and our secret is that all of our ordeals only make our fruit more abundant and its quality superior.
This Shabbat we make the transition from the “three haftarot of admonishment” to the first of the “seven haftarot of consolation”. Consolation comes not to make us forget the admonishment and the suffering, but rather to reap its fruit.
“He who walks weeping, carrying the burden of the seed, will come back in joy bearing sheaves”. (Tehillim 126)