Rabbi Goren & the Threshing Floor of Thorns

In this week’s parasha, Vayechi, we read about the passing and burial of Jacob. We are told that all of Egypt mourned his death for seventy days, after which Joseph requested permission to take leave and bury his father in the Holy Land. The whole family went along for the journey (except the youngest infants), together with many high-ranking Egyptian officials and dignitaries (Genesis 50:7). Then the Torah tells us that

they came to Goren haAtad, which is beyond the Jordan, they held there a very great and solemn lamentation; and he observed a mourning period of seven days for his father. And when the Canaanite inhabitants of the land saw the mourning at Goren haAtad, they said, “This is a solemn mourning on the part of the Egyptians.” That is why it was named Avel-Mitzraim, which is beyond the Jordan. (50:10-11)

The commentators are puzzled by these perplexing verses. What is meant by Goren haAtad? Why did they bother traveling “beyond the Jordan” if they were coming up from Egypt? Why did the family mourn again, for another seven days (especially since Jacob had not even been buried yet)? Why did the Canaanites suddenly show up?

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, 1040-1105) says goren means a “threshing floor” and atad means “thorns”. But why would anyone thresh thorns? Rashi explains that the Canaanites and Ishmaelites came to wage war when they saw the massive procession coming up out of Egypt. They then saw Jacob’s coffin, and Joseph’s crown resting atop, and each of their leaders came to pay their respects, too, and hung their own crowns around the coffin. The Talmud (Sotah 13a) that Rashi quotes from says that the leaders of Esau were there, too, and altogether there were 36 crowns hung around Jacob’s coffin. This gave the whole thing an appearance like a “threshing floor surrounded by thorns”.

If we look at the design of ancient threshing floors, we find a circular flat surface, usually surrounded by rocks or a low-lying fence. The outer barrier was probably to keep away wild animals from consuming the grain that was being threshed, or to keep the oxen doing the threshing from wandering away. Instead of rocks or a fence, one could plant thorny bushes around the threshing floor for the same reason. That might explain the appearance of Jacob’s coffin in the centre, surrounded by “thorny” crowns all around.

A threshing floor in Santorini, Greece

The Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, 1550-1619) isn’t too happy with this explanation. He points out that if it was common to surround threshing floors with thorns back then, why is this particular one called “the threshing floor of thorns”? He provides some alternate explanations: one has to do with the death of Jacob bringing about another famine in Egypt, while the other sees “thorns” as symbolic of wicked people whose fate is to be “threshed” and destroyed. The Torah is indeed speaking about threshing thorns here! We know that every verse in the Torah is encoding much deeper information, mystical, prophetic, and relevant for all time. So, what is the Torah really trying to tell us here? What might the “threshing floor for thorns”, this Goren haAtad, really be?

A Thorn at Your Side

The other place in the Torah where thorns are prominently mentioned is in parashat Massei. There we read God’s command:

And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have assigned the land to you to possess… But if you do not dispossess the inhabitants of the land, those whom you allow to remain shall be stings in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land in which you live; so that I will do to you what I planned to do to them. (Numbers 33:53-56)

The Torah makes it clear that the Holy Land belongs to Israel. As politically incorrect as it might sound, God commands that the hostile inhabitants of the land (who refuse to accept Israel’s sovereignty or abide by the basic moral code of the Noahide Laws) must be driven out. If we are going to be too merciful with them, they will inevitably become a thorn in our side, and will constantly “harass” us in our own land. Even more shocking than this is God’s affirmation that if we don’t fulfil the command, then “I will do to you what I planned to do them”! Israel itself will suffer by God’s own Hand. There is only one way to avoid constant war and harassment from thorny neighbours who try to dispossess Israel of their land:

Goren haAtad.

The thorns must be “threshed” away.

I believe this is what our Sages were really saying when they relayed that narrative about the Canaanites, Ishmaelites, and Edomites coming to block Jacob’s funeral procession. These others who were dwelling in the land without a divine mandate were coming to fight for what they thought was theirs. But the sight of Joseph’s mighty crown humbled them, and they were subdued. Let’s not forget that Joseph was a military general in Egypt, the commander-in-chief who armed and fortified the entire nation (Genesis 41:34), and rode triumphantly on the dreaded Egyptian chariot (41:43). He projected military strength. The Canaanites, Ishmaelites, and Edomites cowered before him.

This is what Israel needs to remember today. There can be no peace with those who want you exterminated, with those who have no desire to share land, with those who resort to endless violence and terrorism. God already warned us over three millennia ago: if we don’t take full sovereignty and control of the Promised Land, the other inhabitants will be a constant thorn at our side. Amazingly, there are only two other passages in Tanakh where the word atad is used, and one of them is in Psalm 58, which reads:

… In your minds you devise wrongdoing in the land; violence [hamas] you deal out with your hands. The wicked are defiant from birth; the liars go astray from the womb. Their venom is like that of a snake, a deaf viper that stops its ears… God, smash their teeth in their mouth; shatter the fangs of lions, Hashem, let them melt, let them vanish like water; let Him aim His arrows that they be cut down… Before the thorns grow into a bramble [atad], may He whirl them away alive in fury… Men will say, “There is, then, a reward for the righteous; there is, indeed, divine justice on earth.”

King David makes a plea for God to literally get rid of hamas; to destroy those who spread violence, lawlessness, evil, and lies. David says that when God makes it happen people will recognize that there really is divine justice in the universe. David pulls no punches here. His words are graphic and clear. Similarly, Israel must be strong, assertive, and unrelenting. The only path to lasting peace is total victory. Goren haAtad, the thorns must be threshed and winnowed away. And one person who understood this perfectly well, at a time when many in Israel were suing for diplomacy, promoting “land for peace”, and arguing that Israel needs to soften up was, fittingly, Rabbi Shlomo Goren (1917-1994).

The Goren Approach

Rabbi Goren was born in Poland and made aliyah with his family as a boy. He was a child prodigy in yeshiva, and published his first sefer at 17 (on laws of consecrated items that have been profaned, based on the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah). Two years later, he joined the Haganah and after growing disenchanted with their leadership, switched to the more right-wing and militant Lechi (Lohamei Herut Israel, “Freedom Fighters of Israel”). During Israel’s War of Independence, he was originally made to be a chaplain, but wanted to get in on the action and went on to serve as a sniper and paratrooper, too! He risked his life on multiple daring missions to retrieve the bodies of fallen soldiers. He would rise all the way up to the rank of general, and became chief rabbi of the IDF (later also Israel’s third Ashkenazi chief rabbi). He co-founded the Military Rabbinate and ensured that IDF soldiers always had access to prayer services and kosher food. He put together the standard IDF siddur, and convinced Ben-Gurion to put a synagogue on every base. And he wrote the text of misheberach l’chayalei tzahal, the popular prayer for Israel’s soldiers.

Rabbi Goren might be most famous for the photo of him blowing the shofar at the Western Wall during the liberation of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War. In fact, in a 1961 conversation Rabbi Goren tried to convince Motta Gur, head of the Golani Brigade, to make capturing Jerusalem a priority. Gur told Goren not to worry—he’d make sure to be the one to liberate Jerusalem! Gur said he always felt it was his destiny and life’s purpose to do so. Meanwhile, Rabbi Goren spearheaded the settlement movement, argued that Israel must take every inch of the Holy Land, and never give away as much as a sliver. He knew that “land for peace” would be a sign of weakness and only lead to more trouble down the road. And he was totally right.

We find that Israel’s fortunes in the region began to change in 1979, just as it signed its first “land for peace” deal with Egypt. Until then, Israel was a feared superpower and won every single one of its wars. Since then, it isn’t clear if Israel has won anything. The peace deal with Jordan (whose Waqf still rules the Temple Mount) was mostly fruitless, the withdrawal from Lebanon led to that country’s total collapse and the ascendency of Hezbollah, and the Oslo Peace Process was a complete disaster. Certainly, there is no need to recall what happened after the “unilateral withdrawal” from Gaza in 2005. The more Israel gave away, the more the enemy was emboldened. (Perhaps the Torah was secretly alluding to some of this when it bizarrely mentioned that Goren haAtad was beyond the Jordan, and was renamed Avel Mitzrayim, “Mourning of Egypt”.)

It seems Rabbi Goren foresaw it all. Back in 1967, he pushed for annexation of the newly-captured lands. He and Motta Gur even ordered that an Israeli flag be put up on the Dome of the Rock. A few minutes after it was erected, Moshe Dayan saw it through his binoculars and immediately ordered that it be taken down. The Israeli government then handed over the Temple Mount to the Jordanian Waqf, with catastrophic consequences. Rabbi Goren had pushed for quick construction of a synagogue on the Temple Mount, and was even working on plans to rebuild the Temple itself. Legend has it that he found the crypt within the Temple Mount where the ancient Temple treasures were hidden (perhaps even the Ark of the Covenant itself). The Israeli government sealed the chamber with concrete. Whatever the case, Rabbi Goren was overruled and silenced by cowards left and right, both in the religious world and in the secular world. (On the issue of ascending the Temple Mount, please see here). We find that, ever since, Israel has been suffering from constant “thorns” (beginning with the Yom Kippur War debacle), and the world has steadily lost all respect for it, too.

Rabbi Goren actually brought a Torah scroll into the Dome of the Rock and prayed there. This one photo remains, while the video of his prayers has been suppressed. In a later conversation on Israel’s Army Radio, when asked if the Dome and the Al-Aqsa Mosque should have been immediately destroyed he said, “Certainly we should have blown it up. It is a tragedy that we did not do so.”

Now is the time to remember Goren haAtad, and to revive the attitude of Rabbi Shlomo Goren. The path to peace is through strength. The way forward is to spread outward. Victory requires firmness and an unrelenting, unflinching, assertive resolve. There is no need to worry about what the Edomites and Ishmaelites around the world might think. There is no choice but to thresh away all the thorns. There is no negotiating with terrorists. War is undoubtedly heartbreaking and costly, and every fallen soldier is an immeasurable loss and a world of tragedy. But the alternative has proven even more catastrophic. If we don’t embrace the “Goren haAtad approach”, there will inevitably be even more mourning down the road, as the Torah alludes in this week’s parasha when the House of Jacob added seven extra days of lamentation. Truly, it should have never come to this point; had Israel’s leadership made the right decisions, we would not be in this mess to begin with. Of course, it is easy to say this now in hindsight, and some might argue it was worth having given diplomacy a chance. Either way, what’s done is done and we need only look ahead. The way forward is clear. And hopefully we will soon see the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy:

The Light of Israel will be fire and its Holy One flame. It will burn and consume its thorns and its thistles in a single day… And in that day, the remnant of Israel and the escaped of the House of Jacob shall lean no more upon him that beats it, but shall lean sincerely on YHWH, the Holy One of Israel… For the Lord God of Hosts is carrying out a decree of destruction upon all the land… Behold, the Sovereign God of Hosts will hew off the tree-crowns with an ax, the tall ones shall be felled, the lofty ones cut down. The thickets of the forest shall be hacked away with iron, and the Lebanon shall fall in its majesty.

And a shoot shall grow out of the stump of Jesse, a twig shall sprout from his stock. The spirit of God shall alight upon him: A spirit of wisdom and insight, a spirit of counsel and valour, a spirit of devotion and reverence for God. He shall sense the truth by his reverence for God… The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid; the calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together, with a little boy to herd them… In all of My sacred mount nothing evil or vile shall be done; for the land shall be filled with devotion to God as water covers the sea… (Isaiah 10:17-11:9)