Judaism: Yom Ha'atzmaut: Steps Toward Redemption
The Talmud analyses the source and structure of the Amidah (the Shmon’eh Esrei): “At the behest of Rabban Gamliel, Shimon the Pakuli [‘cotton merchant’, according to Rashi] arranged eighteen Blessings into their proper sequence in Yavneh. Rabbi Yochanan said – though some say that it was stated in a Baraita – that a hundred and twenty Elders, among whom were several prophets, determined eighteen Blessings in their proper sequence” (Megillah 17b).
Let us put this into its historical context. There were seventeen Talmudic authorities called Gamliel, six of whom carried the title “Rabban” (a higher title than “Rabbi”). When the Talmud cites Rabban Gamliel without defining which Rabban Gamliel, it refers to Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh, a second-generation Tanna, Nasi (“Prince”, meaning head of the Sanhedrin), grandson of Rabban Gamliel the Elder. Rabban Gamliel is sometimes referred to as “Rabban Gamliel Berabbi” (“Berabbi” being a title denoting a Torah-leader of the generation).
Shortly thereafter, Rabban Gamliel realized the need to add a nineteenth Blessing, the Heretics’ Blessing (“Birkat ha-Minim”) against heretics and informers, the prayer against Jewish renegades and traitors who would inform against fellow-Jews to the Roman occupation authorities. He entrusted the formulation of this Blessing to Shmuel ha-Kattan (“the Small”, in this case denoting “the Humble”) (Berachot 28b), a rabbi of such stature that a Heavenly Voice declared that he was worthy of receiving Divine Inspiration (Yerushalmi, Sotah 9:16, Avodah Zarah 3:1, Horayot 3:5)
This Blessing was inserted immediately after the Blessing for Restoration of Justice, to become the twelfth of the Nineteen Blessings.
In a long discourse, the Talmud (Megillah 17b-18a) explains the logic of the sequence of the Eighteen Blessings (which, due to the addition of the Blessing against heretics and informers, subsequently contain nineteen Blessings).
The ninth Blessing, Birkat ha-Shanim (“Blessing for a Year of Prosperity), requests abundant crops, followed by the tenth Blessing, Kibbutz Galuyot (“Ingathering of the Exiles”). The Talmud analyses: “Why did they mention the Ingathering of the Exiles after the Blessing for a Year of Prosperity? – Because it is written, ‘You, O mountains of Israel – you shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to My nation Israel, when they approach to come’ (Ezekiel 36:8)”.
This refers to the statement by Rabbi Abba: “There is no clearer sign of Redemption than this, as it is said ‘You, O mountains of Israel – you shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to My nation Israel, when they approach to come’” (Sanhedrin 98a).
The Talmud (Megillah ibid.) continues with its analysis of the Amidah. After the Blessing for Ingathering of the Exiles comes the eleventh Blessing, Din (“Restoration of Justice”): “When the exiles will have been ingathered, justice will be executed on the wicked”.
Then comes the twelfth Blessing, Birkat ha-Minim (“the Heretics’ Blessing”): “When justice will have been executed on the wicked, then the heretics and the wilful sinners among them will become extinct”.
Then comes the thirteenth Blessing, Tzaddikim (“the Righteous Ones”): “After the heretics will have become extinct, the tzaddikim will be exalted…and the righteous converts together with them”.
Then comes the fourteenth Blessing, Binyan Yerushalayim (“the Rebuilding of Jerusalem”): “Where will they [the tzaddikim] be exalted? – In Jerusalem, as it says ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem – may those who love you be at peace’ (Psalms 122:6)”.
Then comes the fifteenth Blessing, Malchut Beit David (“the Reign of the House of David”), “because after Jerusalem will have been rebuilt, David [i.e. Mashiach] will come, as it says ‘After that the Children of Israel will return and will seek out HaShem their G-d and David their king’ (Hosea 3:5)”.
Then comes the sixteenth Blessing, Kabbalat Tefillah (“Acceptance of Prayer”) – “because after David will have come, prayer will come, as it says ‘And I will bring them to My holy Mountain, and I will cause them to rejoice in My House of Prayer’ (Isaiah 56:7)”.
Then comes the seventeenth Blessing, Avodah (“Temple Service”) – “because after prayer will have come, Temple Service will come”.
The Talmud here gives a clear progression of the final Redemption. The first stage is Kibbutz Galuyot – the Ingathering of the Exiles. We are well and truly into that first stage of redemption now, and have been for some generations. Of course it is debatable when exactly Kibbutz Galuyot began: did Kibbutz Galuyot begin with the more than five hundred students of the Vilna Gaon who made aliyah between 1808 and 1812? For sure, 500 hardly sounds impressive in modern terms – more Jews arrive in Israel within a few minutes via Ben Gurion Airport every day. Yet that group is generally reckoned as being the beginning of the revival of Jewish life in Israel in the modern era.
Or did Kibbutz Galuyot begin with the first waves of secular Zionist aliyah in the early 1880s? Or with the mass aliyah from Europe and Arab countries in the early 20th century? Or with the massive increases in aliyah after the First World War? Or with half a million Jews who flooded into the Land in the first half-year after independence? Those of course included Jews from Yemen and Poland, from Morocco and Russia, from Iraq and the USA, from India and France – as all the prophets foretold, and as we have been praying ever since the beginning of exile, Jews returned to Israel from more than a hundred countries of exile.
Though the debate over when exactly the Return to Zion and the Kibbutz Galuyot began, no one can dispute that we no longer stand on the edge of Redemption: we have already taken our first hesitant, faltering, uncertain steps into Redemption. Today, there are already more Jews in Israel than in any other country in the world: Israel overtook the USA about a decade ago (exactly when is impossible to determine). And following current trends, within less than another decade, the majority of all the world’s Jews will be living in Israel.
Israel is more independent today than any time since the First Temple. For sure, cynics refer to alleged Israeli dependence on the USA, and Israeli subservience to the USA, and so forth. True, we still have a long way to go. But we are still far more independent today than we were at any time during the Second Temple period, when Israel was a vassal state first in the Persian Empire, then in the Greek Empire, then in the Seleucid Empire, and finally in the Roman Empire.
In our generation, for the first time since King Yehoyakim (Jehoiakim), foreign troops are not patrolling the streets of Jerusalem, imposing foreign laws in our holy city.
These are changes of literally Biblical proportions.
We cited above the Talmudic dictum that “There is no clearer sign of Redemption than this, as it is said ‘You, O mountains of Israel – you shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to My nation Israel, when they approach to come’” (Sanhedrin 98a).
Rashi comments on this: “When the Land of Israel gives of its fruits generously, then the Redemption will be approaching; and you can have no clearer sign of Redemption”.
If today Israel is exporting fruits and other agricultural produce throughout the world, then this is an indisputable sign that the Redemption is fast approaching. If today Israel is the only country in the world which has more trees than it did a century ago, this is proof that the Redemption is fast approaching. To deny this is to deny the Talmud.
If today G-d has “assembled the outcasts of Israel, and the dispersed of Judah He has ingathered from the four corners of the world” (Isaiah 11:12); if G-d has “brought them from the northern land and has ingathered them from the uttermost land…and they return from the land of the enemy” (Jeremiah 31:7, 15); if G-d has “caused the cities to be populated and the ruins have been rebuilt, and the desolated Land will be tilled, instead of having been desolate in the eyes of every passerby” (Ezekiel 36:33-34) – then anyone who denies G-d’s redemption denies the prophets, indeed denies G-d Himself.
As we have seen, Kibbutz Galuyot – the Ingathering of the Exiles – is but the first stage in Redemption. We still have many stages to go before the Redemption will be complete: restoration of true Jewish justice, destruction of heretics and heresy, the exaltation of the tzaddikim, the rebuilding of Jerusalem (though this too is already well underway), the restoration of the Royal Dynasty of King David, and finally the restoration of the Temple Service.
There can be legitimate dispute about how long each stage lasts, how long from one stage to the next. But the first and most painful steps, we have already taken.
If the Talmud cited the fructification of Israel as inexorable proof of the imminence of the Redemption, the Midrash cites another sign. The prophet Zechariah prophesied: “Thus said HaShem, Lord of Legions: Old men and old women will yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with his staff in his hand because of his old age, and the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing in its streets” (Zechariah 8:4-5).
Note that the prophet does not foresee the rebuilt Holy Temple, or yeshivot, or supernatural miracles; only a placid suburban scene for Jerusalem. The scene he depicts here is so familiar in today’s Jerusalem that we don’t even recognize it as anything to get excited about.
He continues: “But before those days there were no earnings for people and there were no earnings from animals; those who came and went had no peace from the oppressor, and I saw every man set against his neighbour. But now – not like in the earlier days – I am for the remnant of this nation, says HaShem, Lord of Legions. For as the seed of peace, the vine will give forth its fruit, the Land will give forth its produce, and the heavens will give forth their dew. And I shall bequeath all these to the remnant of this nation” (verses 10-12).
“Rabbi Eliezer said: There is no clearer sign of Redemption than this” (Yalkut Shimoni, Zechariah 574).
If today the reality of Israel sometimes seems humdrum and pedestrian, this is because, as the Rabbis expressed it, “the beneficiary of the miracle does not recognize the miracle” (Niddah 31a). But we can, with minimal effort, step back a little and compare our present reality with the reality of a century ago, when the Land was barren, when there were few Jewish children playing in the streets of Jerusalem and few elderly Jewish men and women, holding their canes, sitting peacefully looking on.
And then we will see, with the clarity of certainty, that the events which the Talmud and the Midrash cite as incontrovertible signs of the Redemption have already happened. We have already begun to enter the era of Redemption.