Op-Ed: Israel is in Need of Vision
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedThe writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper. His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English. Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at: www.yhb.org.il/1
The existence of the Jewish people for nearly two thousand years in galut (exile) is a huge miracle – unprecedented in the annals of the world. No nation survived more than a few generations outside of its land. In contrast, the Jewish people survived and even revealed tremendous powers of vitality, evidenced in the continued deepening of Torah study.
This is a great miracle revealed through natural means. The fact that it occurred in a natural manner does not downplay the importance of the miracle, but rather, heightens it. For a miracle that defies the laws of nature can occur in a particular place or time, while nature itself remains generally unchanged. However, in this case we are talking about a miraculous phenomenon which actually occurred for countless years, under natural circumstances and in the four corners of the world. Consequently, the miracle is infinitely greater.
Seeing as the miracle is revealed in a natural manner, it is important to clarify how it occurs in practice. The explanation is that Israel’s vision of redemption is so enormous and colossal that no exile or suffering can defeat it. Or as our teacher Rabbi Kook ztz”l wrote: “The yearning for Salvation gives the Judaism of the Diaspora its power of stamina” (Orot, Eretz Yisrael 1). In fact, the Jewish people referred to life in Diaspora as ‘galut’, in other words, a temporary and unnatural situation lacking intrinsic value, but rather, as a stage leading to the return to the Land of Israel (as explained by Maharal in ‘Netzach Yisrael’, chapter 1).
The Vision of Redemption is Connected to Torah and Mitzvoth
The yearning for redemption alone, however, is not enough, because without Torah and mitzvoth, the vision of redemption would dissolve, lose its character and sink into the depths, or, deviate in directions of idolatry as happened in Christianity and Islam. Therefore, the people of Israel were compelled to continue studying Torah and observe the mitzvoth in the Diaspora, despite the fact that the main purpose of the mitzvoth is connected to Eretz Yisrael (see, Ramban, Vayikra 18:25).
Our Sages said: “Although I exile you from the Land of Israel to the Diaspora – be excellent in [observing] mitzvoth, so when you return [to the Land of Israel] they will not be new to you. This is analogous to a king who became angry with his wife, and she returned to live in her father’s house. The king said to her: Continue wearing your jewelry, so that when you return, they won’t be new to you. This is what God said to Israel: My sons, be excellent in [observing] mitzvoth, so that when you return, they will not be new to you. This is what Yirmeyahu (Jeremiah) said: ‘Establish signposts for yourself’ – these are the mitzvoth in which Israel excels” (Sifre, Ekev 37).
And on the verse “And you shall set these words of Mine” (Deuteronomy 11:18), Rashi comments: “Even after you have been exiled, make yourselves distinctive with My commandments: Put on tefillin and make mezuzoth, so that these will not be new to you when you return.”
The Terrible Crisis
In the modern era, we struggled with a terrible crisis. Within a few generations [of Emancipation], the majority of the Jewish people stopped observing mitzvoth, accompanied by a willingness to assimilate among the Gentiles and forgo their Jewish identity.
Before World War I, the vast majority of Jews still observed mitzvoth, whereas prior to World War II, a clear majority did not. In Western Europe, only 10% observed mitzvoth, while nearly half had already assimilated. In Russia, which was already under the rule of communism, only a few elders continued observing mitzvoth devotedly. In Poland, where nearly three million Jews lived, approximately half of them had already stopped observing mitzvoth, while in Hungary, only about 20% were still observant. Even among the Jews who immigrated to America, the percentage of those who were religiously observant was low, and among the younger populace, no more than 10% were observant.
What happened all of a sudden? What led to the crisis? The simple answer is that in the face of modern development, religion became insignificant in life. Judaism however, with all its values, seemingly should not have been harmed by this, as it possess the capability of turning modernity into a tool for its spiritual content, and serve as a tremendous impetus towards tikun olam. The truer answer is: the loss of vision.
The Loss of Vision
When all the Jews anticipated and prepared for the day they would ascend to the Land of Israel and return to living an ideal life imbued with a message of tikun olam – only then do they have the strength to endure and cope with all the terrible sufferings and tribulations, which no other people survived – continuing to study Torah and perform mitzvoth, in order to fulfill them completely in Eretz Yisrael. But when the vision was lost, the strength to face the challenges disappeared.
In recent times, the gates of Eretz Yisrael began to open, and by the end of World War I, in accordance with the decision of the League of Nations, the British Empire was given the mandate to establish a national home for the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael. True, the immigrants still faced many challenges, but life in the Diaspora wasn’t simple either, and despite all the difficulties, aliyah was possible.
Presumably, as public pressure for mass aliyah had mounted, the barriers would have fallen, and the gates would have opened wide. But at that fateful moment, the vast majority of our people preferred to remain in galut, without even giving a thought to making aliyah in the near future. At that moment, it seemed as if the vision of the impending nation of Israel was lost. If after efforts of generations, only a few hundred thousand people had gathered to Israel – merely 3% of the Jewish people, while all the rest refused to heed the Divine command – was there still a chance for the nation to be redeemed?
To this day, Hareidi, anti-Zionist haranguers claim that Zionism caused the abandonment of religion, but the truth is the opposite. The majority of those who managed to remain alive after the Holocaust and stayed in the Diaspora, distanced themselves from Torah and mitzvoth, and are quickly assimilating.
When the hope of returning to the Holy Land was lost, religious life also lost its meaning, because the main motivation for keeping mitzvoth was “to remain a Jew”, but when it seemed to the Jews in galut that there was no more hope for national redemption – the dream turned into a universal vision, for example, communism or liberalism, which led to assimilation.
With all the dreadful pain, it appears that out of a penetrating, historical examination, an awful truth arises: The awesome shock following the Holocaust saved the Jewish people from destruction. Without the Holocaust, the process of assimilation would have continued, and all the large communities in the Diaspora would have crumbled. The process of assimilation which began in Western Europe continued in full force in Eastern Europe, and had already reached the capital cities of Islamic countries. In realistic terms, it seemed that no hope or vision remained for the Jewish people.
After the Holocaust, many people realized that there was no other place for the Jews except Eretz Yisrael. The words of the Prophet were fulfilled in us: “And that which comes into your mind shall never come about, that you say, We will be like the nations, like the families of the countries, to serve wood and stone (in other words, to believe in all sorts of ideals people have invented). As I live, says the Lord God, surely with a mighty hand, and with a stretched out arm, and with anger poured out, will I be king over you: and I will bring you out from the peoples and will gather you out of the countries in which you are scattered, with a mighty hand, and with a stretched out arm, with anger poured out. And I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples, and there will remonstrate with you face to face” (Yehezkel 20:32-35).
The Words of a Young Holocaust Survivor
On February 10, 1946, nearly a year after the end of World War II, the joint Anglo-American Committee arrived at the Bergen-Belson concentration camp to check the condition of the refugees who refused to return to their home countries. In the camp, the members of the committee encountered a small, skinny, pale boy of about nine years old. They asked him: “How old are you?” He replied: “I’m 13 years old.” They kneeled down to talk to him, and continued to ask: “Where were you born?” He replied: “I was born in Kielce, Poland. There, they murdered my entire family. My only uncle who survived Treblinka returned to his hometown, but the Poles killed him there, his neighbors. I am the only one left.”
“Well then, where would you like to go?” the committee members asked. The boy replied: “I…I want to go home. My only home is Eretz Yisrael, what you call Palestine.” The committee members persisted, “And if you can’t go to Palestine, where would you like to go?” The boy then raised his head, and said: “I’ve had enough wandering from place to place. If you won’t allow me to go home – send me back to Auschwitz…” (From the book “Tikva Al Pi HaTehom”, by Masha Greenbaum).
Establishment of the State
The Holocaust, and the State of Israel which arose in its aftermath, preserved the existence of the Jewish people. Millions of Jews flocked to Eretz Yisrael and, to one extent or another, maintain their Jewish identity – infinitely more than any other community in the Diaspora. This also caused the strengthening of Jewish communities abroad, because the enormous challenge the Jewish people embarked on – the establishment of a state, arouses all Jews in the world to consider their Jewish identity to one degree or another.
The Hareidi communities abroad were also empowered as a result of the establishment of the State – for it gave them the strength and courage to argue, and present an alternative position. They are able to say, ‘If a broad-spectrum of people could establish a State – we can also keep the tradition in the way we think is right’.
Survival opposed to the Great Vision
Unfortunately, however, instead of the great vision inspiring the Jewish people to gather to Israel and establish a state, we fled here from the galut because the alternative was returning to Auschwitz. In the meantime, we were drawn into the huge challenge of building a country to save the Jews, and this task replaced the vision for several decades.
However, we still suffer from the same terrible crisis of the loss of vision. Though we already reside in the country, we have not yet truly decided to come to Israel to be a ‘kingdom of priests, and a holy nation’ – to connect heaven and earth, values and action – in order to reveal perfect faith in the world, influence all the nations with Torah and morality, and bring redemption to the world.
The Danger in the Lack of Vision
Without belief in a great vision, it will be extremely difficult to withstand international pressures – political and cultural, alike.
Who knows? Perhaps we are once again in a similar situation to that of a hundred years ago, when our people were called to realize the vision of the redemption, and the negligence was disastrous.
May we merit, with God’s help, to participate in the great challenge of setting a vision worthy of the State of Israel, and I hope to write about this in future columns.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.