Judaism: The Dawn of Redemption
This year marks a century since the First World War began. For better or worse, that horrific cataclysm, in which some 38 million people were killed, has shaped the world we live in today.
The Talmud tells us that “Rabbi Hiyya the Elder and Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta were walking through the Arbel Valley at daybreak, and when they saw the first rays of dawn, Rabbi Hiyya the Elder said to Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta: Beribbi! Such is Israel’s redemption. At first it comes slowly by slowly, and as it progresses its light increases” (Yerushalmi, Brachot 1:1 and Yoma 3:2).
There are several stages to redemption, and when it happens, it begins as gently and as unobtrusively and as naturally as the breaking of dawn. And as it gathers pace, it still seems to follow the natural way of the world.
Since the Talmud relates that this seemingly inconsequential conversation between Rabbi Hiyya the Elder and Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta occurred in the Arbel Valley, that detail is presumably relevant. After all, the fact that the Talmud saw fit to specify the location would seem to indicate that the location was important. So let us begin our attempt to understand what these two Torah giants were implying by looking at their location.
The Arbel Valley is in the Galilee, about 4 km (2½) miles west of the bulge on the western bank of the Kinneret. This puts it about 6 km (3½) miles north-west of Tiberias.
Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta was a fifth-generation Tanna (late 2nd century), and Rabbi Hiyya the Elder lived in the transition period between the Tannaim (the earlier sages of the Talmud) and the Amoraim (the later sages of the Talmud), so they were contemporaneous around the year 200. Thus at the time when they were perambulating through the Arbel Valley, looking eastwards towards the breaking dawn, they were facing the place of the Sanhedrin, at the time located in Tiberias.
Behind them, still in the pre-dawn darkness, lay the cities of Sh’faram and Usha, which during the preceding generation had both been locations of the Sanhedrin.
I suggest that when Rabbi Hiyya the Elder saw the slowly breaking dawn and said to Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta, “Such is Israel’s redemption. At first it comes slowly by slowly, and as it progresses its light increases” – he referred not only to the physical description of sunrise, but also to the light of the morning of redemption illuminating the city of the Sanhedrin.
That is to say, Rabbi Hiyya the Elder taught that Israel's redemption is not only national liberation which comes immediately after the darkest time of night; it also has to illumine the Sanhedrin – its significance lies in its spiritual power.
Israel’s redemption comes about through seemingly natural means. Like the redemption from Persia, as recorded in the Book of Esther, the process of redemption through which we are living in our generation has not [yet] had any open miracles. But human history of the last couple of centuries has been full of events which only in retrospect, with the benefit of historical hindsight, turn out to fit in with G-d’s design for Israel’s redemption.
The English word “history”, taken from the Greek “historia” meaning “enquiry, knowledge acquired by investigation”, has been adopted into Hebrew in the form “historya”. As is usual when foreign words are imported into Hebrew, the T-sound is transliterated using the Hebrew letter tet.
However Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook (1865-1935), the doyen of religious Zionism and first Chief Rabbi of Israel, used to spell the Hebrew word “historya” with a tav. The word, he explained, denotes “hester Y-h”, or the secrets of G-d. That is to say, according to Rav Kook, history, the chronicle of human events, is really the story of how G-d controls and directs the world, His providence being hidden.
A century ago, the Land of Israel was entirely under the domination of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, the Islamic Caliphate, which had invaded and conquered the Land from the previous Egyptian occupiers in the summer of 1517. After four centuries of Turkish rule, and with the Ottoman Empire one of the great imperial powers of the world, Islamic occupation seemed unshakeable.
But a century ago in the summer, what began as a minor conflict in the Balkans began to shake the entire world. Most of the world reckoned the year as 1914, but in the Jewish calendar it was 5674, in Hebrew tav-reish-ayin-dalet, or tir’ad – “she will shake” or “she will shudder”.
Within a few short months, that conflagration engulfed most of the world. Ultimately it was the British Empire, perhaps the mightiest military force in the world, which was pitched against the Caliphate and which defeated the Ottoman Empire.
The history of the First World War is tortuously complex. But Britain’s role in it can be traced directly back to the Treaty of London of 1839, in which Britain recognised and guaranteed Belgian sovereignty and neutrality. And 75 years later, when Germany invaded Belgium, Britain and Belgium invoked this 75-year-old treaty, and Britain declared war on Germany to defend Belgium.
When the German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg exclaimed that he could not believe that “just for a scrap of paper Great Britain was going to make war on a kindred nation who desired nothing better than to be friends with her”, Bonar Law, the leader of the British Conservative Party, responded: “‘Just for a scrap of paper’?! – This will go down in history as one of the most dishonourable sayings that have ever been heard”.
That is to say, the general British attitude was: having signed a treaty guaranteeing the protection of a small and weak European nation, we are honour-bound to live up to our national obligation.
The result was war between Britain and Germany. As an ally of Britain, France was dragged into the conflict when Germany invaded on 2nd August 1914. Seeing Turkey as a military ally of Germany, both Britain and France declared war on Turkey three months later, on 5th November.
The ultimate result was the defeat of Turkey, the dissolution of the Caliphate (which went back to the earliest days of Islam), and the remains of the Ottoman Empire being divided up between the victorious Allies.
On 2nd November 1917 Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, recognising Jewish historical claims to the Land of Israel…and the rest is history.
I suggest that it is no idle coincidence that the Treaty of London, which would drag Britain into the conflict after 75 years, was signed on Friday the 5th of Iyar 5599 (19th April 1839), the same date and the same day of the week on which Israel would become independent 109 years later.
Indeed: “Such is Israel’s redemption. At first it comes slowly by slowly, and as it progresses its light increases”. Israel’s redemption begins slowly by slowly, with natural historical events which seem totally unrelated. As the light of the dawn of redemption increases, so does the pace of events, so does their clarity.