Jerusalem: "In the eyes of the nations He has revealed His righteousness”

Jerusalem Day is intrinsically connected with the promise in this past Shabbat Torah reading ending the Book of Leviticus.

Daniel Pinner ,

Western Wall, Jerusalem
Western Wall, Jerusalem

“In the eyes of the nations”

Parashat Bechukkotay concludes the Book of Leviticus – the Book which was traditionally called תּוֹרַת כֹּהֲנִים, the Instruction Manual of the Priests: almost the entire Book is dedicated to the Kohanim, their service, and rituals which depend upon them.

And so the tochachah (the admonition) with which Parashat Bechukkotay begins seems out of place. It is directed at the entire Jewish nation, not just the Kohanim. So coming as it does near the conclusion of the Book of Leviticus, it demands an explanation.

“If you will walk in My decrees and keep My commandments and do them, then I will give your rains in their appropriate seasons, and the land will give its produce...and I will give peace in the land, and you will lie down with no cause for fear... But if you will not listen to Me and will not do all these commandments...then I will visit panic upon you, swelling lesions and burning will sow your seeds in vain and your enemies will eat it...” (Leviticus 26:3-45).

On and on it goes – eleven verses describing the blessings that G-d will shower upon us for obeying His Torah, followed by 30 verses depicting the curses and horrors that await us if we reject the Torah.

And the question remains: What is this tochachah doing here near the conclusion of the Book which is dedicated primarily to the Kehunah [Priesthood]?

I suggest: –

Most of the tochachah depicts the Children of Israel suffering ever-increasing horrors in the Land of Israel: sickness and defeat (Leviticus 26:16-17), famine (vs. 18-20), wild beasts (vs. 21-22), and finally the horrors of siege (vs. 23-26).

Only after all these comes the final and worst stage – national destruction and exile (vs. 27-41).

And after destruction of Jewish independence, after an undefined period of exile, G-d reassures us that “I will remember for them the Covenant with the first generations – that I brought them out from the land of Egypt לְעֵינֵי הַגּוֹיִם, in the eyes of the nations, to be their G-d; I am Hashem” (v. 45).

Now the phrase לְעֵינֵי הַגּוֹיִם seems unwarranted. G-d took us out of Egypt to redeem us from slavery so that we would be free to serve Him, as He had promised our forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Why does He mention here that He took us out from Egypt “in the eyes of the nations”? Had it not been “in the eyes of the nations”, then would it have been any less a redemption?

Apparently yes. The fundamental purpose of the Exodus was Kiddush Hashem, Sanctification of the Name of G-d, and Kiddush Hashem by its very definition can only happen in a blaze of publicity – לְעֵינֵי הַגּוֹיִם, in the eyes of the nations.

We note that this is the only time that the phrase לְעֵינֵי הַגּוֹיִם occurs in the Torah. It will occur another 10 times in the rest of the Tanach: nine times in the Book of Ezekiel, and once in Psalms.

The prophet Ezekiel warns Israel that G-d will “execute justice in your midst לְעֵינֵי הַגּוֹיִם, in the eyes of the nations” (Ezekiel 5:8). And later, G-d, speaking through His prophet, tells us that when He redeemed us from Egypt, “I did it for My Name’s sake, that it not be desecrated לְעֵינֵי הַגּוֹיִם, in the eyes of the nations in whose midst they were” (20:9).

And again: “Though the House of Israel rebelled against Me in the desert,... I acted for My Name’s sake, that it not be desecrated לְעֵינֵי הַגּוֹיִם, in the eyes of the nations before whose eyes I took them out... Thus I restrained My hand, and I acted for My Name’s sake, that it not be desecrated לְעֵינֵי הַגּוֹיִם, in the eyes of the nations before whose eyes I took them out” (20:13-22).

And looking forward to the final redemption, at the end of the exile which G-d warns of in Parashat Bechukkotay, the prophet uses the same phrase:

“On My holy mountain...there they shall worship Me – the entire House of Israel, all of it in the Land... By the satisfying aroma [of the restored sacrifices] I will be favourable to you, when I will take you out from the nations and will gather you from the countries...and I will be sanctified through you לְעֵינֵי הַגּוֹיִם, in the eyes of the nations” (20:40-41).

And again: “When I gather the House of Israel from the nations among whom they were scattered, I will be sanctified by them לְעֵינֵי הַגּוֹיִם, in the eyes of the nations when they will dwell on their Land which I gave to My servant Jacob” (28:25).

And when Gog will lead the nations in their assault against the reconstituted Israel, and G-d will destroy those nations who attack His people, “I will become magnified and sanctified and renowned לְעֵינֵי גּוֹיִם רַבִּים, in the eyes of many nations and they will know that I am Hashem” (38:23).

And again: “When I will return them from the nations and gather them from the countries of their enemies, I will be sanctified by them לְעֵינֵי הַגּוֹיִם רַבִּים, in the eyes of many nations ” (39:27).

King David used this same phrase in one of his many Psalms of praise when looking forward to the redemption:

“Sing a new song to Hashem for the wonders He has done... Hashem has made His salvation known, לְעֵינֵי הַגּוֹיִם, in the eyes of the nations He has revealed His righteousness” (Psalms 98:1-2).

Ten times the phrase לְעֵינֵי הַגּוֹיִם, in the eyes of the nations, occurs in the Tanach (outside of this week’s parashah), invariably invoking Kiddush Hashem.

And now we return to G-d’s promise of ultimate salvation after the exile, with which the tochachah concludes:

“I will remember for them the Covenant with the first generations – that I brought them out from the land of Egypt לְעֵינֵי הַגּוֹיִם, in the eyes of the nations, to be their G-d; I am Hashem” (Leviticus 26:45).

Israel’s mission, Israel’s very identity, is to be G-d’s representative in the world. Thus when Israel is weak and oppressed, G-d’s holy Name is desecrated. The obvious corollary is that when Israel is powerful and successful, and seen לְעֵינֵי הַגּוֹיִם, in the eyes of the nations to be powerful and successful, then G-d’s holy Name is sanctified.

The Talmud (Sukkah 52b) quotes Rav Chana bar Acha, who cited Rav: “Four things G-d regrets having created: exile, Chaldeans, Ishmaelites, and the evil inclination. Exile, as it is written, ‘And now what have I here – says Hashem – because My nation has been taken for free...and constantly, all the day, My Name is blasphemed’ (Isaiah 52:5)”.

This proof-text from Isaiah comes from one of his many beautiful, inspiring, magnificent prophecies depicting Israel’s glorious future in the time of redemption:

“Awaken, awaken! Don your power, O Zion; wear your clothes of glory, O Jerusalem, O Holy City – because the uncircumcised and the defiled will no longer continue to enter you! Shake yourself off from the dust...O Jerusalem...because thus says Hashem G-d: My nation went down to Egypt to dwell there, and Assyria oppressed them for nothing” (Isaiah 52:1-4).

Yes, G-d warns us, at the end of the Book of Leviticus, at the climax of the Book of Kohanim, that if we betray our charge in the Land of Israel, then we will be exiled from it. Not that G-d delights in our exile; far from it. But in the same way that a loving father chastises his son for the son’s own benefit, G-d chastises His son, Israel, for his sins.

Of course G-d regrets exile. How could He not regret it?! Just as any loving father regrets his son’s waywardness and his own necessity to punish his son.

Even before giving us the Torah, G-d defined us as His “Kingdom of Kohanim and holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Just as the task of the Kohanim vis-à-vis Israel is to lead and inspire the nation to ever-greater devotion to Hashem, so Israel’s task vis-à-vis the nations of the world is to lead and inspire them to recognition of Hashem and ever-greater devotion to Him.

Just to be clear: inspiring the nations to recognition of and devotion to Hashem does not mean converting them to Judaism. The nations have no obligation to become Jewish. The non-Jews’ task in this world is to worship G-d in their way, observing the Seven Mitzvot commanded to the Sons of Noah, the basic rules for serving G-d.

Nevertheless, Israel, G-d’s “Kingdom of Kohanim and holy nation” can hardly fulfil their role while scattered in exile, dependent for their very existence on the compassion of other nations. Only a nation which is free, independent, and sovereign in its own land can inspire anyone to anything.

Only an Israel which is powerful, prosperous, and self-confident, and which proudly proclaims its own identity as G-d’s nation, can demonstrate His power and control over the world לְעֵינֵי הַגּוֹיִם, in the eyes of the nations.

The way our calendar is constructed, we invariably read Parashat Bechukkotay (or the double Parashat Behar-Bechukkotay) during the 24-day period between Yom ha-Atzma’ut and Yom Herut Yerushalayim.

The first was the day, 73 years ago, that Israel became sovereign and independent on its own Land for the first time since the Roman conquest.

“I will make your cities destroyed...and I Myself will make the Land desolate, and your enemies who dwell therein will be desolate, and I will scatter you among the nations...and your Land will be desolate and your cities will be destroyed” (Leviticus 26:31-33) – a curse which was the reality of the Land of Israel ever since the Roman conquest.

Despite countless recent attempts to falsify history, the reality of the history of the Land of Israel is that no nation ever settled in the Land, no nation ever became indigenous in Israel, no nation ever developed any national consciousness or national identity or culture in Israel.

Arab propaganda to the contrary, Israel remained a barren wasteland as long as her true sons and daughters, the Children of Israel, were scattered in exile.

Countless nations and cultures conquered the Land, some attempted to settle it: the Romans and their successors the Byzantines, Persian Sassanids, Arab Muslims, Turkish Tulunides, Muslim Arab Abbasids, Shi’ite Muslim Carmathians, Ikhshidi Egyptians, Seljuk Turks, Christian Crusaders, Khwarezmian Mongols, Muslim Egyptian Mamelukes, Muslim Ottoman Turks, the British Empire – all conquered the Land of Israel, all ruled it for longer or shorter periods of time – and none ever managed to settle in it, to build cities, to become truly part of the landscape.

And 54 years ago this week, the Arab world made its greatest concerted effort ever to exterminate Israel. A 13-state military coalition dedicated to annihilating Israel, the mightiest war-machine ever seen in the Middle East, surrounded Israel.

The four Arab countries surrounding Israel – Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt – mobilised and advanced their troops towards their borders with Israel.

The world listened to the blood-curdling threats of annihilation pouring out of the Arab world.

Three years earlier, General Abdullah Ziyad, Syrian Minister of Defence, had announced: “The Syrian Army stands as a mountain to crush Israel and demolish her. This Army knows how to crush its enemies”.

As the Arab armies were mobilising on four fronts against Israel, the radio station Voice of the Arabs broadcast on 17th May 1967: “Egypt, with all her resources – human, economic, and scientific – is prepared to plunge into a total war that will be the end of Israel”.

And a week later, on 25th May 1967, Cairo Radio announced: “The Arab people are steadfastly resolved to wipe Israel off the map and to restore the honour of the Arabs in Palestine”.

And with ever-increasing Arab and Moslem military forces massing on Israel’s borders – from Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Pakistan, those soldiers with their tanks, aircraft, machine-guns, artillery preparing to exterminate Israel – the Egyptian President Gamal Abd el-Nasser thundered out on Cairo Radio on 4th June: “We are facing you in the battle and are burning with desire for it to start, in order to obtain revenge. This will make the world realise what the Arabs are and what Israel is”.

The world heard these threats of annihilation and listened passively, some nervously, others hopefully. After all, someone had to do the dirty work which few Europeans had the stomach to do themselves, just 22 years after the Holocaust...

Politicians and pundits the world over debated whether or not they could or should stand by and watch Israel be destroyed. Military experts calmly discussed Israel’s chances of survival; and those who conceded that Israel probably would survive, nevertheless commiserated (from their comfortable armchairs) with this small, gallant, besieged nation which would suffer such horrific losses in the forthcoming conflict that it would be devastated and demoralised for a generation.

One voice, one voice alone, predicted an Israeli victory that would stun the world: the voice of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn ztz”l.

All the others – all the experts in tactics and strategy, the experts in geopolitics and international relations, the world-renowned analysts who were thoroughly conversant with Arab and Israeli military strength, terrain, battle-ground conditions, weapons capabilities, those experts who knew how to collate all the data and draw the realistic conclusions – not a single one of them came even close to predicting the result of the impending Arab onslaught.

Israel defeated this vast Arab army in six days. The mighty Syrian Army, that army which “stood as a mountain to crush Israel and demolish her”, capitulated within two days, their brave soldiers cowering in their foxholes and surrendering or running away from the Jews as fast as their legs could carry them.

The mighty Egyptian Army turned tail and fled into the desert.

All those brave and heroic and dedicated Arab warriors of a dozen nations, filled with faith in Allah and determined to restore the glories of the Caliphate, threw down their weapons and fled from those same Jews whom they had derided a few hours earlier as cowards.

In six days, Israel conquered the entire Sinai Desert and the Gaza region from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and all the land west of the River Jordan (including historic Jerusalem) from Jordan, returning to Jerusalem and restoring Jewish sovereignty therein for the first time since Queen Shlom-Zion (Salome Alexander) died in 67 B.C.E.

The myriads of Arab soldiers who had flooded the battlefields, swearing to drench “Palestine” with Jewish blood, indeed managed to “make the world realise what the Arabs are and what Israel is” (as Nasser had so arrogantly boasted a day earlier).

As the Torah decreed in Parashat Bechukkotay, as the prophets foretold, as King David sang: Israel returned to its Land לְעֵינֵי הַגּוֹיִם, in the eyes of the nations.

It is truly an awesome time in which to be alive!

So a day after Shabbat, as Yom Herut Yerushalayim begins on Sunday night, Chag Sameach to the whole House of Israel and to all our friends throughout the world.

Daniel Pinner is a veteran immigrant from England, a teacher by profession and a Torah scholar who has been active in causes promoting Eretz Israel and Torat Israel.