Know Comment: Pointing beyond ourselves

Israel must celebrate more than its material achievements, and bear witness to something grander than the natural order.

February 9, 2017 21:50
A WOMAN PLAYS with her daughter in an anemones field near Kibbutz Alumim near the Gaza Strip earlier

A WOMAN PLAYS with her daughter in an anemones field near Kibbutz Alumim near the Gaza Strip earlier this week. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Last week, the Israel Police released its annual report on crime. Some 330,000 criminal files were opened in 2016, and there were more than 100 civilian murders, 20,000 cases of violence within the family, 60,000 burglaries; 14,000 drug related offenses, etc. Obviously, there is much to fix in Israeli society.

Where do we start? Perhaps by putting “moral chains on our appetites,” as Edmund Burke once wrote. Good society depends on a system of restraints; on internalizing external authority through conscience. (That is one of the features of a life lived according to Halacha, Jewish law.) We need fetters on our passions. It would be healthy to shackle Israeli public discourse against violent language and hyperbole, to cut back on promiscuity and personal attacks, add a touch more tolerance in education, strive for fairer distribution of the national burden, show more concern for the widow, orphan and unemployed, increase philanthropy, and evince some reverence for heritage.

Most of all, we need to curb our conceit, and check our self-satisfaction. We need to find a way to celebrate our society’s successes without hubristically idolizing ourselves.

ONE OF THE KEY theological lessons derived from the two wars, against Egypt and Amalek, that are described in this week’s Bible reading (the portion of Beshalah) is that man should be humble. He can claim only partial credit for his victories.

Even when he expends blood, sweat and tears to defeat an enemy, or to overcome other adversities, he ought to recognize that all success ultimately flows from God.

That’s why our biblical ancestor King David, the great military conqueror who brought security and stability to the ancient Judean state, was prevented by God from building the Temple in Jerusalem – according to Rabbi Meir Soloveichik.

In a recent article in First Things, Soloveichik argues that God’s frustration of King David’s ultimate ambition reinforces rather than diminishes his greatness.

Had David concluded his career by building a temple, it would inevitably have been seen as a monument to his own might – a Temple “of exceeding magnificence, of fame and of glory throughout all countries.”

It would have been like the Coliseum in Rome that Vespasian constructed as a testament to his conquests.

It would have confused David’s victories with God’s greater purpose for the entire world.

Kind David, and only David, is chosen as the eternal ancestor of the Israelite monarchy, because “he ascribes his achievements to God when the temptation to do otherwise is enormous. He is the man who refuses to allow society to idolize him, and thereby reminds society not to idolize itself.”

Drawing a lesson for our modern reality, Soloveichik asks: “How can Israel be a vibrant democracy that celebrates its independence and even at times its power, while creating a civic structure that embodies the Jewish story and mission, which transcend the modern state? How do we sustain a functioning, prosperous polity that points beyond its worldly achievements to God’s higher purposes?”

IN A FAMOUS ESSAY on the Ten Commandments (“Why the Decalogue Matters,” Mosaic, 2013), Prof. Leon R. Kass explains Sabbath observance as the basis for the humanistic politics I am talking about.

“By reconfiguring time, elevating our gaze, and redirecting our aspirations, Sabbath remembrance promotes internal freedom, by moderating the passions that enslave us from within: fear and despair (owing to a belief in our lowliness), greed and niggardliness (owing to a belief in the world’s inhospitality), and pride and hubris (owing to a belief in our superiority and self-sufficiency).

“Where men do not know or acknowledge the bountiful and blessed character of the given world, and the special relationship of all human beings to the source of that world, they will lapse into worship either of powerful but indifferent natural forces, or of powerful and clever but amoral human masters and magicians.”

Taking this one step further, I think that there may be a link between Israel’s national security and its national decency; between the Foreign Ministry and the Finance Ministry; between the Defense Ministry and the Interior Ministry. Israel’s success in the former arenas may be dependent on its virtue in the latter.

Theologically speaking, it’s possible that Israel can upgrade its strategic standing in the region by improving social standards in Israel; that it can defeat the Hamas in Gaza by eradicating “Hamas” (Hebrew for injustice) at home.

Put another way: Jewish tradition teaches that our military might and diplomatic power is partially a function of our moral strength; that when Israel is strong socially and spiritually it will earn the respect of friends and deter its foes.

ON AN EVEN GRANDER meta-historic level, Lord Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks points out that Jews always have seen the chronicles of mankind as nothing less than a drama of redemption, in which the fate of a nation reflects its loyalty (or otherwise) to a covenant with God.

And this imposes tremendous responsibility on the Jewish people to do things right, and by reputational association with the Creator, create Kiddush Hashem – a sanctification of God’s name in the world.

Non-Jews have understood Jewish history this way too. Sacks quotes the once-Marxist Russian thinker Nikolai Berdyaev (The Meaning of History, 1936), who came to the conclusion that the script of Jewish history bears the mark of God’s hand.

Berdyaev: “The survival [of Jews] is a mysterious and wonderful phenomenon demonstrating that the life of this people is governed by a special predetermination, transcending the processes of adaptation expounded by the materialistic interpretation of history. The survival of the Jews, their resistance to destruction, their endurance under absolutely peculiar conditions and the fateful role played by them in history: all these point to the particular and mysterious foundations of their destiny.”

Again, this perspective imposes enormous responsibility on Jews throughout the generations and on Israelis of this era – to live up to those “particular and mysterious foundations” and to the ethical exhortations articulated by our sources.

Israel must celebrate more than its material achievements – whether they are in the military, medicine, hi-tech, agriculture, energy, or the arts. It must not accept “average” levels of crime or domestic violence.

The state and people of Israel must be socially and morally super-conscientious; and in so doing, point beyond themselves to something grander than the natural order.

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