Parashat Tazria Metzora - Independence Day: The process of independence
How can we properly assess the success - or lack thereof - of the restored Jewish state?
By SHLOMO RISKIN"The sound of my beloved knocks" (Song of Songs 5:2)
From the perspective of more than six decades of national sovereignty, how can we properly assess the success - or lack thereof - of the restored Jewish state? After all, Theodor Herzl - in his groundbreaking work Der Judenstaat which provided the modern Zionist enterprise with its "Magna Carta" - expected that once Israel would become a nation like all nations with its own homeland, such normalcy would bring in its wake the disappearance of anti-Semitism and the acceptance of Israel within the family of nationalities.
One need only open a daily newspaper to immediately learn that such a normalization has not occurred; much the opposite, the new form of the most virulent anti-Semitism comes specifically in the guise of anti-Zionism, with the State of Israel being libelously charged with racism, ethnic cleansing and wartime atrocities ("Jenin massacre," "Holocaust against Gaza") from the "hallowed" halls and the mouths of leaders of the United Nations itself.
But world reaction dare not be our criterion for success. The Midrash warned us a long time ago that from Sinai descended the sina (Hebrew for hatred) of the nations against us; our message of the absolute morality of the Ten Commandments (especially "Thou shalt not murder" innocents) had to cause resentment on the part of hypocritical nations who glory in murdering others for their own self-aggrandizement and concentration of power. No wonder they lash out unfairly against us, not even allowing us the privilege of self-protection against suicide bombers and destructive Kassam rockets specifically targeting innocent civilians.
If then we are to be condemned for not (yet?) having fulfilled our function as a "holy nation and a kingdom of priest-teachers" of compassionate righteousness, moral justice and peace to the world, we must admit to being guilty as charged; however, the successful discharging of that national, covenantal mission will only happen at the time of universal redemption, as our prophets testify (Isaiah 2, Micah 4), so we seem to have a long way to go before the possibility of reaching that goal.
My revered teacher Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in his novella "Kol Dodi Dofek" (the sound of my beloved knocks), masterfully interprets a passage in the Song of Songs to refer to the reaction of the Jewish people themselves to the miraculous advent of the Jewish state. God is our eternal lover, who has guaranteed that we will eventually be worthy, that He will fulfill His covenant to us and that "even if we were scattered to the ends of the heavens, from there will He gather us and from there will He take us up to the land of our ancestors' inheritance," and pave the way for the ultimate millennium (Deuteronomy 30:4).
The Rav explained that in the year 1948 (5708) the Dod or Lover (as it were), the Eternal Shepherd, knocked at the door of Knesset Yisrael to signal His readiness. The timing was unexpected, historically absurd and incongruous, miraculous - but critically necessary for Jewish survival. The Jewish community of Eastern Europe had just been virtually obliterated, 80 percent of Jewish religious and cultural leadership was destroyed, in crematoria fires, and the dry bones of the "musselmen" remnants of humanity seemed fractured beyond repair; indeed, the venerated British historian Arnold Toynbee referred to Israel as a fossil in a history he published in 1947, as a nation which had ceased to be viable but which still had ossified remains which could possibly illuminate past history, but nothing beyond.
And then came the great divine knock at the door in the guise of the United Nations partition plan of November 29, 1947, granting Israel her own statehood for the first time after close to 2,000 years of exile and persecution in every corner of the globe. Other "knocks" at the door followed closely: Israel's victorious conclusion of the War of Independence, David Ben-Gurion's seizing the moment of England's exit from its mandate to declare the independent Jewish state, the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics atypically joining hands to ratify the new state and, of course what appeared to be the divine imprimatur to our burgeoning republic with the lightning victory of the Six Day War, our return to the Western Wall of the Old City of Jerusalem and the dizzying declaration of Motta Gur heard 'round the world, "The Temple Mount is in our hands."
But what was the response of the masses of world Jewry to all of the divine knockings at the door? Did we open the door to let our Lover in, did the beloved open the door to go out and join her Lover in the Land of Israel reborn? "I have taken off my dressing gown, how so can I get dressed again?; I have cleansed off my feet, how so can I make them muddied again?" I have finally felt a respite from my persecution, I am about to retire after many long days of travail, can I legitimately be expected to start anew at this stage of my life? I have at least begun to refresh my wounded and exhausted body in my gilded Diaspora ghetto. Can I legitimately be asked to resettle swamps, to wage wars, to brave battles?
And then again, when the beloved nevertheless thinks of responding to the divine call, and slowly gets up from her luxurious couch of silken coverlets and propped-up pillows, she can barely open the door to let her lover in. Her hands are perfumed, her fingers are so covered with oily creams and scented salves that the doorknob keeps slipping away from her grasp and the door refuses to open to her touch. "I get up to open for my lover, but my hands drip with myrrh, the myrrh passes through my fingers on the doorknob of the lock." I finally open for my lover, but (alas, too late) because my lover has slipped away, gone... I look for Him but I do not find Him, I call out for Him but He does not answer me..." (ibid. 5:3-6).
Did we indeed miss the moment, overlook the opportunity? I hardly think so. Just as exile is a process of history, so is redemption a process - and this is only the "beginning of the sprouting of our redemption" (S.Y. Agnon). Our track record has a great deal to show in these six decades: We have grown from 600,000 to close to six million strong; we have brought together exiles from every conceivable culture and of every conceivable color and ethnic background, melding together as one nation; we have fought interminable wars, suffered the sacrifice of our most committed and courageous, with our morale still high and our mission still intact. Yes, we remain a work-in-progress, and we certainly have a difficult and dangerous journey ahead of us. Our vehicle remains the messianic donkey, which moves ahead, stops inexplicably, goes backward, but continues to his destination. And all of our prophets guarantee that we will eventually reach that destination, not only for the sake of the Jewish future but for the sake of world redemption.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.
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