Tradition Today: The challenge of reality

It is unlikely the Second Commonwealth ever attained the full grandeur of the prophet’s vision.

kotel plaza 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
kotel plaza 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
After reliving the dark days of destruction through the reading of Lamentations and innumerable dirges on Tisha Be’av, how pleasant and inspiring it is to listen to the prophetic words of comfort that we read this week, “Be comforted, be comforted My people.” Living in the Babylonian exile, this prophet predicted the return to the Land of Israel, often using images that were reminiscent of the great Exodus from Egypt as his paradigm.
Every student of Jewish history knows, however, that the reality was somewhat less glorious. Yes, the miracle and the comfort were realized in the decision of Cyrus to permit the Jews to return and even to rebuild their Temple, but the number of those who returned was small. The vast majority of Jews chose to remain in Babylonia and those who did return encountered tremendous difficulties in rebuilding the Temple and reestablishing the Jewish state. They experienced internal disputes as well as outside enemies who hindered their work. All in all, it was certainly no bed of roses and it took hundreds of years before the Second Commonwealth was well established, and it is unlikely it ever attained the full grandeur of the prophet’s vision.
Why should we be surprised? The Exodus itself did not go as planned.
What should have been a quick and easy journey to the land of Canaan took 40 years and even when they got there, the battle against the Canaanites was much more difficult than envisioned. Furthermore the settlement in the land did not result in a perfect society, but in the difficult reality of the period of the judges and constant wars against the Philistines.
Even the establishment of the kingdom, which was supposed to solve all the problems of proper governance, did not work out as planned. The first king was a failure, and David’s successor Solomon only succeeded in laying the groundwork for the splitting of the kingdom into two kingdoms! God may be one, but the people of Israel quickly became two and the larger part – 10 full tribes – went into exile at the hands of the Assyrians and never returned.
IF ANY OF THIS sounds familiar, that is because our situation today is similar.
The realities of dealing with the situation as it is are always much more complex than the visions that are contemplated for the future. Theodor Herzl could write The Jewish State and outline a perfect place, a utopian vision of the new homeland for the Jews. Translating that outline into everyday reality is much harder than setting pen to paper.
Today, six decades after the dream of a Jewish state became the reality of the State of Israel, we are painfully aware of the chasm that exists between the vision and the reality. We have not settled fundamental questions such as the role of religion in the Jewish state. We are unsure if the form of government we have chosen is truly the best for us. Our educational system is far from what we would want and, indeed, what we need if our society is to meet the challenges of the future. Crime, poverty, injustice, prejudice are all present.
The truth is that no reality can ever match the dream, but without a dream there is no possibility of improving reality. The vision that underlies the reality of the State of Israel is not only that of Herzl but of the entire tradition of Jewish belief and thought that made Herzl’s dream possible. It is a tradition that began with the ideals of the Torah and then continued with the visions of the prophets and the great rabbis who were their successors.
Perhaps it is best summed up in the words of God in Genesis 18:19 concerning God’s reason for choosing Abraham, “For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right...”
The rest of the Torah is an attempt to flesh out what “is just and right.”
The prophets chastised the people when they abandoned those principles.
The establishment of the people Israel in its own land provided the opportunity to create an entire society based on that vision.
The creation of the modern State of Israel is the third opportunity the Jewish people has had for making this vision a reality.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.