These past two years, locked in battle with a deadly virus, we discovered that bees can also be deadly. We were introduced to an Asian hornet bee that is highly venomous, aggressive, and can compromise the eco-balance. These murder hornets, can, in rare cases, be lethal to human beings.
Parashat Mishpatim describes murder hornets in Israel. God dispatched deadly wasps to defeat the residents of Israel, paving the way for Jewish settlement.
This promise of supernatural victory, spearheaded by swarming hornets, suggests a very quick conquest of the land and a rapid and trouble-free settlement of Israel.
Dashing these expectations, the very next verse cautions that the process will be slow and staged. Conquest and settlement will not occur quickly, but slowly and gradually. This scenario materialized as the settlement of Israel occurred over a 14-year period. In His very first description of Jewish entry into the Land of Israel, God reminded us not to expect a quick or immediate process.
The Torah lists two reasons that our settlement will be delayed: Firstly, the frontier cannot be easily tamed; if the entire land were immediately delivered to the Jewish people, the frontier would overwhelm the city, and the jungle would overrun human habitat. A more gradual pace allowed the Jews to slowly build cities, villages and a stable society.
However, it wasn’t just the threat of the frontier that dictated a more gradual pace of settlement. For internal reasons as well, the young and fledgling nation wasn’t yet prepared to settle the vast land. Ensuing verses describe the extensive borders of Israel – a swath of land that could not possibly be inhabited by a young nation of former slaves; a more “steady” timeline would allow natural growth and a gradual easing into their homeland.
The promise of murder hornets vanquishing their enemies may have aroused undue expectations about a rapid conquest of the entire Land of Israel. The Torah quickly ramps down these expectations by stressing that, for both internal and external reasons, a more staged pace of settling Israel is beneficial and preferable.
JEWISH HISTORY is all about patterns – what happened before is bound to happen again.
We study past history to uncover the general outline of our own return to Israel. Thousands of years later, we find ourselves living the “historical pattern” of Mishpatim. God has returned His people to His land; we haven’t exactly witnessed murder hornets, but the overall experience feels very similar. We have lived through amazing miracles, and God has blessed us with the ability to protect ourselves against innumerable enemies; we may not have witnessed murder hornets, but God has enabled us to assemble a pretty impressive air force! We are back in the land that we have dreamed of for over two millennia.
Two thousand years of dreams often stoke unrealistic expectations. In our dreams, we sometimes expect the return to be immediate and electric. When we struggle or when the process lags, we sometimes lose our enthusiasm or our faith. Evidently, God has others plans for our return; evidently, now as then, the process will be more staged than electric. Evidently, now as then, there are both internal and external reasons for the delay.
Though God can impose redemption upon history, He often chooses to produce redemption through human history. Rather than wrecking the historical order and introducing apocalypse, God often works within historical factors. In Egypt, God could have effortlessly and immediately emancipated the Jews, yet he chose to operate within Egyptian politics; our fate and ultimate redemption were streamed through the will of Pharaoh, who became the driving force of our release from Egypt.
Our return to Israel has, thus far, been similar to the liberation from Egypt. Our return in 1948 occurred within the most historically dramatic decade of a very chaotic century. During the 1940s, wars raged, Communism ascended, fascism was defeated, European colonies were dismantled and the maps of Europe were redrawn. These events of the first half of the 20th century served as the historical platform for our return to Israel.
If the return of Jews to Israel is meant to repair all of humanity, the process must be embedded within the history of humanity. Consequently, as redemption evolves through and within history, it will also be slowed by geopolitics, diplomacy and various other historical pressures. The pace of our return has been slow since God has chosen to encase our redemption within human history. The “seas of history” haven’t parted yet, and we are still struggling for our homeland upon the battlefield of history. If Mishpatim warns the Jews about the beasts of the jungle, today we face the “beasts” of history!
BEYOND THE external factors delaying the process, there are also internal holdups.
Rebuilding our national identity after 2,000 years of national dispersal isn’t an easy task, nor can it be completed in one or two generations. Absorbing Jews from 52 different dialects and from vastly different cultures and creating a common national identity will take time.
Additionally, and sadly, our country is still badly split between religious and secular Jews. Additionally, and regrettably, we have built a robust democracy but, evidently, haven’t “bred” the type of visionary and selfless leaders that the founding generation enjoyed.
We may not have witnessed divine murder hornets, but there are many thorns in our garden – many thorny issues which may take time to resolve.
Close to half a million Jews in Israel seek Jewish and Israeli identity without a desire for full and classic halachic conversion. We can’t compromise our standards for conversion, but we also can’t ignore so many living in Israel with unclear or incomplete Jewish identity.
Another dilemma surrounds the status of the Western Wall, which should serve as a magnet for every denomination of Jew across the world. As a prayer site, laws governing prayer must be upheld, but not every Jew can agree to those standards. It would be a pity if Jews were severed from the Wall and from greater Jewish identification.
These and many other issues will take time to resolve – possibly even generations – and, evidently, God has decided to give us the time and the opportunity to devise solutions.
God can always shuffle the historical deck, descend into our world and immediately resolve all these dilemmas. Until that day, we all need a little patience. Building a nation will take some time, and God is giving us the opportunity to iron out the wrinkles.
History is all about patterns.
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s in English literature from the City University of New York.