Interesting Times: Out of the valley

Thoughts from a walk through 'hell'.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
There is a new trail in Jerusalem along the western side of Gai Ben Hinnom, the valley that drops from just past the Old City's Jaffa Gate along Mount Zion, toward its intersection with the Kidron valley. Together, these valleys frame the ancient city, and are perhaps the most recognizable element of what Jewish pilgrims saw 2,000 years ago as they approached the Temple. In most of Jerusalem, it is difficult to mentally strip away the urban expansion of the past two centuries. Not so in Gai Ben Hinnom. Aside from some strips of asphalt, much of the valley looks untouched, dotted with olive trees and tombs cut into the cliffs from when it was a burial place outside the city. I walked this trail on Tisha Be'av evening with a group from my synagogue. The synagogue is in the German Colony, five minutes' stroll from the trail's start. The trail ends with a spectacular view of both valleys, the City of David extending up to the Temple Mount, and the valley continuing into the Judean desert toward the Dead Sea. Our guide told us that, according to Jewish sources, a voice from God told Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, who ransacked the First Temple on Tisha Be'av almost 2,600 years ago, that he had "destroyed the destroyed and ground the ground [as in ground flour]." This meant that he should not be proud of himself for conquering the Jews, because God himself had destroyed the Temple as punishment to the Jews. ONCE AGAIN, we see a striking theme of Jewish history: It is mainly a chronicle of lack of Jewish faith in God - from the Golden Calf, to the Korach rebellion, to the spies who pronounced the land unconquerable, to the destruction of both Temples and exile, all of which our holiest texts and traditions blame squarely on ourselves. The concept of chosenness, which makes many Jews uncomfortable, shouldn't. Set up for a fall is more like it. Unlike other religions that link salvation to themselves, Judaism does the opposite: Our tradition says that it is easier for non-Jews to be in God's favor because they are not bound by all the laws that Jews must uphold. Accordingly, as we stood looking across the valley toward where the Temple stood, from within the modern Jewish state, the question is unavoidable - how are we doing? How did we merit a second chance, and what are we doing with it? A century ago, someone standing on that spot would have been amazed to see the view today. In 1907, Jerusalem was a sleepy Ottoman backwater. The idea of restoring Jewish sovereignty and resurrecting the Hebrew language would not even have passed as science fiction. We are still scarred by the Holocaust, and an eerie complacency hovers over threats of a nuclear version of it. But it is impossible not to wonder at the achievements and resources that the Jewish people have to bring to bear against today's threats. Still, even if the model of God punishing the Jewish people periodically for our failures is not applied literally to the present, the idea that Jews have more to fear from internal faults than external threats remains a valid one. Nor is the most obvious example of such a fault - the shallowness of our political leadership and the deterioration of democratic institutions - necessarily the most serious one. Underlying all this is the fundamental question of whether a Jewish state has the luxury of being "normal," or whether it must have a vision and purpose. Our current travails suggest that normalcy is not enough. It is not enough because, in aiming for normal, we have achieved something less: a progressive lowering of political standards that is eroding confidence in our system. We need to aim higher just to reach a form of political stability that other democracies take for granted. IT IS ALSO not enough because our neighborhood is not normal. We need to be as ideologically driven to survive and prosper as our enemies are to destroy us. A state aiming for normality has trouble answering the question "Why bother?" If our state has no purpose but to be like New York or Amsterdam, then why not move somewhere easier to live? But the most important reason to aim higher is not practical, but moral and Jewish. A normal state is not enough to justify Jewish history. What has been the point of surviving all this time if the objective is normalcy or, even less, just survival? The debate over whether Israel must be just a refuge or a "light unto the nations" is as old as Zionism itself. In practice, the refuge model has largely won out, as seen in the emphasis on the Holocaust in defining the national identity and mission. Yet while Israel's existence is a real posthumous victory against Hitler, an Israel that is only survivalist is a posthumous victory for Hitler. Why should we, in effect, adopt anti-Semitic objections to our mission? Anti-Semitism - especially Hitler's - has always been rooted in hatred of the Jewish moral message to the world. An Israel that does not think and act seriously about bolstering the Jewish people as a whole, with the purpose of advancing this message, has forgotten why it was important for us not to disappear like most other ancient peoples. Gai Ben Hinnom is the source of the word Gehenna, or hell, because it is where pagans would sacrifice children. Judaism succeeded in spreading monotheism, supplanting the paganism of the ancient world. There is more for us to do. The Jewish people is not the only group that should be aiming to bring the world to the next moral level, but we certainly should be one of them. To begin, Israel must take responsibility not only for itself, but for strengthening the Jewish people as a whole.
- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11