This year’s Yom Ha’atzmaut commemorates the anniversary of a marriage that has lasted more than 3,000 years and has now completed its 70th year. An almost minor event on its own, but once seen in the larger picture, a milestone and a miracle.
This may sound like a paradox, but it is the inescapable truth about the Land of Israel and the Jews.
No marriage has lasted so long and been as deep in its commitment and as overwhelming in its love as the one between the Jews and their homeland.
Yet no marriage has been as painful and as tragic. The partners were forced apart by the Roman Empire nearly 2,000 years ago and could not unite throughout all those years.
But the bride and groom pledged unconditional love. Nothing — absolutely nothing — could emotionally separate the partners even when they were thousands of miles away from each other.
After all, this marriage did not depend on the physical proximity of the partners, but rather where their souls dwelt.
For this marriage to continue and grow, the Jews — metaphorically and unprecedentedly — lifted the Land of Israel from its native soil and transformed it into a portable homeland, taking it with them to all four corners of the earth. Only in 1948 were the people and its land physically reunited.
The founding of the State of Israel, then, is not the beginning of the marriage between the land and the Jewish people, but rather a reaffirmation of the marriage commitment that took place thousands of years ago between God and Abraham.
The State of Israel was not established in 1948; it was established more than 3,000 years ago, when Abraham purchased the Cave of Machpelah in order to bury his wife Sarah. It was reaffirmed a few hundred years later when the Israelites inherited the land under the leadership of Joshua, immediately after Moshe’s death, and then again in our own days.
But no marriage should be taken for granted. Not even after 3,000 years. When a bridegroom offers his new wife a ring as a sign of commitment, he knows that this is only the first installment of an ongoing pledge. No marriage can endure if both partners do not constantly reinvest in their relationship. The moment a marriage is counted in years rather than marked by shared striving for new opportunities, it has come to an end.
Only a mission — a common dream — can sustain a marriage, and only something greater than itself will allow it to succeed. To paraphrase Aristotle, marriage is a single soul dwelling in two bodies. But a soul that has lost its purpose has lost itself.
Ironically, a significant number of people in Israel today are struggling to remain spiritually wed to their land. Rampant materialism, secularism, and religious fanaticism have eroded Israel’s sense of Jewish identity and the historical consciousness that gives meaning to its national existence. A large percentage of its people — often through no fault of their own — lack Jewish self-understanding, and many of them question why they should live in this country at all.
It is true that the wonderful Israeli soldiers are ready to sacrifice their lives for our country, but that is because something tells them that there is more to Israel than meets the eye. They know that this country is unlike any other. Deep in their hearts they know that this is a meta-country, built from the souls of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov; of Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah. But still, how long can this motivate them to defend the land, when too many Israeli citizens see Israel as nothing more than just another country?
People are willing to die only for that by which they have lived. And human beings can live meaningful lives only when they know that there is something eternal worth dying for.
It is thus crucial to identify the element that has bound the two partners together for these thousands of years. And that element is, unequivocally, Judaism and the mission to be “a light unto the nations,” as pronounced by God to the prophet Isaiah (42:6; 49:6). The marriage was created to give birth to a wellspring of religious and moral teachings that will suffuse humankind with the knowledge that life is holy and that God awaits people’s response to His call in order to redeem His world.
This then is the task of the Land and People of Israel: to elevate the human race so that it becomes a link between the divine and the earthly. For life is a mandate, a privilege — not a game or mere triviality. The Jewish people married the land in order to create a model society to be emulated by all of humankind.
It is the rabbis who consecrate a marriage. But that is only part of their task. As pastors, their responsibility is to ensure the marriage’s success and tend to it if it flounders or stagnates. This is the task of Israel’s religious leaders today. They must transform the Jewish people by creating a spiritual longing for its unique mission, thereby restoring their marriage to its full potential after the long and difficult separation.
Genuine rabbis should not seek to be “honored,” or be “well respected.” Rather, as men of truth, they should evoke unparalleled awe among Israelis and all Jews, drawing them closer with their towering personalities and overflowing love.
The times demand unwavering religious and moral guidance. The religious leadership must extricate itself from the morass in which it has become mired. In an unprecedented initiative, it must steer the ship of an inspiring, rejuvenated Judaism in full sail, directly into the heart of Israeli society, causing shockwaves that will impact every aspect of life.
It can no longer be concerned only with the kashrut of our food, or with our Jewishness. Above all, it needs to inspire the kashrut of our souls. Like the prophets of old, our religious leaders must generate a spiritual revolution, triggering an ethical-religious uproar that shakes the very foundations of the state. Israelis are waiting for such a move, and there is little doubt that their response will be overwhelming.
Only then will the Jewish people fully re-engage with its land. Only then can the Jewish people stay eternally married to its land. Only then will no third party — whether European Anti-Semitism, BDS efforts, Muslim extremism, Jewish self-hate, or the deceitfulness of UNESCO — dare to interfere in its matrimonial bond. This is Israel’s hope and future.
May God bless this eternal marriage and bless Israel’s religious leadership in confronting this mind-boggling task.
Every week I receive hundreds of emails and important observations on my essays, via many channels. Unfortunately, the volume makes it impossible for me to respond to every comment. Please know that I deeply appreciate every comment, and learn from them all. Thank you for taking the time to share your comments. I hope you will continue to do so.
— Nathan Lopes Cardozo