Every time I say the Birkat Hamazon, the Grace after Meals, and every Shabbat when the Torah scroll is out, I say the blessing on The State of Israel, reishit smichat geulateinu – the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.
These are words from Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief Rabbi of the Yishuv, who lived in the Land of Israel from 1904 to 1935, when he died, not having seen the creation of the State but completely convinced that the return of the Jewish people to its land would flourish. It is a cornerstone of the Divine plan; essential for the world’s redemption.
I am not sure that even Rav Kook would have imagined that less than 100 years from his death, nearly half the Jewish people in the world would live here, not because the messianic age has arrived but, at least in some cases, because they want to be part of the movement of bringing redemption. Rav Kook exemplified the belief that returning to the Land was an act of transformation for the Jewish person who came here, for the Jewish people as a whole, and for the Land. His ideas were rooted in Jewish mysticism but they also appealed to many of the secular Zionists. The Zionism of Aharon David Gordon and on which I was nurtured was built around the relationship of the people to the Land and believed in the threefold transformation of individual, nation and land.
For Rav Kook, there was another level too. He believed that once the Jewish people were restored to its Land, there would be implications for the entire world. It would herald the era when the prophets’ vision of global peace could be fulfilled.
Just two years before he died, Rav Kook saw the rise of Nazism. He warned his students that Hitler was Amalek and needed to be utterly obliterated. He did not predict that they would wipe out one third of our people. He did proclaim that the Diaspora was dangerous, both because of the enemies of the Jewish people there and because only in Israel could one be properly immersed in Torah.
The Torah is not a text; it is a total life experience. Its full expression is only possible in the Land.
Just over seven years ago, after a lifetime of preparation, Aharon, my husband, and I returned to Israel for the final time. He had been born here. We had spent two years of our married life here. We had made dozens of visits. Now it was time to settle. Three of our four children were living here. (The fourth followed.)
I didn’t fully realize at the time but the principles that Rav Kook had expounded were the forces driving us here.
I had a wonderful life in Australia but something was missing. I was fifth generation Australian but I had never felt fully Australian. It was not that Australia was threatening or even unwelcoming. It is a wonderfully accepting society. The problem was not external. It is simply that something in my very being knew that this was not the Land with which I reverberated. It hit me particularly when listening to members of the indigenous population, who describe how they belong to their tribal lands. I do not belong to Australia. I belong to a different land, to this Land.
I also have a people, an extended family. My people are the Jewish people. I wanted to live where my people were the majority, where we set the calendar around Shabbat and festivals and fast days. I was driven to join my people in creating our own identity and our own destiny, with all the challenges that that encompasses.
The Jewish people were once the homeless, wandering Jews. They could not act as a single people. They had to respond to the host societies in which they lived. That was a time when we did not determine our own history but were footnotes in other peoples’ histories. That was a time when belonging to the Jewish people meant being devoid of power to determine our destinies. We lived at the whim, at the behest, of hosts who might be benevolent or who might not be. We waited for Divine intervention to relieve us of our powerlessness.
All that time, the Land waited for us. It was mainly a waste-land. It certainly did not become another nation’s national home. The Romans, the Crusaders, the Ottomans and the British conquered it but none of them really ruled it. Local villages grew up and some flourished but there was no sense of commonality between them and they did not fill the Land.
It was inevitable that my people would find its way home. Through the Zionist movement, we rejected the idea that the exile was G-d’s will, or said that exile had run its course, stopped waiting for redemption and took control of our destiny. Our people began to move and to build and to transform. They transformed themselves from artisans and academics to builders and farmers. They transformed the Land and made it bloom. And as they transformed the Land, they transformed themselves further.
The transformation is not complete. I was born after the creation of the State of Israel but it does not mean that I cannot join in the sacred business of building of Israel society and participate in this redemptive endeavour.
The transformation is not complete. Israelis are still getting used to the fact that we are a majority in their own country. Many still carry with them the scars of generations of minority life. We have not worked out what it means to be a “Jewish” state. We have not worked out how to relate to “the strangers who are within our gates”. We certainly have a long way to go before we are “a light unto the nations.”
However, we have built a society and an economy of which most nations can be envious. The young Israelis are given educational opportunities that enable them to compete on the world stage. There are more people engaged in serious Jewish studies that in any time in Jewish history and the types of Jewish learning available are more diverse than ever before.
The most amazing thing is that in less than one generation, the Jewish people who came to this land changed completely the language they spoke. They revived the Hebrew language. Hebrew is not at all like European languages. It suits this Land. It is based on an ancient language but it absorbs new ideas and finds ways of innovating.
Languages reflect cultures. With a change of language comes a change in the way one thinks. The expressions we use, the songs we sing, the literature we write, Israelis express themselves in their unique language. And more than eight million Israelis use it every day. To hear grandparents speaking to their grandchildren in Ivrit, realizing that quite possibly three generations were born here, is amazing and uplifting. My own grandchildren speak Ivrit as their first language. They are truly Israeli. My awful accent makes me shy about speaking in public but it does not stop me relishing in a Hebrew environment. When I listen to the radio in Ivrit, I realize that I am tuning into real Israeli society. I am enthusiastic to listen and absorb. Our common language binds us.
Once, Hebrew was the language of prayer. It was the language in which we talked to G-d. Now, it is the language in which the Jewish people speak to one another.
My vision of the messianic age is when humans will see in each other the image of G-d. Using the language in which we speak to the Divine to address each other is a good start.
Is this not the beginning of the flowering of our redemption – reishit smichat geulateinu?