Francis Nataf
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Letting go of the old Israel: A talmudic insight about 70 years

The famous story of Honi the Circle-Maker has a profound hidden message for what it means to be 70 years old

The Jewish tradition has much to say about the timespan of 70 years. Its most important association is with the Babylonian exile — it being the number of years that this exile is said to have lasted. The Talmud, however, weaves this seemingly nondescript fact into a much larger tapestry with the story of Honi HaMa’agel (Taanit 23a). The deceptive charm of the story of the man that slept for 70 years belies its profound insights about the place of man in history.

While the Talmud directly connects the 70 years that he slept with the years of the exile, the story is more subtly informed by the notion (Tehillim 90:10) that 70 years is the length of an average lifespan. Putting the two together, Honi was deeply disturbed that an entire generation could be born and die in exile; that it could not see the fruits of its political or spiritual labors to end the exile and rebuild the Jewish nation. However, to help him see that productive people’s lives are never in vain, God had Honi witness the planting of a carob tree, fall asleep and not wake up until 70 years later, when the tree was finally producing fruit.

But the story does not end there. When Honi returns to his home, he finds neither his peers, nor those of his children. Rather, he enters the world of his grandchildren. And while the new generation has heard of the great talmudic sage, they do not understand him; nor does he understand them. And so he finds that there is nothing left for him to do but die. He accordingly prays that God take his soul and is immediately answered.

The lesson of the first part of the story is well known — that our actions have value, even if we may not live to see it. But the second part of the story may tell us something even more important. And that is that the ultimate value of our actions is out of our own purview. The meaning they would have for us cannot possibly be the same as what they will have for our grandchildren, who will live in a different reality. And I suggest that we look to the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel with the above teaching in mind.

The founding fathers sought to create a haven for all those Jews fleeing the virulent anti-Semitic persecutions they had so long endured in exile. More than anything else, the state was to give the Jews the ability to protect themselves. But having lived through the Holocaust made the precarious nature of Jewish survival continue to be a central part of the identity of Israel’s founders. One could never be sure of the next day and, so, risk was to be avoided at all costs.

While anti-Semitism has not disappeared, its nature and scope is far different from what it was in the 1930s and ’40s. The days when entire Jewish communities could be plundered and destroyed while governments turned a blind eye or worse are largely behind us. I cannot say that such occurrences will never come back, but those that believe that every Marine Le Pen or Jeremy Corbyn are harbingers of a return to those darker days misunderstands the profound change the world has undergone.

Nor is the security of Israel anywhere as precarious as it once was. Its first three decades were ones in which it was not clear that Israel would survive the threat represented by all of its neighbors. Today, the two longest borders are with nations that are not only at peace with us, but often involved in helping to secure those borders for us. And, as recent events show, our remaining enemies have much more reason to be scared of Israel’s might than visa-versa.

All of this is to say that what the founding fathers gave to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren is vastly different from what they knew — the tree they planted proved much sturdier than they could ever have imagined. Without becoming oblivious to the dangers that continue to exist or forgetting the Holocaust, young Jews are — correctly — less prone to think that their national existence is threatened. And that mindset will eventually bring about a different — hopefully better — Israel. It will be an Israel that fully understands that with power and wealth comes responsibility; one that does not panic every time it is criticized; and one that can finally plan for the next 70 years instead of worrying about the next 70 days. But most importantly, it will be a country unafraid to be different and allow itself to dig into its own deep and rich heritage, and define its values independently of other cultures.

Seventy years is a time to appreciate those who planted the tree so that we can now enjoy it. But it is also a time to let those who are living with the reality of that tree — as it actually is now — decide how best to make use of it.

About the Author
Rabbi Francis Nataf is a Jerusalem-based educator and thinker. He is the author of the Redeeming Relevance series on the Torah and of many articles.
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