In Memory of My Dear Friend
Edward Chaim Cohen, Yerushalayim – Jaffo
There are verses in the Torah with which I struggle. I cannot get along with them and make peace with them. They are too “wild” and I do not know whether they are realistic or wishful thinking, or only applicable in the messianic age. This is specifically true when the Torah makes promises that seem to be hyperbolic and unreal.
So, until now, I have left them for what they are and moved on. But what happened on the seventh of October and afterward is so absurd that it has forced me to have second thoughts.
I have previously written of the incredible transformation of Israeli society following the brutal attacks—the total failure of the Israeli army to protect a few thousand citizens, the paralysis of the government. How from being on the verge of civil war, we became suddenly a united nation. How suddenly even “secular” Jews discovered the power of faith and Jewish practice, such as tzitzit and the Shabbat as symbols of national distinctiveness. It is this renewed sense of Jewish identity that has given me pause for thought.
Jewish Identity Invigorated
It is as if a new notion of “Jewish identity” has awoken. It is suddenly clear that being Jewish goes beyond previous definitions. Suddenly people are realizing that observance of mitzvot is not just a religious issue to which some Jews adhere, but a source of inner strength and spiritual empowerment. Observance of mitzvot has become something that brings us together despite our differences of opinion; a beacon of hope and strength that transforms the Jewish nation into a powerhouse of spiritual muscle that we did not even know we had within us.
This sudden rediscovery of Jewish observance as identity conveys the message that merely living in this land is not enough, that just observing the commandments is only one step in the right direction towards becoming a light to the nations and a source of godliness.
It has become clear that Jews are made of a different stuff, and this stuff is now revealed in an unprecedented way. As if it was waiting seventy-five years to reveal itself, it has now finally arrived. Nearly every Israeli feels it in their bones. It has dawned on us that it is not enough to be Israeli, but that we also need to be proud and inspiring Jews.
And more, we are gradually understanding that to be Jews is to refuse to surrender to normalcy. It may be true that what Jews do as individuals is trivial. But what we attain as the people of Israel is unprecedented.
Realistic or Messianic?
As I contemplated all this, I began to wonder whether we are, in fact, living again in biblical times. And suddenly a verse in the Torah appeared in front of me and took me by total surprise.
Discussing the security of Israel once the Israelites settled in their homeland, the Torah states:
When I, (God) will drive out the nations before you and enlarge your borders, no man will covet your land when you ascend to appear before the Lord three times a year. (Shemot, 34: 23-24).
In this verse, God promises that if all Jewish males ascend to the Temple on Pesach, Shavuot, and Succot—and implicit in this is the imperative to live by the Torah’s highest moral and religious values—no enemy will violate Israel’s borders.
More than that, the enemy will not even contemplate a desire to inhabit the land. They will have no interest in the land.
I am utterly shocked by this verse! It is telling us that we can leave home to make the pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem without fear for the security of our families at home.
Surely this is only true when the Israelites are a beacon of high morality, spirituality, and trust in God. But that it seemingly promises absolute peace is hard to believe. How can it be that Jews can leave their borders unsecured and that no enemy will exploit this situation?
Most astonishing is the fact that this verse seems to tell us that the disposition of our enemies and their desire to attack us depends on our moral and spiritual behavior! It is as if there is a psychological correlation between the two; an inherent natural order of sorts.
One may argue that this is nothing less than an open miracle.
But it may that it is very simple and straightforward—that when we live in peace with each other, when there is unity among us, and we go out of our way to serve our fellow human beings and God in an authentic and honest way—and thus fulfill our mission as a “light to the nations”—our enemies will be so impressed, inspired, and overwhelmed that they cannot refrain from living a highly spiritual and moral life themselves. Observing the blessing which would befall the Jewish people, they will have a desire to emulate us, build their countries accordingly, and end their animosity towards the Jews. Perhaps they would even ask our advice! (Certainly, it is hard to believe that even thoroughly wicked brutes such as Hamas would stop their brutality. But it is very possible that their grandchildren will have a change of heart and realize that their grandfathers only brought upon them disaster after disaster.)
The conditional promise of peace
No man will covet your land when you ascend to appear before the Lord…
Due to all that we have experienced in the last weeks—the trauma of the attacks and then the incredible new awakening to what it means to be a Jew—perhaps we need to reconsider this verse.
I cannot deny that this promise of peace, conditional upon our behavior, is found throughout the Torah. It seems to be a basic biblical assumption.
And sure, I may be entirely wrong, and all of this is wishful thinking. Perhaps what just happened is random. But is randomness not God’s signature when He prefers to remain anonymous?
I can’t help wondering!
Who knows: perhaps the State of Israel is slowly entering a new spiritual order in which we encounter biblical dimensions that we have not experienced for the last two thousand years.
My gut feeling tells me that what has happened in recent weeks is extraordinary. Is God sending us a hint, telling us that we need to bring comradeship, love, dedication, and respect for the Jewish tradition to an even higher level? That it is time to become the nation we need to be: A light to the nations?
Perhaps the commandment to love our neighbor as we love ourselves is not just a nice phrase, but a realistic condition upon which our national life depends? And perhaps respect for Shabbat and Kashrut, even when we are not religious, may not just be nice rituals, but the foundation of Israeli society, penetrating to the core of our being?
At the risk of sounding like a religious fanatic, I can only suggest that it may be worth considering that there is some truth in all of this.
Perhaps understanding and acting on this will give us some enduring peace not only between us and our enemies but also among ourselves?
Who knows, perhaps it will bear fruit beyond our wildest imagination?
David Ben-Gurion famously said: “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles,” and “If an expert says it can’t be done, get another expert.”
Perhaps the promise of real peace stands at the border of our land waiting for us to be redeemed.
Wishing all of Am Yisrael a Hag Orim Sameah – may our light continue to shine through the darkness!