In the words of the Russian poet Konstantin Balmont: “If you are a poet and wish to be powerful and to live forever in the memory of men, strike them to the heart with the melodious creations of your imagination, temper your thought upon the flame of passion.”
Sixty-seven years ago a man sat on his couch, haunted by visions of dry bones from the camps of Europe, and pondered a difficult question: Could the dreams of 2000 years become reality? World leaders, heads of state, so-called friends and others demanded he not declare a Jewish state. “Why now?” they reasoned. World powers offered him a trusteeship, warning that the Jewish people were not equipped for the challenges of statehood; that a war with the Arabs was coming and many Jews would lose their lives. Friends patronized, congratulated him on great achievements so far, and then withheld weaponry from the fledgling Jewish State – weaponry with which to defend itself. After six deadly years and six million murdered in Europe, he and his people were abandoned and alone once again. Israel’s representatives, who had worked diligently to get the successful vote at the United Nations, sat at Lake Success, New York, literally unaware of Ben-Gurion’s ultimate decision.
The Partition Plan, under the trusteeship, would have left the Jewish State with a rather paltry slice of land. Nevertheless, it could have been the realization of a Jewish homeland. One evening, Ben-Gurion asked the advice of his most trusted friend, Yitzhak Tabenkin. Tabenkin wanted to take counsel with two close relatives. A day later, at the appointed time, he responded to Ben-Gurion, urging him to refuse the trusteeship offer and instead declare the State. “I accept your decision, but from whom did you seek advice?” asked Ben-Gurion. “From two people,” answered Tabenkin. “From my grandfather who died 10 years ago, who could only dream of a Jewish State … and from my grandson who is not yet born but will be born as a Jew in a Jewish State.” And so it was that on May 14, 1948, in the belief of a Covenant made long ago, “placing our trust in the Rock of Israel…on the soil of our homeland,” to the displeasure of many world leaders, the risk was taken and the state declared.
Too often, Abraham has been characterized solely as a humble Jew. Yet it was after Abraham and his 318 warriors went out to rescue Lot that Abimelech and his general Phicol said to Abraham, “G-d is with you in all that you do.” Abraham and Abimelech made peace, “and Abraham sojourned in the land of the Philistines many years” (Gen. 21:22-34), followed by most important words: “And it happened after these things that G-d tested Abraham…” (Gen. 22:1). There are many scholarly interpretations of the meaning of “after these things,” but Abraham’s life was clearly about to change.
One of my Zionist heroes, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in a book of his sermons titled The Rav Speaks, explains the lesson learned by Abraham, in a place called Hevron, after the akeida. The Rav asks, “What is our position vis-à-vis civilization… towards the countries in which we live? The answer is enshrined in the words of Abraham…to the children of Heth. Certainly I am a resident, I am one of you, I engage in business as you do, I speak your language, I take full part in your social-economic institutions. … I produce and develop the country, I am a resident in the fullest sense of the word.” But Abraham now confronts the historic tension that will vex his people eternally: “But at the same time I am also a stranger and, in some fields, a foreigner. I belong to a particular world, one that is completely foreign to you. It is a world in which I am at one with the Creator…a world populated by characters unknown to you, with a tradition you do not understand, with spiritual values that seem so impractical in your eyes… It is a world of Torah… I am a stranger in your world and you are strangers in mine. …A Jew dies and is buried differently. Hence, ‘give me possession of a burying place, that I may bury my dead.’ …A Jew requires a cemetery of his own, a Jewish grave.” (p. 74)
“The children of Heth understood full well what he meant by ‘resident,’ but they refused to accept the concept of (his being) a ‘stranger’ … ‘Hear us, my lord, thou art a divine prince among us; in the choice of our sepulchres bury thy dead.’ In other words: Abraham, forget the strangeness and become a full resident… in life and after death.” (p. 75). Assimilate. Our sons will marry your daughters; our daughters will marry your sons. The children of Heth wanted Sarah to be buried in a common burial ground to symbolize total assimilation within Hittite society. “But Abraham responds, ‘Pay heed to my words. I am
a stranger and a resident. I cannot renounce my obligations to the Creator. Therefore I ask of you that Ephron sell me the cave of Machpelah as a possession for a burial place.’ ” No longer would 30 years of living with the Philistines distract him from his Covenant. No longer would he live comfortably as a resident. In placing such emphasis on the stranger, he recommitted himself to his G-d, his people and his place in history, and he committed us as well.
“What do we say to the State of Israel? The same things. ‘I am a stranger and a resident among you.’ The State of Israel must say to the peoples of the world: ‘I am a resident amongst you’ – I belong to the United Nations. … We endeavor to contribute to science in all fields. … In short, we are residents. But on the other hand, the State remains a stranger….The only country that is alone and solitary, ‘a people that dwells alone,’ is the State of Israel.” (p. 76).
We may be alone in the world of man, yet by virtue of our Covenant, we have never been alone. It is the mystery of the stranger that we carry in our very souls. This is the discomfort that too many Jews both here and, to a lesser extent in Israel, feel today. They are uncomfortable as the stranger, always looking over their shoulder, terrified of Abraham’s words at Machpelah in our holy place of Hevron. Terrified, even today, by the heroic commitment of the Jews in Hevron. You have heard them say, “Those Jews who live there are fanatics. They are not like us.” But too many diaspora Jews have not learned that Jewish courage born of passionate devotion to our heritage requires being a bit of a fanatic. It certainly would have been a lot less bloody to have given in to the world powers over the last 2000 years and assimilated. Why didn’t we?
Being a good neighbor is making sure our neighbors understand that we are not like them. Our language here in America may be the same, but our calendar and our chagim are those of the stranger. Hanukkah and Christmas, Passover and Easter, their New Year and our Rosh Hashanah – there are no better examples. It demands not assimilation but respect; not kumbaya but commitment. And if a Jew wants respect, first he must have self-respect.
It has been asked, why do Jews need a state of Israel? “What do you lack in America [or France or England]? … One can understand your forbears, for they fled from Czarist pogroms in Russia, from the ghetto and from the Pale of Settlement. But you, why do you support this adventure [of Jewish statehood]? There is only one answer. I am a stranger and a resident among you. Eretz Yisrael belongs to the world of intimate relations between us and the G-d of Israel. It is a part of the Jewish mysterium… In Eretz Yisrael there is sanctity, and we long for…the Creator whose Divine Presence rests upon the stones and sands of the desert” (p. 78) – the Land that sustained our brothers and sisters who astonished the world and our good neighbors in 1948 and again in 1967…and again in 1973. A Land that, with G-d’s love, astonishes the world each and every day…a Land filled today with a most exceptional people.
And the Rav concludes, “If you asked me, who is a Jew, I would answer, one who lives a life of heroism. In my eyes, a Jew is one who is ready to live heroically, to be always in the minority, to be able to fight against himself and against his own cold logic” (p. 104) – and against the modern children of Heth, our good neighbors. Our existence as Jews today is nothing short of heroic. No one would respect “a light unto the nations” if he were a coward.
And so it was Abraham, almost 4000 years ago, at a place called Machpelah in a town called Hevron, who defined for all time our relationship in our Creator’s world – an unambiguous, timeless Covenant with our G-d through the words of Abraham, “I am a resident and a stranger…” and G-d’s commitment to us: “I will remember My covenant with Jacob, My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember, and I will remember the Land.” (Lev. 26:42) First and foremost, it’s about self-respect.
We are the most privileged generation in 2000 years. In His love, G-d has blessed us to live at a time our bubbes and zaydes could only pray for – could only dream of – could only give their blood, sweat and tears and too often their lives for. To the shock and awe of those who believed all was lost, our people have returned home to the Land of our Covenant, from the river that Joshua crossed, to the sea, to create a miracle that has been and continues to be “a light unto the nations, in the Kingdom of the Almighty.” And let’s be honest. Has much changed over the last 70 years in the cesspool of Europe or among the depraved at the United Nations? These ingrates grudgingly acknowledge Israeli exceptionalism, as their lives are indispensably powered by the Jewish State’s brain power. Today Jews are no longer being shoved into gas chambers to the world’s silence. Historically stepping over dead Jews is no longer on the world’s sanctimonious playbill. No more duplicitous, disingenuous eulogies from our friends; and I, for one, have no problem with those obscene condemnations of Israel from illiterate, depraved, barbaric countries, whether from Arabs or Europeans or from the opportunistic, pathetic court Jews of J Street. For some of our people in the deranged galut, the lesson of Jewish pride is obscured by their self- denigration.
Our G-d, our Teacher, has at times had to painfully rebuke His stiff-necked children, but remember: “For but a brief moment have I forsaken you, and with abundant mercy will I gather you in. With a slight wrath have I concealed My countenance from you for a moment, but with eternal kindness shall I show you mercy.” (Isaiah 54:7-8). And so He has. The world has witnessed in just 67 years a miraculous transformation that G-d blessed His people to achieve, and He too is celebrating Israel’s most special rebirth.
With sadness, He knows the exile will be coming to an end. The tribes of the galut and their G-dless leaders will soon fade into unread history books. “You will be a source of astonishment, a parable and a conversation piece among all the peoples where Hashem has lead you. …You will bear sons and daughters but they will not be yours. …You will be left few in number.” (Deut. 28:37-62). So confirms the Pew Report. As the various non-Orthodox Jewish denominations and their clueless leaders in America shry gevalt at their empty sanctuaries, there is only one place in the world where our people are flourishing and our numbers are growing: our homeland, the State of Israel.
In 1923, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a Jewish visionary yearning for peace, articulated the future of our relationship with the Arabs: “Just because I want peace, the only task is to make [the Arabs] lose every vestige of hope that neither by force nor constitutional methods…can you prevent Palestine from getting a Jewish majority. … Thus we cannot promise anything to the Arabs of the Land of Israel [but] an iron wall that the native population cannot break through. This is our policy towards the Arabs. To formulate it any other way would be hypocrisy.” And that majority of ours is growing.
In the prophetic words of David Ben-Gurion, “The difficult we can do in a timely manner; the impossible—that takes a little longer.” Israel, after 67 years, is without a doubt, The Greatest Show on Earth!
Shabbat Shalom 05/08/15 Jack “Yehoshua” Berger* * Back issues are archived at The Times of Israel.com