When Titus led the defeated Jewish heroes under the Arch of Titus in Rome, coins were thrown to the Roman people on which were inscribed the words, “Judaea Capta,” or “Judea is captured.” The remains of that arch are still standing in Old Rome, but there are no longer any Romans left to gaze at that arch and rejoice. They have gone the way of the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the ancient Greeks. However, the Jew lives on against all the logic and the odds of history, and that is the deepest mystery of civilization … unless you accept with thanksgiving that God watches over us and by His providence alone we have returned to Jerusalem.
What is the process of redemption? The Jerusalem Talmud (Brachot 1:1) states: “The great Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Shimon Bar Halafta were walking in the Valley of Arbel just before the dawn, and saw the dawn just beginning to break. Said Rabbi Hiyya to Rabbi Shimon, ‘My Master, that is how the geulah (the redemption) will come. It will begin almost imperceptibly, like the dawn, but once it starts, it will grow ever brighter and stronger.’” This we believe, and for this we pray.
What were the earliest manifestations of the geulah in which we find ourselves? What were the first glimmerings of the dawn of Zionism?
Was it Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalisher, that great student of Rabbi Akiva Eger, born in 1795, who in all his writings taught that the prophets’ promise of the Messiah’s coming will come true only as the last stage of a process which must begin with human endeavor? Scattered Jewry, helped by some nations of the world, must gradually return to their land and rebuild it. They must redeem the soil and revive it. To do so, they must establish settlements in our land and begin to colonize it.
Or was it with that Sephardic Rabbi, Yehuda Shlomo Alkalai, born in 1798, who studied in Jerusalem and who made aliya after 40 years as a Haham in Serbia, and who called for teshuva, or return, declaring that teshuva is not only return from sin but also return to the Land? Was it his program, requiring that we stress agriculture, revive Hebrew, build settlements, establish a Parliament and merge the Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities into one citizenry? Was Rav Alkalai, who died in Jerusalem in 1878, the precursor of redemption?
Or was it the students of the Vilna Gaon, who all made aliya settling in Jerusalem or Tzefat, following their master’s teaching, so that the synagogue customs in Israel until this day largely follow those of their master?
Or was it the Kabbalists of Tzefat, who in the 16th century came to Israel against most difficult odds, their lives in danger every step of the way?
Or was it the 300 Tosafists, the great German sages and their families, who went on aliya in medieval times in spite of horrible hardships?
Or was it the Ramban, who said, when he arrived in Israel in the year 1267, “kol hakadosh yoter, charev yoter,” or “the holier the place, the more desolate it is”, and who stated in his commentary on Shir Hashirim the doctrine that there will be two redemptions of Israel, the first by human acts, through our own striving, and only then, through God’s miracles made manifest before our eyes?
Or was it the author of the Kuzari, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, the great Jewish sage, philosopher poet of Spain’s Golden Age of Jewry, who lost his life in making aliya to the Promised Land, and whose words, “libi bamizrach ve’anochi be’sof ma’arav,” or “my heart is in the East, though I am in the uttermost West”, have been a motto of Zionists ever since?
Or was it the pious and righteous who strove to maintain a presence in Jerusalem even before the Crusades, many of whom gave their lives in this struggle?
Or earlier? Was it not, rather, that first exile who took with him his Sefer Torah, and with Jerusalem yet burning, looked back, while dragged in chains, even under the Arch of Titus, and swore that fiery oath, “Im eshkachech Yerushalayim, tishkach yemini, tidbak leshoni le’chiki, im lo ezkerechi, im lo a’ale et Yerushalayim al rosh simchati,” or “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten; let my tongue cleave to my palate if I do not always remember you; if I do not place Jerusalem, above my fondest joy?” Surely that first step to exile was not only a step away from Zion, but also actually the first step of Israel’s return to Zion! That first step into darkness was also the first step towards the dawn which we see unfolding before our eyes in our time.
The great Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Shimon bar Halafta saw ahead into our own time. They saw the glimmering of the dawn. They saw how it can grow stronger and brighter. They saw the secret of the future. They saw Jerusalem reunited never to be split again. They saw the beautiful light of the geulah. Each and every year since 1948, on Yom Ha’atzmaut, we merit to celebrate the realization of that hope in our lives.