Forty years in the desert
In a few nights we will participate in one of Judaism’s most ancient ceremonies, and certainly one of the year’s most treasured events. We sit around a table and conduct a Seder – the annual recitation of the story of Israel’s redemption from Egypt.
Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook, Israel’s first Chief Rabbi, writes that that exodus had a two-fold purpose. On the one hand, it was a goal in and of itself, that being liberation from Egyptian bondage. However, he teaches that the exodus was also a means to an end, that end being the reception of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and eventually, observance of that Torah in Eretz Yisrael. The exodus as a stand-alone event was momentous, but its real significance came to pass only years and decades later.
We are currently marking the sixtieth anniversary of Israeli independence. The Jewish people have made tremendous leaps and bounds over the past six decades. Who could have expected, in May of 1948, the power and prestige a Jewish state would command at the beginning of the twenty-first century. This is especially notable considering the fact that the Jewish people, coming out of a 2,000 year old exile, had to virtually recreate its national being from scratch, having been totally removed from exercises in sovereignty for two millennium. On top of this we can never forget that Israel was reborn from within the ashes of Auschwitz. Jews have prayed, day in and day out for thousands of years for not only a return to Zion, but also for Techiat HaMetim, the revival of the dead. Israeli independence is no less than revival of the dead. For this, we rejoice and give thanks to the L-rd for have granted us this most magnanimous gift of national life.
That’s the up side. The down side is all too well known. From the very beginning there was a concerted effort made to oppress the foundations of Jewish being. The founding fathers, or most of them, were not great fans of observant Judaism. The kidnapping and forced resettling of over 1,000 Yemenite children is perhaps the quintessential example of attempts to eradicate Judaism from the Jews. Yet Ben Gurion was known to have answered, in reply to a question about Jewish legitimacy to settle in Eretz Yisrael, that the source of Jewish rights to the Land is the Bible.
The relationship between Israel’s leadership and our Land has been overtly problematic. Eretz Yisrael was almost viewed as a ‘card’ to be dealt at the proper time. This was explicitly felt both prior to and following the 1967 Six Day war, when Israeli leaders attempted to refrain from liberating Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, and following their liberation, expressed a desire to abandon them at the first possible opportunity. So it was that Israeli paratroopers, having captured the Old City of Jerusalem and Judaism’s most sacred site, Temple Mount and the Kotel (The Western Wall) were told to prepare to leave only a short time after the victory.
Yamit, Oslo, Hebron, Gush Katif and the northern Shomron all speak for themselves. Other words are superfluous.
Where does this leave us, after sixty years?
In my humble opinion, the state of Israel isn’t really sixty years old. Yes, if we count from 1948, to 2008, the result is sixty. But in reality, we couldn’t really call ourselves a full-fledged sovereign entity while our heart was still in captivity. That heart being Jerusalem and Hebron. They go hand-in-hand, together. David began in Hebron for seven and a half years before moving up to Jerusalem. Hebron was lost in 1929; Jerusalem in 1948. Jerusalem was liberated on the 28th of Iyar and Hebron the following day. Hebron was chopped into two parts in January, 1997. Ehud Barak offered Arafat 90% of Jerusalem only a few years ago. The fates of these two eternal, holy cities are inextricably combined and cannot be separated.
Following the Six Day war former Jerusalem residents, expelled during the 1948 War of Independence were repatriated. Moshe Dayan, then Minister of Defense, refused to speak to former Hebron Jewish homeowners who had lost their property to Arab marauders following the 1929 riots and massacre, and subsequent final expulsion in the spring of 1936. Only in 1968, exactly forty years ago this Friday, did Jews return to the first Jewish city in Israel.
As with many such stories, from close-up they seem almost ordinary. In reality, not only a physical reality, but also a metaphysical truth, such events are earthshaking, or perhaps better put, ‘heaven-shaking. ‘ The return of a small group of Jews, that 1968 Passover in Hebron, with the guidance of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook, with the participation of Rabbis Waldman, Druckman and Levinger, was the forerunner of a massive awakening, a returning to the heart of our land throughout Judea and Samaria. But this awakening too was not only a corporeal return to the land; rather, it was, primarily, a spiritual arousing, the voice of the Jewish people bursting through the ages, an almost primal expression of the faith buried so deep inside the souls of the Jewish people, who for centuries had cried out ‘next year in Jerusalem,’ whereby ‘Jerusalem’ was the keyword representing all our land, Eretz Yisrael. Without Jerusalem, without Shechem, without Hebron, we were as a body without a soul, a golem, whose bodily movements were predefined, perhaps classified as ‘natural.’ But the spirit, the inner essence, the heart, the soul, was missing. Only with the liberation of Jerusalem and Hebron and with them the rest of Judea and Samaria could we really and truly say, ‘we are back home – we have returned.’
That Passover, forty years ago, was the breaking of the ice – the trailblazer, the results of which are the authentic rebirth, physically and spiritually, of the Jewish people. As Jews began returning to their physical roots, so too did they commence the return to their spiritual roots; the numbers of Jews who have ‘returned,’ who have come back to observant Judaism in the past 40 years is beyond numbers. And that homecoming, as such, began with, and was initiated by our return to our land, our return to our heart – to Jerusalem and Hebron. The group of Jews who initiated and participated in that ‘Seder’ in Hebron in 1968 might not have known it then, and maybe some of them are still unaware of it today, but they were the sparks that set the fire of the return of the Jewish people to themselves after two thousand years.
Just as the exodus from Egypt had a double goal; one immediate and the other long-term, so too did our statehood in 1948 have a double agenda; one immediate – announcing before all the world, we, the Jewish people have not died out, we have escaped the bondage of galut, of exile, you have not been able to extinguish us; and also long-term – to bring the people back to all their land, to all their land and to all their heart and soul, physically and spiritually.
So as we celebrate sixty years and forty years, we can conclude that really, only now, are we beginning. The Jewish people spent forty years in the desert before entering the Land, forty years fraught with problem and crises. Now, we too have finished forty years, also filled with unimaginable predicaments. And just as then, when we came into the land the problems didn’t come to a swift end, we too, today, may still face unbearable situations. But those aren’t the key. The key is, we are home, we are in Israel, we have returned to Hebron and to Jerusalem, we have rediscovered ourselves, we have been granted the Divine gift of life, we are here to stay.
Happy Passover, Happy 60, Happy 40!