Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai once saw a woman stooping among the dung of the Arabs donkey to gather barley grains She said to him, Do you remember, Rabbi, when you signed my ketuva (1)?…. He said to his pupils, I remember that I read that it promised millions of gold dinars from you fathers house, apart from the wealth of your father in law. She began to cry. He continued, How praiseworthy are you, Yisrael. Whenever you perform Gods will, no nation can rule over you, but when you fail to perform Gods will, you are handed over to the lowest of nations, and not just to the lowest of nations, but to their animals. (2)
This narrative is superficial on the surface but in fact profound. In according to Maharal, (3) the story reflects on one of the most fundamental concepts regarding the nature of the Jewish people. Careful analysis of this story conveys a paradox: How is Israel’s loss of self- rule reflected in its spiritual uniqueness? Should Israel’s loss of self-determination not show its ordinariness and its lack of any higher spirituality? Why call even its downfall praiseworthy and how is this reflected in the story of this woman?
Maharal explains that unlike other nations, the very existence of the nation of Israel is supernatural. Its condition is not depended on the laws of historical necessity. Careful study of the history of the Jewish people indeed proves this. By normal standards the Jewish people should have long ended its existence. The exiles in Egypt, Babylon, Greece and many other empires should have terminated any possibility of survival. As such the survival and the peculiar history of the Jews have constantly stunned and embarrassed historians and philosophers. It was the famous French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) who in his Pensees applied the idea of probability to history and came to the striking conclusion that among all the myriad peoples that have lived on the earth, only one defies probability:
It is certain that in certain parts of the world we can see a peculiar people, separated from the other peoples of the world, and this is called the Jewish people. This people is not only of remarkable antiquity but has also lasted for a singularly long time. For whereas the peoples of Greece and Italy, of Sparta, Athens and Rome, and others who came so much later perished so long ago, these still exist, despite the efforts of so many powerful kings who have tried a hundred times to wipe them out, as their historians testify, and as can easily be judged by the natural order of things over such a long spell of years. They have always been preserved, however, and their preservation was foretold My encounter with this people amazes me (4)
This fact is well known and even explains much of anti-Semitism in our own days: The hatred for the Jew is the direct consequence of his indestructibility. He who does not follow the acceptable norms of our society gets ostracized.
Maharal, however, adds another dimension to this fact. It is not only in the exalted moments of the Jewish people that one sees its uniqueness, but also in its downfall. Even that is abnormal and does not follow the rules. Other nations go through high and low points in their national status. Assimilation and disintegration will be set in motion according to natural historical patterns. Not so with the Jewish people. It will fall into turmoil within a matter of moments and without any precedent. At one moment it finds itself at its peak and suddenly with very little warning it will fall to its lowest level. This Maharal explains is the meaning of the remarkable observation by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai in the above-mentioned narrative. Just like a woman can have a ketuva worth millions of dinars and lose it in a moment and thereby being forced to become a dung collector among the dirtiest animals so can Israel fall within a moment and become completely dependant on the lowest elements in society. But even in that it is praiseworthy because even its fall will be totally unique. Once the divine supervision is removed in response to the Jewish peoples failure to live up to its religious and moral obligations it will be handed over to the lowest of nations and even its animals and not just to less agreeable conditions.
The great Chassidic thinker Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein, the Rebbe of Sochaczev keenly points out (5) that this praiseworthiness is therefore not only unique because the fall is so low but also because one can simultaneously observe it. The Jewish people are able to watch it from close by: The fall is so sudden and radical that it violates all expectations and as such is visible for anybody to see.
When watching the unsettling situation in the State of Israel today one can only wonder how in such a short period of time, the world has turned from admiration to total condemnation of Israel’s policies. Careful study of this phenomenon shows a radical and sudden change which was unexpected and far from self-evident. Simultaneously, Israeli leadership, once the example of great determination, clear thinking and astonishing courage has fallen to a low in which it seems that it has not just lost its vision but seems to have become the victim of many forces pulling it from all sides resulting in total confusion. We dare to suggest that the leaders are themselves at a loss why they changed their minds concerning matters which only a short while ago were sacred to them. However much political analysts try to convince us that all of this could easily be explained by the normal criteria of political conditions, those who have a broader and deeper look at Israel’s history will not be able to leave it at that. Too much is happening which stays unexplained and which seems to indicate that another force may well be at work.
Even more surprising is Israel’s unprecedented success story while all the political confusion and condemnation goes on. While being at war (and lets not underestimate the meaning of this statement) Israel continues to build its future as if nothing is happening. Israeli doctors are in the forefront of medical research. Intel, Microsoft and IBM have more than a stronghold in this country. A good part of their development is engineered by the citizens of Israel. Israel has together with only a few nations developed a satellite program and has in the meantime sent three satellites into space. Taking into account that all of these nations have at least nearly sixty million inhabitants (France) and a maximum of over one billion (China) and Israel just under six million, this is not a little surprising. And all this without mentioning Israel’s nuclear capacity, its hi tech economy, its exports, and the fact that its citizens continue to live their lives enjoying each other company and building institutions of higher learning combined with so many other highly successful endeavors as if the nation enjoys complete peace and tranquility.
All this is no surprise to the religious mind. The condemnation of Israel by the nations of the world and the confusion of Israel’s leadership together with its unprecedented success story is just another example of Israel’s uniqueness. Paradoxically the more the nations condemn Israel because it does not respond to the conditions of normalcy, the more they prove Israel’s distinctiveness.
Still one wonders whether Israels leadership is aware of this anomaly and whether it tries to come to terms with it. There is a lot of evidence that it does not and that it finds itself in denial to a much greater extent than Israel’s original founders. The latter, while secular, still realized the Jewish peoples unique place in the world and its peculiar nature. Today’s leadership, comprising to a great extent people who were born in the country and having little exposure to anything Jewish, combined with little or no knowledge of Jewish history are no longer able or willing to admit this. Its determination to run the country as any other country shows a sincere lack of grasping Jewish history and its unique message. The more attempts made to remove Israel’s uniqueness and classify it as just another member of the community of nations, the more Israel will not be able to hold out as a nation altogether. As such its leadership will only bring Israel to the brink of its capacity and, God forbid, invite a national disaster.
It is difficult to deny that Israel’s sudden fall from greatness does not remind us of Maharal’s observation that even its fall will be unprecedented. And while there is much reason to believe that things may still turn for the good, it is Israel’s political but also religious leadership which will have to make a radical change of mind and to think about new and better ways to call on its citizens to see in Judaism its reason de’tre and consequently admit to and value its own essence. This however will only be possible when Judaisms’ teachers show new and unprecedented ways to inspire the people of Israel by its great message in which the uniqueness of the people of Israel will once more be seen by all.
(1) Document recording the financial obligation, which the husband undertakes towards his future wife at the time of their marriage.
(2) Ketuboth 66b
(3) Maharal, Gevurath Hashem, chapter 4.
(4) Blaise Pascal, Pensees, trans. A.J. Krailsheimer, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1968, pages 171, 176-7.
(5) Shem MeShmuel, Vayetze, 5678