As Israel was once again bombarded with short-range mortar shells, Grad artillery rockets and, Hamas’s latest addition, Iranian long-range Fajr-5 missiles, forcing nearly a million people to hide in shelters for over a week, it is understandable that many wonder whether this will ever end. For those of us who are deeply concerned about the future of the State of Israel, it may be wise to recall Rashi’s famous comment on the first verse of the creation chapter.
On the words: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth” (Bereshith 1:1), this great Torah commentator quotes the famous observation by Rabbi Yitzchak (1):
If the nations of the world will say to Israel, ‘You are thieves, for you conquered the lands of the seven nations (of Canaan)’, they (the people of Israel) will say to them, ‘All the land belongs to God. He created it and gave it to whomever He saw fit. It was His will to give it to them, and it was His will to take it from them and give it to us.’
This is a rather strange observation. If God decided to give the land first to the Canaanites and afterwards to the people of Israel, why should He not be able to give it again to another people, such as the Palestinians, instead of the Jews? If the Jews would then try by force to reconquer the land, would that not be thievery?
Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, most commonly known as Chatam Sofer (1762-1839), gives Rabbi Yitzchak’s observation a most intriguing twist (2). In his opinion, the nations of the world do not object to the people of Israel’s owning the land of Israel; they insist, however, that the Jews could never inhabit the land lawfully if it was not given to them by way of open miracles. The people of Israel are a nation that typifies the concept of miracles. If they had conquered the land by thievery and force, not through the miraculous intervention of God, then their occupation of the land would have had no validity. Only when it is clear that God gave the land to the Israelites through open miracles can there be a lawful claim.
This observation is not only daring but, above all, of great profundity.
Chatam Sofer explains that the Jewish response to the nations’ objections is reflected in Rabbi Yitzchak’s insistence that the Jews’ right to the land is rooted in the creation of the universe, and that the creation chapter teaches us how all existence is miraculous. It is ultimately inexplicable and will always remain mysterious. Consequently, all that happens within creation must be seen as supernatural. Even the laws of nature are nothing other than the frequency of miracles. We must conclude, then, that the conquest of the land by the Israelites was also miraculous and that any re-occupation of the land in later days is not the result of thievery but an expression of God’s will, and therefore miraculous.
This however begs the question: if everything is a miracle, what is special about Israel’s miraculous settlement that justifies claiming the land? When other nations occupy the land, it is as miraculous as when the Jews do.
It must be, then, that the Jewish claim to the land represents a different kind of miracle, which does not pertain to the non-Jewish nations. Only in that case could the Jewish claim be justified. It needs to go beyond the argument that all of nature consists of a frequency of miracles.
Herein lies the crux of the matter. Israel stands out as a nation that experiences miracles having no universal application. They lack frequency and as such cannot be called ordinary. The ten plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, and the many other miracles recorded throughout Tanach are identical to the miracle of creation. Just as the creation occurred only once, so did many of the miracles experienced by the people of Israel. And even when they happened more than once, they happened only to the Jews and lack all universality.
When one carefully studies Jewish history from the early biblical days to our own times, one can only conclude that Jews were constantly accompanied by miracles, large and small, a phenomenon unknown in non-Jewish history. This was true when they entered the land in the biblical days of Yehoshua, and it was true when they established the State of Israel in 1948. The Six Day War, in particular, made this abundantly clear.
Even after the downfall of the Jewish Commonwealth nearly two thousand years ago, Jews living in the Diaspora experienced ongoing supernatural protection despite the many inquisitions, pogroms and even holocausts. We survived six empires, exile to all corners of the earth, ridicule, murder, torture, and incarceration in ghettos with no defense or money. And though we paid a heavy price, it is absolutely mysterious and miraculous that we outlived all of our enemies. In total contradiction to the rules of general history, we Jews returned to our homeland 2000 years later, as full of life as ever. Our contributions to western civilization are grossly disproportionate to our numbers. Famous American writer and sociologist Milton Himmelfarb (1918-2006) once wrote: “The number of Jews in the world is smaller than a small statistical error in the Chinese census. Yet we remain bigger than our numbers” (3). We are sui generis, and while for many this is a matter of great pride, for others it is too much to bear.
It was Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), the famous Russian author and philosopher who, in his book The Meaning of History, asked his readers to take proper notice of this fact:
And, indeed, according to the materialistic and positivist criterion, this people ought long ago to have perished. Its survival is a mysterious and wonderful phenomenon demonstrating that the life of this people is governed by a special predetermination, transcending the process of adaptation expounded by the materialistic interpretation of history. The survival of the Jews, their resistance to destruction, their endurance under absolutely peculiar conditions and the fateful role played by them in history; all these point to the particular and mysterious foundations of their destiny (4).
For over 60 years the State of Israel has been surrounded by more than a hundred million human beings living in numerous Arab countries occupying more land than the United States. All of them, even those who have made peace with the Jewish state, consider Israel a cancerous growth in their midst. Israel has fought war after war to defend itself against these nations. Logically, this country should never have survived. That it did is completely beyond human comprehension and openly alludes to the protection of a Higher Power.
It is this Power that, again at this hour, can clearly be noted. What is perhaps most astonishing about the present situation in Israel is that while we find ourselves in the midst of a guerrilla war with various terrorist organizations, day-to-day life still continues, though hampered. While terrorist attacks could, God forbid, take place every day, and bombs could explode by the hundreds on any street at any given time, nothing even close to this actually happens. We would never underestimate the tragedy of the loss of many of our people who have fallen victim to terror attacks, nor would we trivialize the fear of those brave Jews in the southern cities, towns and kibbutzim who try to defend themselves under the most difficult circumstances. Yet, we must admit that at this moment the people of Israel are once more experiencing a great number of miracles. Not only do we hear daily about those who were spared in astonishing ways from actual terror attacks and rocket fire, but we also realize that our children and grandchildren can still walk freely around in our neighborhoods. Such a luxury is not even possible in some parts of New York or Los Angeles.
It is incomprehensible, and nearly ironic, that a few hundred meters from where rockets hit the ground, people gather in synagogues for evening prayers, study Talmud, drink coffee and sing zemiroth at the Shabbath table. An uninformed outsider would not know that a war is taking place. Were something like this to happen anywhere else in the world, all normal life would come to a standstill and pandemonium would break loose.
This indeed reflects the nature of the people of Israel. Though it should not encourage a fatalistic attitude, for there is no way of predicting the future, neither would it be right to simply rely on the continuation of these miracles, as miracles are not to be taken for granted. One needs to merit them and to recognize them as such. Israelis have become used to miracles, and that is exactly where the problem starts.
The question at this crucial moment in Jewish history is not if the nations of the world understand the miraculous existence of the State of Israel, but if the Jews themselves are prepared to see this reality. We must realize that miracles have only been part of Israel’s history as long as Jews, in and outside the land, have understood their unprecedented uniqueness and have done everything possible to merit them. While traditional Judaism desperately needs to re-examine itself and produce bold initiatives to stay relevant, the denial of Israel’s uniqueness through secularizing the Jewish state, embracing anti-Jewish values, uprooting Jewish education, and extinguishing the love for Jewish tradition will slowly but surely empty the land of miracles. This is suicidal. On the other hand, if Jews are proud of their Jewish tradition and committed to Jewish values, the chances that Israel will survive is nearly guaranteed. Nobody knows the price it may have to pay, but Israel will endure. This is not wishful thinking but the realistic lesson learned from 4000 years of Jewish history.
If we Jews will realize that we are unique, that Judaism is most relevant, and that there is a serious need to teach our young people to be sensitive to the miracle of Jewish survival, Israel will do well. But if Jews, in and outside Israel, become blind to this reality, nothing will stop the deterioration of our beautiful state. This is the lesson modern Israel teaches us.
1. It is not clear who this Rabbi Yitzchak was. People are accustomed to believing that he was the father of Rashi. This view is supported by Rabbi David HaLevi Segal (known as the Taz) in Divrei David. However, the statement quoted by Rashi as being Rabbi Yitzchak’s is also found in Yalkut Shimoni, Parashath Bo, Remez 177, quoting Midrash Tanchuma in the name of an anonymous source.
2. Drashot on Simchat Torah.
3. Quoted by Great Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “Love, Hate, and Jewish Identity,” First Things, vol. 77 (November 1997) pp. 26-31.
4. Nikolai Berdyaev: The Meaning of History (Cleveland, OH: Meridian Books, 1962) pp. 86-87.