On the words: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth” (Bereshith 1:1), Rashi quotes the famous but astonishing observation by Rabbi Yitzchak*:
If the nations of the world accuse Israel of banditry by conquering the land of Israel…then the people of Israel will answer and say: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth. The entire universe belongs to Him. He created it and He gave it to whomever He deemed fit. It was His desire to give [the land] to the Caananites first and it was His desire to take it from them and to grant it to us.
What is the meaning of this strange observation? In what way does it help to refer back to the creation to justify Israel’s claim to the land? Some commentators seem to be of the opinion that the objection of the nations of the world is not that the people of Israel should not be the owners of the land of Israel per se. What they demanded was that it should be abundantly clear that it was solely God who gave the Jews the land and no other force. Only then would it stand unchallenged. In that case even the nations would have to yield to the will of God. But if the Jews were to conquer the land by pure physical force, and not through the clear intervention of God then their occupation of the land would have no validity. It was exactly for that reason that the nations strongly opposed any Jewish claim to the land. It was abundantly clear to them that God had not given it to the Jews since they used the conventional way of conquering the land: Physical force and banditry!
It is here that the observation of Rabbi Yitzchak becomes illuminating. By referring to the creation of the universe he points to an entirely different way of looking at the Jewish right to the land. His point is that the creation chapter teaches us that all existence is miraculous. All of the creation is ultimately inexplicable, and therefore all that happens within creation is “supernatural” and the result of Divine intervention. Even the laws of nature are nothing else but the frequency of miracles. And so, argues Rabbi Yitzchak, it is true about the conquest of the land by the Jews. It was a miracle. Just as only God created the universe and nobody else so it is clear that God wanted the land to belong to the Jews.
This, however begs the question. If “all is miracle” what then is there special about Israel’s claim that God wanted them to have the land? Would not the same argument apply to the other nations when they lived there? Once they lived there, would it not mean that God wanted them to live there? Their holding on to the land is just as much a miracle as is Israel’s.
The answer to the question is of great importance: Within the “frequency of miracles” Israel stands out as a nation, which exists through miracles which lack all frequency. They do not happen as part of the miraculous laws of nature and they have no universal applications. These “unnatural” miracles have an affinity with miracles such as the splitting of the Red Sea and the “open” miracles mentioned in other parts of Tanach and later Jewish history. They lack all frequency and as such they are just as unnatural as the original Creation.
It is especially relevant in our days that we should view this observation with the outmost seriousness: The people of Israel are only able to hold onto the land because of its miraculous nature. Otherwise they would not be able to inhabit this land for even one day. The mistake of the gentile nations, however, is that they are not prepared to see the multitude of miracles which made it possible for the people of Israel to “conquer” the land. Instead they are convinced that it was conventional warfare which gave the Jews the land in the past and which gave them the land again in 1948.
When one carefully studies Jewish history from the early Biblical days till our own times, one can only conclude that Jews were constantly accompanied by miracles, large and small. This was true when they entered the land in the days of Yehoshua, and when they established the State of Israel in 1948 and held on to it till this very day.
Even after the downfall of the Jewish Commonwealth nearly two thousand years ago, Jews, while living in the Diaspora, experienced an ongoing supernatural protection despite the many inquisitions, pogroms and even holocausts. Jews survived six empires, exile to all the corners of the earth, ridicule, murder and torture, and incarceration in ghettos without any defense or money. And after all this, Jews stood at the tombstones of their enemies such as the Greeks, the Romans and so many others. They outlived them all and returned to their homeland 2000 years later as lively as ever. All this is sui generis, unprecedented, and, for many, too much to bear. It is a miracle, which has no universal application.
It was Nicholas 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…according to the materialistic and positivistic criterion, this people ought to have perished long ago. 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.
With the re-entering of the land in 1948 it became even clearer that Israel lives through miracles. For over 50 years, the Israeli State 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 as a cancerous growth in there midst. Israel has fought war after war to defend itself against these nations. Logically speaking the Israeli State should never have survived not even with all its military might. That it has is completely beyond human comprehension and openly alludes to the protection of a Higher Power. There is much truth in Ben Gurion’s statement that those who do not believe in miracles are not realists. When one contemplates the fact that Palestinian terrorist organizations since the early days of the intifade planned ongoing daily attacks on Israelis and that by “normal” standards tens of thousands of Israelis should have died every year, one gets a more realistic picture of the miraculous nature of the State of Israel. That Israel continues to build, to grow in the middle of a serious guerilla war against terrorists, while holding out against mighty Arab countries fascinates and irritates the world. With a population of just over 5 million people, Israel has become a nuclear power (with its sole partners powerful nations existing of more than a billion people.) Meanwhile the fact that it is creating a strong economy and has become the high-tech leader together with so many other accomplishments is as yet to be explained in terms of normality for a nation, which “occupies” a land which is so small that one has difficulty locating it on the map without a magnifying glass.
In this difficult hour for the Israeli State and especially for the settlers of Gush Kativ and other settlements, we should not forget that with all the pain and trauma, the miracle of Israel continues. Although Israel was “forced” out of the Gaza strip, the fact that Israel still exists and continues to grow is still a sign of its unprecedented miraculous nature.
It should, however, not encourage a fatalistic attitude. There is no way of predicting the future. Neither would it be right to just rely on a continuation of miracles. 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 were the problem starts and why at this very hour it is being reminded that the land cannot be taken for granted, not only Gush Katif but also Yerushalayim and Tel Aviv.
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 Jews themselves are prepared to see this reality. Miracles have only continued to be part of Israel’s history as long as Jews in and outside the land have done everything to merit such Divine intervention by continuing to recognize the miracles. Secularizing the Jewish State, adopting anti-Jewish values, uprooting Jewish education and love for the Jewish Tradition will slowly but surely empty the land of its miracles. This is suicidal. But if Jews are proud of their Jewish Tradition and are committed to Jewish values, history seems to teach us that miracles will continue. This is not wishful thinking but the realistic lesson learned from 4000 years of Jewish History.
*It is not clear who this Rabbi Yitzchak was. People are accustomed to believe that it was the father of Rashi. This view is also stated by Divrei David and by Taz. However this statement is also found in Yalkuth Shimoni, Parashath Bo, Remez 177, quoting Midrash Tanchuma. There it is stated in the name of an anonymous scholar.