In honor of the engagement of our granddaughter Tzivya Cohen, daughter of Rabbi Michael and Debora Sara Cohen-Lopes Cardozo, to Efraim Obadya,
As Israel is once again bombarded with rockets and mortar shells, forcing more than a million people to spend most of their days in bomb shelters for close to two months, 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 well-known comments on the first verse in the Bible, “In the beginning God created heaven and earth” (1). This great Torah commentator quotes Rabbi Yitzchak (2):
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) should say to them, ‘All of the earth 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 afterward to the people of Israel, He could again decide to give it to another people, such as the Palestinians. If the Jews would then try to re-conquer the land, would that not be thievery?
Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, most commonly known as Chatam Sofer (1762-1839), gives Rabbi Yitzchak’s comments a most intriguing twist (3). In his opinion, the nations of the world do not object to the Jewish people’s owning the land of Israel, but they insist that the Jews can never have a legitimate claim to the land if it is not given to them by way of manifest miracles. The people of Israel are a nation that typifies the concept of miracles. If they conquer the land by thievery or aggressive force, their occupation of that land has no validity. Only if it is clear that God intervened and gave the land to the Israelites through overt miracles can there be a lawful claim.
This observation is not only daring, it is most profound.
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 – ultimately inexplicable and forever 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, as was any re-occupation of the land in later days. This is not thievery; it is a supernatural expression of God’s will.
This 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 must 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 that have no universal application. They lack frequency and as such cannot be called ordinary. Indeed, the ten plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, and the many other supernatural events 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 lacked all universality.
When one carefully studies Jewish history from the early biblical days to our own times, one can only conclude that, in spite of the many pogroms, the Inquisition and the Holocaust, Jews were constantly accompanied by highly unusual events, large and small. The fact that Jews survived these atrocities, outlived all their enemies throughout the millennia, and made it back to the Land of Israel is unprecedented and a vexing conundrum for historians and sociologists. It is indeed miraculous.
This doesn’t mean that it can’t be explained. The most important quality of a miracle is not that it is supernatural, or super-historical, but that it is a moment which, even if it can be argued away in terms of science and brought into the nexus of natural phenomena and history, remains miraculous in the eyes of the person who experienced it. The true power of a miracle is in the individual’s incredible experience of an event in which the current system of cause and effect becomes transparent, permitting a glimpse of the sphere in which another unrestricted Power is at work. As such, it shatters the security of all knowledge and undoes the normalcy of all that is ordinary. It is the abiding astonishment that is crucial. The human being stands in wonder; no cognition can weaken his amazement. Any natural explanation will only deepen his wonder.
Besides the fact that we Jews have survived all our enemies, what stands out particularly is the extent of our contribution to Western civilization – from Monotheism, the Bible and its ethics, to the fields of science, psychology, technology, medicine, and the arts – all grossly disproportionate to our numbers. 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” (4). We are sui generis, and while for many this is a matter of great pride, for our enemies it is too much to bear.
It was Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), the famous Russian author and philosopher who, 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(5).
For over 60 years, the State of Israel has been surrounded by more than a hundred million people living in numerous Arab countries, occupying more land than the entire area of the United States. All of them, even those who have made peace with the Jewish state, consider Israel a cancerous growth, or at least a major problem in their midst. Israel has fought war after war to defend itself against these nations. Logically, this country should never have survived. The fact that it did attests to a higher Power.
It is this Power that now, once again, 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 war with various terrorist organizations, our day-to-day life still continues, though hampered. While hundreds of citizens could be killed by the daily barrage of rockets, and bombs could explode on any street at any given time, nothing even close to this actually happens. Of course, we never underestimate the tragedy of the loss of our soldiers on the battlefield and our citizens who have fallen victim to rocket attacks; nor do 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 time the people of Israel are once again experiencing a great number of remarkable events. Arguing that the Iron Dome is the explanation for these phenomena is missing the point entirely. It confuses the hard facts with the abiding astonishment that something extraordinary is taking place. Although for the most part it is not verbalized, nearly every Israeli realizes that. Not only do we hear, daily, about those who were spared in amazing ways while under rocket fire, we also realize that our children and grandchildren can still walk around freely in many areas of the country.
It is incomprehensible, and nearly ironic, that a few kilometers from where rockets hit the ground, people gather in synagogues for evening prayers and Talmud study; meet friends for coffee; and sing zemirot at the Shabbat table. An uninformed outsider would never 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 recognize them as such.
The question at this crucial moment in Jewish history is not whether the nations of the world understand the miraculous existence of the State of Israel, but whether we Jews are prepared to see this reality. We must realize that miracles have been part of Israel’s history only as long as Jews, in and outside the land, have understood their uniqueness and done everything possible to merit these extraordinary events. While we desperately need to re-examine traditional Judaism and produce bold initiatives in order to remain relevant, the denial of Israel’s and Judaism’s uniqueness by secularizing the Jewish state and embracing non-Jewish values, will slowly but surely undermine our claim to this land, and no miracle will help. Miracles exist only if they are seen as such.
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, are blind to this reality, nothing will prevent the deterioration of our beautiful state. This is the lesson modern Israel teaches us at this hour.
1. Bereishit 1:1.
2. It is not clear who Rabbi Yitzchak was, although it is believed that he was Rashi’s father. This view is supported by Rabbi David HaLevi Segal (known as the Taz) in Divrei David. However, the statement quoted by Rashi and attributed to Rabbi Yitzchak is also found in Yalkut Shimoni, Parashat Bo, Remez 177, quoting Midrash Tanchuma in the name of an anonymous source.
3. Drashot on Simchat Torah.
4. Quoted by Great Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “Love, Hate, and Jewish Identity,” First Things, vol. 77 (November 1997) pp. 26-31.
5. Nikolai Berdyaev: The Meaning of History (Cleveland, OH: Meridian Books, 1962) pp. 86-87.