* This essay will be published this weekend in the Jerusalem Post.
The disastrous situation in which Israel finds itself at this hour asks for serious self-reflection on a level unfamiliar to many of us.
One can surely accuse Israel’s leadership and security forces of failure to intercept the intentions and plans of the brutal Hamas terrorists who killed and kidnapped Israeli citizens on such a large scale. But many of us feel there is much more at stake.
How a terrorist group is capable of taking on a powerful army and entering Israel without any difficulties and without anybody spotting them is bizarre. The situation is mind-boggling and beyond belief. Burials are taking place around the country. The continuous pain and danger is unimaginable. The state is trembling on its pedestals. Until now, nobody seems to know what actually is going on and what needs to be done. The government appears lame. Not only is this war unprecedented, but it is completely unfathomable and defies all logic.
Sure, in a matter of time when things hopefully calm down and some kind of security will be re-installed, some of our leaders will start to explain what actually happened and argue that looking back, all makes sense. But it will not suffice.
Our deepest instinct tells us something else is going on, which like a wave of intuitive awareness, draws us into a state of mind we normally do not experience. Like a subconscious blink that kicks in and settles in our minds and keeps knocking on the door of our consciousness, we hear a perpetual murmur from the waves beyond the shore.
It is as if Israel is confronted with a kind of metaphysical crisis, an ontological emergency which touches on the supernatural. This war feels as if it is striking at the very existence of the Jewish people. As if a bomb has exploded in the middle of Israel’s raison d’etre.
TO UNDERSTAND this, we need to know something about the Jewish people. We must distinguish between being and appearance. We need to realize that the way we Jews appear to ourselves and the nations of the world is not who we are.
Throughout the centuries, historians, philosophers, and anthropologists have struggled with the concept called “Israel.”
While attempting to place Israel within the confines of conventional history, they experienced constant academic and philosophical frustration. Any definitions they suggested eventually broke down due to serious inconsistencies. Was Israel a nation, a religion, or an altogether mysterious entity which would forever remain inexplicable?
In fact, it was clear to everyone that Israel did not conform to any specific framework or known scheme. It resisted all historical concepts and generalities. Its uniqueness thwarted people’s natural desire for a definition, since that generally implies arrangement in categories. Anything that flies in the face of that categorization is alarming and terribly disturbing.
This fact became even more obvious after Bar Kochba’s rebellion was crushed by Hadrian and Sextus Julius Severus, who then forced the Jews out of their country.
IT WAS THEN that the Jew was hurled into the abyss of the nations of the world, and Jews became aware of one of their most peculiar characteristics: ongoing insecurity and an increasing sense of a higher mission. Since Bar Kokhba, they always survived on the edge of eternal existence.
In 1948, Israel once again became a country. But many forgot that it was not only a country. All its other dimensions, such as nationhood, religion, mystery, insecurity, and lack of definition, continued to exist. Jews today do not find themselves exclusively in the State of Israel; and instead of one Israel, the world now has two. But the second, new Israel has until now been seen as responding to the demands of history, geography, politics, and journalism. One knows where it is, but it becomes clearer and clearer that this new and definable Israel is now seriously on the way to becoming as much a puzzle and mysterious entity as the old Israel always was. In fact, it already has.
Jews must ask themselves what this non-classification and insecurity really signifies.
We have only one way to comprehend the positive meaning of this otherwise apparently negative anomaly: the way of faith and the assignment of a universal moral-religious mission. The non-classification of Israel proves its uniqueness.
Its insecurity makes it aware of the fact that as long as it does not recognize its own singularity, it cannot justify its existence and is in danger.
It must assume the burden and the privilege of its own uniqueness and universal calling.
Israel’s very existence is the manifestation of divine intervention in history to which it must attest. God may be a mystery, but Jewish history gives evidence to the fact that some kind of Being hovers over Israel’s uniqueness and survival capacity.
In Israel, history and revelation are one. Only in Israel do they coincide. While other nations exist as nations, the people of Israel exist as a reminder of God’s involvement in world history, even when it pays a heavy price. Even Martin Buber, who did not conform to a traditional Jewish lifestyle, wrote that only through Israel is humanity touched by the divine.
Throughout its short history, the State of Israel has gone through the most mysterious events modern man has ever seen. After an exile of nearly 2,000 years, during which the old Israel was able to survive against all historical odds, Jews returned to their homeland. There, they found themselves surrounded by a massive Arab population that was and is incapable of making peace with the idea that this small mysterious nation lives among them.
Simultaneously and against all logic, this nation builds its country as no other has done, while fighting war after war. What took other nations hundreds of years, it accomplished in only a few. While bombs and katyushas attack its cities, and calls for its total destruction are heard in many parts of the world, Israel continues to increase its population, generate unprecedented technology, and create a stronger and more stable economy.
But all this will not be of any avail if Israel does not recognize its most outstanding characteristic: its universal mission.
REASON ENDS at the shore of the known; and in the immense expanse beyond, it touches on the ineffable. As if a metaphysical rule spreads its wings over Israel, it seems to tell us that the more Israel denies its mission, the more its enemies become frustrated and annoyed with its existence, and the more dubious Israel’s security becomes.
Time and again we are asked to wake up.
But we cannot endure the uncommon.
But suddenly we are filled with terror due to this war, with a feeling that all our wisdom and know-how are inferior to dust.
It is the recognition of the uniqueness of the Jewish people that is at stake. But as long as we do not want to admit this, we will constantly fall victim to this denial. It was the famous (non-Jewish) historian Nikolai Berdyaev who wrote:
I remember how the materialist interpretation of history, when I attempted in my youth to verify it by applying it to the destinies of peoples, broke down in the case of the Jews, where destiny seemed absolutely inexplicable…
Its survival is a mysterious and wonderful phenomenon demonstrating that the life of this people is governed by a special predetermination, transcending the processes 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.
Indeed, no other nation has overturned the destiny of mankind as much as this nation has. It endowed the world with the Bible and brought forth the greatest prophets and men of spirit. Its spiritual ideas and moral laws still hold sway among the world’s citizens, influencing entire civilizations. It has bestowed dignity and responsibility upon the human individual and has provided mankind with a messianic hope for the future.
THE REALIZATION of this fact has become modern Israel’s great challenge. Its repeated attempts to overcome its geographic and political insecurity by employing world politics will not work. Driven by its desire to overcome its vulnerability, Israel wavers between geography and nationhood, appealing to its history and technological advancement while unable to find a place that it can call its existential habitat.
Its leaders and citizens must come to terms with the fact that any attempt to “normalize” the State of Israel will threaten its very existence. We must realize that there is no Israeli claim to the land; there is just a Jewish one. Only by the uninterrupted chain of generations can it be ascertained that this has always been the Jewish homeland – all through our exile – and that this land has been taken from us by force.
If we reject this fact, our claim to the land stands on quicksand. We either return to the Holy Land, or there is no land to return to. Without continuity, there can be no return. No nation can live with a borrowed national identity.
Reading the Nevi’im (Book of Prophets), we see how they warned against such false notions of security. The prophet Yechezkel (20:32) made it most clear: “What is in your mind shall never happen, the thought Let us be like the nations, like the tribes of the countries…” He and many other prophets predicted that Israel would perish if it insisted on existing only as a political structure. Yet, it can survive – and this is the paradox of Israel’s reality – as long as it insists on its vocation of uniqueness.
At this hour, it seems that we have come to the edge of this prophecy.
THERE IS no security for Israel unless it is secure in its own destiny.
We must shoulder the burden of our own singularity, which means nothing less than fulfilling our role as God’s witness by way of morality, the institution of Shabbat, and the food we eat. And we must draw strength from this phenomenon, especially in times such as ours when Israel’s very existence is again at stake. Once Israel recognizes its uniqueness, it will, paradoxically, enjoy security and undoubtedly be victorious. Israel is not only fighting for its soil but also for its soul.
Israelis must learn that they are first of all Jews. Not just a nation that speaks Hebrew. Our very being is a refusal to surrender to normalcy, security, and comfort. We are the most challenged people under the sun. Our existence is either superfluous or indispensable to the world. It is either tragic or holy to be a Jew (A.J. Heschel). To see our existence as tragic is suicide; to see our task to be a holy people is our future and our joy.
We need to decide.
Perhaps this terrible war, with its many victims, will turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Perhaps the infighting among the different parties about the government and the High Court will come to an end.
Perhaps the Jewish people will finally wake up and understand its own greatness.
And enjoy its future.