On the words: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth” (Bereshith 1:1), Rashi quotes the famous 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.”
Chatam Sofer in his drashoth (sermons) on the festival of Simchath Torah gives the observation of Rabbi Yitzchak a most dramatic bend. In his opinion 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 but that they could never inhabit the land lawfully if it was not given to them through the occurrence of open miracles. The people of Israel are a nation that typifies the concept of miracles. If they would have conquered the land by banditry, i.e. by physical force, and 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 miracles can there be a lawful claim.
This, after all, is what the people of Israel are all about since the miraculous Exodus from Egypt.
This observation is not only daring but, above all, of great profundity.
Chatam Sofer explains that the Jewish response to this objection of the nations of the world is reflected in Rashi’s insistence to use Rabbi Yitzchak’s observation in relationship to the creation of the universe. His point is that the creation chapter teaches us that all existence is miraculous. All of the creation is ultimately unexplainable, and therefore all that happens within creation is “supernatural.” Even the laws of nature are nothing else than a frequency of miracles. As such the conquest of the land was indeed miraculous and not just the result of banditry.
This, however, needs some explanation. After all, if “all is miracle” what then is there special about Israel’s miraculous nature? There can only be one answer. Within the “frequency of miracles” Israel stands out as a nation which experiences miracles which normally do not happen as part of the laws of nature and which have no universal applications. These are the “unnatural” miracles such as the splitting of the Red Sea and the open miracles mentioned in other parts of Tanach and later Jewish history.
It is especially in our days that we should take Rabbi Yitzchak’s observation as understood by Chatam Sofer outmost serious: The nations of the world are absolutely correct. The people of Israel are only able to hold onto the land because of miracles. 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.
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. It was especially the Six Day War which made this abundantly clear.
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, 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 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.
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. That it did is completely beyond human comprehension and openly alludes to the protection of a Higher Power.
It is this Power which again at this hour can clearly be noted. One of the most astonishing facts of the present situation in Israel is that while the Israeli State finds itself in the middle of a most serious guerrilla war with the PLO and other terrorist organizations, day-to-day life, although hampered, continues. While terrorist attacks could, God forbid take place every day and bombs could explode by the hundreds in any street in the land of Israel, nothing close to this actually happens. While we would never, God forbid, underestimate or deny the tragedy of the loss of many of our people who have fallen victim to terrorist attacks, or the fear of those brave Jews in the settlements who try to defend themselves under the most difficult of circumstances, we must admit that at this moment the people of Israel are once more experiencing a great amount of miracles. Not only do we hear of daily miracles in which people in astonishing ways are spared from actual terrorist attacks but also the realization that our children and grandchildren still walk freely around in our neighborhoods astonishes us not a little. Such a luxury is not even possible in cities like New York and Los Angeles
While nearly every night Palestinian terrorists fire hundreds of bullets on homes and people in the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo, it is incomprehensible and nearly ironic that a few hundreds meters away people gather for the evening prayers in the synagogues, study Talmud, drink coffee and sing zemiroth at the Shabbath table. An uninformed outsider would not know that a war is taking place only a few hundreds meters away from there. Would something like this happen anywhere in the world, all normal life would have come to a standstill and pandemonium would have broken out.
This indeed reflects the nature of the people of Israel. 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 these 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.
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. It should be realized that miracles have only been part of Israel’s history as long as Jews in and outside the land have done everything to merit such Divine intervention. 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 miracles. This is suicidal. But if Jews are proud of their Jewish Tradition, committed to Jewish values, miracles will continue as before. This is not wishful thinking but the realistic lesson learned from 4000 years of Jewish History.
If Jews will realize that and act accordingly, we can be sure that the State of Israel will overcome whatever its enemies may have in mind. But if Jews, in and outside Israel, become blind to this reality, nothing will stop the deterioration of this beautiful state.
Nathan Lopes Cardozo
*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 by Taz. However this statement is also found in Yalkuth Shimoni, Parashath Bo, Remez 177, quoting Midrash Tanchuma in the name of an anonymous source.