This year’s Yom Ha’atzmauth commemorates the 68th anniversary of a marriage that has lasted more than 3,500 years. This may sound like a paradox, but it is the inescapable truth about the Land of Israel and the Jews. No marriage has lasted so long, been so deep in its commitment and so overwhelming in its love as the one between the Jews and their homeland. Yet no marriage has been so painful or so tragic, for the partners were forced apart by the Roman Empire nearly 2000 years ago. The bride and groom pledged unconditional love but were not reunited for another 1878 years. But for all those years, nothing – absolutely nothing – could emotionally separate the partners even when they were thousands of miles away from each other. This marriage did not depend on where the partners were located, but rather where their souls dwelt.
For the marriage to succeed, the Jews, metaphorically and unprecedentedly, lifted the Land of Israel from its native soil and transformed it into a portable homeland, taking it with them to all four corners of the earth. Only in 1948 were the people and its land physically reunited.
The founding of the State of Israel, then, is not the beginning of the marriage between the land and the Jewish people, but rather a reaffirmation of the marriage commitment that took place thousands of years ago between God and Abraham. The State of Israel was not established in 1948, but more than 3,000 years ago when Abraham purchased the cave of Machpelah in order to bury his wife Sara. It was reaffirmed a few hundred years later when the Israelites inherited the land under the leadership of Joshua, immediately after Moshe’s death.
But no marriage should be taken for granted. Not even after 3,500 years. When a bridegroom offers his new wife a ring as a sign of commitment, he knows that this is only the first installment of an ongoing pledge. No marriage can endure if both partners do not constantly reinvest in their relationship. The moment a marriage is counted in years rather than marked by shared striving for new opportunities, it has come to an end. Only a mission – a common dream – can sustain a marriage, and only something greater than it will allow it to succeed. To paraphrase Aristotle, marriage is a single soul dwelling in two bodies. But a soul that has lost its purpose has lost itself.
Ironically, a significant part of the people of Israel today are struggling to stay spiritually wed to their land. Rampant materialism, secularism and religious fanaticism have eroded Israel’s sense of Jewish identity and the historical consciousness that gives meaning to its national existence. Growing numbers of its people lack Jewish self-understanding and question why they should live in this country at all. It is true that the wonderful Israeli soldiers are ready to sacrifice their lives for our country. But how long can this continue when Israel is nothing more than just a country? People are willing to die only for that by which they have lived. And human beings can live meaningful lives only when they know that there is something eternal worth dying for.
It is thus crucial to identify the element that has bound the two partners together for these thousands of years. And that element is, unequivocally, the mission to be “a light unto the nations,” as pronounced by God to the prophet Isaiah. The marriage was created to give birth to a wellspring of religious and moral teachings that will suffuse mankind with the knowledge that life is holy and that God awaits man’s response to His call in order to redeem His world.
This then is the task of the Land and People of Israel: to elevate the human race so that it becomes a link between the divine and the earthly. For life is a mandate, a privilege – not a game or mere triviality. The Jewish people married the land in order to create a model society to be emulated by all mankind.
It is the rabbis who consecrate a marriage. But that is only part of their task. As pastors, their responsibility is to ensure the marriage’s success and tend to it if it flounders or stagnates. This is the task of Israel’s religious leaders today. They must transform the Jewish people by creating a spiritual longing for its unique mission, thereby restoring their marriage to its full potential after the long and difficult separation.
True religious leaders should not be “honored” or “well respected.” Rather, as men of truth they should stir unprecedented awe among Israelis and all Jews. Simultaneously their towering personalities should draw people closer with their overflowing love.
The times demand unwavering religious and moral guidance. The religious leadership must extricate itself from the morass in which has become mired. In an unprecedented initiative, it must steer the ship of an inspiring, rejuvenated Judaism in full sail right into the heart of Israeli society, causing shockwaves that will impact every aspect of life. It can no longer be concerned just with the kashruth of our food, or with our Jewishness. Above all, it needs to inspire the kashruth of our souls. Like the prophets of old, our religious leaders must generate a spiritual revolution, triggering an ethical-religious uproar that shakes the very foundations of the state. Their complete failure to do so is nothing less than a tragic dereliction of duty. Israelis are waiting for such a move, and there is little doubt that their response will be overwhelming.
Only then will the Jewish people re-engage with its land. Only then can the Jewish people stay eternally married to its land. Only then will no third party, whether it is European Anti-Semitism, BDS efforts, Moslem Extremism, Jewish self-hate or the deceitfulness of UNESCO dare to interfere in its matrimonial bond. This is Israel’s hope and future.
May God bless this eternal marriage!
Questions to Ponder from the David Cardozo Academy’s Think Tank:
(We suggest printing out and discussing at your Shabbat table, if you like.)
1. Israel consistently ranks high on ‘happiness’ surveys. Do you think this provides a counter to Rabbi Cardozo’s question: “But how long can this continue when Israel is nothing more than just a country?” Do you think that Israel is already “more than just a country”? What might account for Israelis’ happiness in the face of external threats and internal strife?
2. Rav Cardozo writes: “Growing numbers of [Israel’s] people lack Jewish self-understanding and question why they should live in this country at all.” And yet, the past thirty years have witnessed a veritable renaissance of Jewish learning, along with a renewed interest in Judaism among “secular” Israelis. Beit Midrash programs and study groups meet at cafes and youth clubs; there is a plethora of radio and television programs devoted to Jewish themes; virtually all mainstream newspapers feature columns devoted to the weekly Torah portion; contemporary singers perform new renditions of ancient liturgical texts; and the list goes on. Given the centrality of the Land of Israel in Jewish texts, liturgy, and ritual, wouldn’t this renewed interest in Judaism carry over to love of the land?
3. “It is thus crucial to identify the element that has bound the two partners together for these thousands of years. And that element is, unequivocally, the mission to be ‘a light unto the nations.’” Do you feel that this is true? What other element, or elements, might have helped to cement the bond between the Jewish People and the Land of Israel?
4. Do you agree that it is the job of rabbis to inspire “the kashruth of our souls”, or would you put this responsibility equally before every Jew, regardless of his or her level of learning?
5. Would you agree that only a “religious revolution” will inspire Israelis to reengage with their land? Those who sought to re-engage with the land prior to the establishment of the State of Israel were overwhelmingly secular. The founders of the first kibbutzim and moshavim were re-engaging with the land in a very visceral way—farming the soil of Israel. Do you feel that religion forms a stronger bond to the land than does farming?
Bonus question: Positive psychology expert Tal Ben-Shahar maintains that Israel ranks so high on the “Happiness Index” due primarily to its focus on family: “Friends and family are very high up on our value scale, and quality time with them is given a priority. Time we spend with people we care about and who care about us is the number one predictor of happiness.”
On the other hand, the authors of The World Happiness Report, published by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and the Earth Institute at Columbia University have a different explanation: “When countries single-mindedly pursue individual objectives, such as economic development to the neglect of social and environmental objectives, the results can be highly adverse for human wellbeing, even dangerous for survival.”
Is there a contradiction between these two explanations? Which of these opinions best supports Rabbi Cardozo’s argument that “Being a Light to the Nations” is the key to Israel’s long-term survival?