Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            In the 1960's Israel began it own version of America's Peace Corps.  Although this project, mostly aimed at emerging African nations, was worthwhile on its own merits, it had an agenda.  The godmother of the enterprise was Golda Meir (1898-1978), during her long tenure as Minister of Foreign Affairs (1956-1966).  She expressed the altruism of this project in her autobiography, where she wrote: "Like them, we had shaken off foreign rule; like them, we had to learn for ourselves how to reclaim the land, how to increase the yields of our crops, how to irrigate, how to raise poultry, how to live together, and how to defend ourselves." Israel could be a role model because it "had been forced to find solutions to the kinds of problems that large, wealthy, powerful states had never encountered."  However, she often defended the project to colleagues for its potential to win friends for Israel abroad.  She was sadly disappointed and often ruminated about it in the 70's, when Israel became isolated in many world forums, and many of the countries Israel had helped, condemned Israel as a colonial power and a racist state.

            The loneliness of Israel was actually predicted or at least observed by the gentile prophet Balaam in this week's Torah reading.  In his first prophecy about the Jewish nation, he proclaimed, "For from their beginning, I see them as mountain peaks, and I behold them as hills; it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations (Numbers 23:9)."  This prediction seems to have been fully realized.  For most of our history we have been a pariah people, dwelling on the political fringes.  Even though our philosophical, religious, and scientific contributions are enormous, our political impact has been negligible.  Amazingly, in the United Nations, where Israel is a member in good standing, it is the only one of the 192 members which is ineligible to serve on the most important organs of the institution, including the Security Council.  We always seem to be left out.

            This phenomenon bothered Golda OB"M and many others, but should it?  On the mystical side many rabbinic authorities claimed that this aloofness from the world helped our spiritual development, and was necessary for us to achieve the status of a kingdom of priests and a holy people (Exodus 19:6).  We had to remain apart to have the proper influence on the others.  The great American historian Barbara Tuchman (1912-1989) commented on this in a manner somewhere between academic and clergy:  The history of the Jews is . . . intensely peculiar in the fact of having given the Western world its concept of origins and monotheism, its ethical traditions, and the founder of its prevailing religion, yet suffering dispersion, statelessness and ceaseless persecution, and finally in our times nearly successful genocide, dramatically followed by fulfillment of the never-relinquished dream of return to their homeland. Viewing this strange and singular history one cannot escape the impression that it must contain some special significance for the history of mankind, that in some way, whether one believes in divine purpose or inscrutable circumstance, the Jews have been singled out to carry the tale of human fate.

            Yehuda Avner, who advised four Israeli Prime Ministers, has recently written a great book chronicling those days called The Prime Ministers.  One of the stories he tells about Menachem Begin was about a weekly gathering of significant scholars at the prime minister's residence to study Torah.  The Saturday night before Begin's first trip to America as prime minister to meet then President Carter was our passage about the Jewish nation dwelling alone.  Many views were shared.  Some said it was positive and was a blessing; others said it was negative and was a curse.  The last speaker was Begin himself.  The PM quoted from a new book by Dr. Ya'akov Herzog, son of the first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, called, appropriately, A Nation that Dwells Alone:  The theory of classic Zionism was national normalization. What was wrong with the theory? It was the belief that the idea of a 'people that dwells alone' is an abnormal concept, when actually a 'people that dwells alone' is the natural concept of the Jewish people. That is why this one phrase still describes the totality of the extraordinary phenomenon of Israel's revival.  If one asks how the ingathering of the exiles, which no one could have imagined in his wildest dreams, came about, or how the State of Israel could endure such severe security challenges, or how it has built up such a flourishing economy, or how the unity of the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora has been preserved, one must come back to the primary idea that this is 'a people that dwells alone.' More than that, one must invoke this phrase not only to understand how the Jews have existed for so long; one must invoke it as a testimony to the Jewish right to exist at all in the land of their rebirth.

            Menachem Begin was moved by this long quote and added, "So there you have it.  Cease dwelling alone and we cease to exist. What a conundrum!"  It is a conundrum, but also a challenge. 

            Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, added to this discussion:  During two thousand years of dispersion, Jews were the only people who refused to assimilate to the dominant culture or convert to the dominant faith. They showed that a nation does not need to be powerful or large to win God's favor. They showed that a nation can lose everything else - land, power, rights, a home - and yet still not lose hope. They showed that a nation can be hated, persecuted, reviled, and yet still be loved by G-d. They showed that to every law of history there is an exception. Judaism is God's question-mark against the conventional wisdom of the age.

It is neither an easy nor a comfortable fate to be 'a people that dwells alone', but it is a challenging and inspirational one.

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