Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Israel celebrates 60... but remember Zecharyah's message


Sixty, in the Torah, is a measure of completion:
  • The sages refer to the number of Jews who left Egypt as "60 myriads" (Talmud, Megilah 29a)
  • Large gatherings in general are defined as gatherings of "60 myriads" (Talmud, Berachot 58a).
  • The Temple in Jerusalem was 60 cubits long (Kings I 6:2).
  • Sixty warriors surround the bed of King Solomon, a full complement of defenders (Song of Songs 3:7).
  • Sixty myriads of angels crowned the Jews at Mount Sinai when we accepted the Torah (Talmud, Shabbat 88a).

There is an element of completion, then, in reaching the age of 60, however battered and broken we may feel at times; mazal tov!

I submitted the following column to the Allentown Morning Call's Religion section, in honor of the occasion:

A Lesson from Zechariah, on Israel's 60th Birthday

Some 2400 years ago, as the Jews were slowly building the Second Temple in Jerusalem, they asked the prophet Zechariah (Zechariah 7), “Shall we continue to fast for the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple? Or has our period of mourning ended?”

Commentators explain that this question was born of frustration with the slow pace of Jewish redemption from their exile to Babylon. Persian King Cyrus had permitted the Jews to return to Israel and build their Temple anew, but the process had been hampered by Samaritan antagonism as well as Jewish poverty. Those who remembered the glory of the First Temple were unimpressed by the diminished beauty of the second. Only a small percentage of the nation had even returned from exile at this stage of the building process. And so the nation wanted to know: Is this what redemption looks like? Is our suffering truly over, or are we simply in another phase of our exile?

Fast-forward to our own day, and May 2008, as Israel celebrates its sixtieth anniversary of modern statehood. When this new incarnation of a Jewish country was first established, just a few years after the Holocaust, many Jews looked upon its birth as a Divine nod of approval, the first sproutings of Messianic redemption. A holiday, Yom ha’Atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) was established, complete with special prayers of thanks and great celebrations.

Over the past sixty years, Israel has succeeded in fulfilling much of that messianic promise. Millions of Jews have been saved from persecution in other countries, such as France, Argentina, Yemen, Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. The Torah is studied there in dozens if not hundreds of institutions. Sites barred to Jews by generations of Arab rulers are now open for all to access. A thriving economy, great universities, a society with civil rights for all of its citizens, a democratically elected government and a free press, all of these have been introduced for the first time in many centuries into a land which had been governed by one despot or another for almost two thousand years, since the eviction of the Jews by the Roman empire. In many ways, the past sixty years have seen a great, even messianic, Jewish renaissance in Israel.

But, at the same time, the question of Zechariah’s era resonates with Jews of today’s generation. For thousands of years, Jewish sages have taught that a messianic time would mean peace with the nations around us, a return to Jewish religion by all Jews, and a Temple on the Temple Mount. It is for this that Jews have prayed, “And may our eyes behold Your merciful return to Zion,” three times each day, for millenia. And so Jews today look at constant warfare, internecine squabbles, political corruption and significant poverty among children and the elderly, and ask the question of their ancestors: “Shall we continue to fast for the destruction of the First Temple? Or has our period of mourning ended?”

To this question, Zechariah’s answer is as relevant today as it was in his day. The prophet reminded the populace of the sins which had preceded the First Temple’s destruction, as well as the exhortations of his predecessors: “Judge truthfully, and act with generosity and mercy toward each other. Do not cheat the widow, the orphan and the stranger, and do not plot evil against your brother in your hearts.”

In other words: Dithering about whether deliverance has arrived, or not, is a waste of time. Better to focus on righting wrongs and building a proper society, and ensuring that we earn whatever redemption God has in store.

This is a timeless message, for Jews and for all humanity’s eschatology-oriented religions: Divine Redemption will come, whatever its form, when it is Divinely decreed. Our responsibility is not to attach a label to this salvation, but to work to make it a reality.

You might also see my derashah here.


  1. Our responsibility is not to attach a label to this salvation, but to work to make it a reality.

    And that my friend, is only possible here.

    Chag Sameach!

  2. Jameel- Agreed, agreed, agreed. A million times over.

  3. And that my friend, is only possible here.

    I don't entirely buy into it. There are important and valuable things that can be done from outside the land.

    Is it harder, more challenging? Of course, but in the end it is not impossible.

  4. Jack-
    Important and valuable, certainly. But building a Jewish society in Israel? There's no comparing what can be accomplished here with what can be accomplished, along those lines, in Israel.

  5. Who has heard that in the 1930's Bagdad every 3rd citizen was a native Jew? The Sefardi (Safrati) Jews have a 400 year old history and the Mizrahi Jews over 2,500 year old history in the Middle East - outside the location of the state of Israel (Palestine).

    Here's the statistics regarding not ONLY the expelsion of Jews from various Moslim countries in the last 60 years that Israel has been an independent state, but also numbers expelled from the Europe in a longer time interval. The Jews are no settlers of colonialism:

    60 years of survival. This is statistics, not Zionism. When the military means have lacked the power, it is now a time of a media war to spit on the Jews and curse the Jewish Scriptures. Both the Old and New Testament were written by Jews. Although Jasser Arafat in his books claimed that there never was any Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and that Jesus was not a Jew, he could not deceive the honest spectator

    As a matter of fact, the population of Arabs (my beloved friends and brothers, just like the Jews, our common fathers) under the Israeli government was increased ten-fold (10X) in only 57 years. This is close to the world record for any tribe, nation, tongue or culture on the whole planet at the same time interval. The Sefardi Jews were expelled from Spain in the very date when Christoffer Colombo lifted up his anchors and sailed away from Spain. The Jews had to leave and their possessions were stolen. In the case of the Mizrahi, the Jews have lived for millennia all around the Middle East since the first exile of Israel 500 B.C., in what are now Muslim-dominated countries. While much has been made of the 700,000 Palestinians having been made homeless with the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, it's peculiar that there is no official recognition of their Jewish counterparts. A greater number of Jews - some 856,000 - were forcefully expelled from Arab countries after the creation of the State of Israel, their homes forfeited, their belongings seized. They became refugees, migrating to Israel, mainly. But they did not spoke any Hebrew but Arabic and Farsi (Persian).

    The Second Intifada is called the Oslo War. Israel has been forced to damage the very infrastructure she has constructed and administrated while hunting the weapons from the milittant "freedom fighters". Between 1967-1993 roads, system of siewers (gutters, ditches), electricity supply, water supply, schools, health care system, and social welfare system to the West Bank and Gaza. Even for the Arab citizens of Israel, ideal was that everyody gets the same salary for the same job, with the same social benefits. This is stated in the law, officially. In contrast, even the official law in Jordan which has the peace treaty with Israel, it is forbidden for a Jew to live in the country. The health care services have been free for the Arab population, only a portion of the price of the drugs must have been paid by the patients. Under the administrations of Great Britain (1920-1947) or Jordan (1948-1967), no universities were established for the Arabs in the country. Also, an independent newspaper has appeared in Jerusalem since 1969, which has never been put under a censorship.

    The Palestinian life expectancy increased from 48 to 72 years in 1967-1995. The death rate decreased by over 2/3 in 1970-1090 and the Israeli medical campaigns decreased the child deat rate from a level of 60 per 1000 in 1968 to 15 per 1000 in 2000. (An analogous figure was 64 in Iraq, 40 in Egypt, 23 in Jordan, and 22 in Syria in 2000). During 1967-1988 the amount of comprehensive schoold and second level polytechnic institutes for the Arabs was increased by 35%. During 1970-1986 the proportion of Palestinian women at the West Bank and Gaza not having gone to school decreased from 67 % to 32 %. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita in West Bank and Gaza increased in 1968-1991 BKT from 165 US dollars to 1715 dollars (compare with 1630$ in Turkey, 1440$ in Tunis, 1050$ in Jordan, 800$ in Syria, 600$ in Egypt. and 400$ in Yemen).

    One-fourth of the judgements of the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations strike Israel. Out of the incidences dealt in the Security Counsil one-third is having to do with Israel. I think this resembles the hysteria seen in the Black Plague in Europe, when the European Jews were accused of the pandemia and burned alive. The phobic mob was really scared and saw the peculiar Jews as a threat.
    Helsinki, Finland