Trouble in Zion
This week’s Torah chapter opens up with Moses’
begging G-d to allow him into the Promised Land. This article
explores the personality of the first true Zionist and the
greatest one of them all: Moses. And what we can learn from
his passion in today’s crisis in Zion.
It’s time to create a new religion.
I knew that line would get your attention.
Some of my “friends” would say “We knew
it all along. The guy is a nutcase. He’s out to establish
a new religion. He never had it in him to accept authority
(kabolot ol) and embrace (or conform to) our tradition.”
Others will tell me, “You have always been on the
edge. But now you’ve gone over the line.” Yet
others will berate me: “You’re into sensationalism.
You just like to make noise and get attention.”
Now that I’ve aroused your interest, let me
As Israel goes through an identity crisis
and we wonder about the meaning of Zionism today (see last
Death of Modern Zionism), one can’t help but be intrigued
by Moses’ 515 prayers beseeching G-d to allow him to enter
the Promised Land. “Please,” Moses pleads, “please let me
cross [the Jordan] and allow me to see the good land.”
What drove this Divine man’s desire,
the greatest man that ever lived, to enter Israel?! And
why would G-d allow Moses to pray in vain 515 (!) times
for a dream that would not be fulfilled?!
For that matter the same question can be asked
about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rivkah, Rochel and Leah,
and so many other great men and women throughout history:
Why were they so single-mindedly obsessed with the Promised
And above all, the question is about G-d,
Who promised the land in the first place to the children
of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. What exactly did G-d have in
mind with choosing this small parcel of land, which has
evoked more wars over the span of history than any other
piece of geography on this earth.
When Zion is embroiled in crisis, the best
way to find direction is to retrace the steps of history,
and look at the first pioneers who gave their lives to enter
the Holy Land. Moses and before him Abraham are the first
true Zionists – and much can be learned from their
Essentially their quest was a spiritual one.
In the Promised Land they recognized (as its name implies)
the promise of their lives: the ability to achieve a full
and complete integrated life. The Holy Land (as its name
asserts) contained for them the purpose of all existence:
To sanctify material life, and hallow the physical world
and transform its matter into Divine energy.
The Promised Land was for Moses not a retirement
village or a tourist attraction. It represented the essence,
the very purpose of all life. He lived with the land and
it lived within him – in every cell of his being.
Such a man cannot rest, and will not stop praying to enter
the land. Thus Moses pleads with G-d: “O G-d, What
force is there in heaven or earth who can perform deeds
and mighty acts as You do? Please let me cross” and
enter the Promised Land.
But it was not to be. The sins of the people
did not allow Moses to reach spiritual utopia.
Moses however, the true leader that he was,
instructs the people how they can earn the right “to
occupy the land that G-d is giving you.” Follow the
Divine laws and rules, “Do not add…and do not
subtract from the commandments.” By doing so you will
merit to live peacefully in the Holy Land.
What about the other nations of the world?
Without missing a beat, Moses continues: “Protect
and keep these laws, for this is your wisdom and understanding
in the eyes of the nations. They will hear all these rules
and say: ‘This great nation is certainly a wise and
understanding people. What nation is so great that they
have G-d close to it as G-d is when we call Him? What nation
is so great that they have such righteous rules and laws?”
“Only take heed and watch yourselves very
carefully, so that you do not forget the things that your
eyes saw. Do not let [this memory] leave your hearts all
the days of your lives. Teach your children and children’s
children abut the day you stood before G-d at Horeb [Sinai]”.
Can you think of any words more prescient,
more relevant to our times?
But let’s not jump ahead of ourselves. 3277
years have passed since Moses stood at the River Jordan
and declared these words. These three and half millennia
have shaped the world in which we live in today. To appreciate
the power and the significance of Moses’ words today, we
must put these years in context and understand how they
have collectively shaped and colored virtually every aspect
of life today.
The world of Moses was very different than
our own. When Moses implored G-d to enter Israel, he was
coming off of 40 difficult years of leading the people through
a hostile wilderness, followed by eighty agonizing years
under Egyptian bondage. As a man of G-d he was of the highest
saintly caliber and saw the Promised Land as the ultimate
destination of all spiritual endeavors. But at that point,
the time had not yet come for Moses to enter the land.
That was then.
The big question is what happened in the interim?
What transpired over these 3277 years that created the mess
we are in today both in Israel and the world at large? Why
do we find is do difficult to reach moral and spiritual
clarity of the sort that Moses had mastered? What is the
root of our own spiritual and emotional crisis, and overall
lack of psychological seamlessness?
So let us turn history’s clock fast forward,
and in sum we have the following story: The children of
Abraham and Moses – the Jewish people – do end up settling
Israel and building the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. But their
peace is short lived. Ultimately, due to their own spiritual
bankruptcy, inner strife and divisiveness, the two Temples
are destroyed (by the Babylonians and Romans respectively)
and the people are expelled from their land.
In the subsequent 1936 years, known as the
Common Era, all of life changed in regard to religion and
G-d. With the appropriate disclaimer of not wanting to sound
over simplistic, the last two millennia can be broken into
two general stages of religious history:
For the first 1500 years religion and monarchs
ruled much of the world. Freedom and basic human rights
as we know and cherish today simply did not exist. Individuality
– so powerful of a force in contemporary life –
was not seen as a virtue (see Individualism
The primary point that is relevant to our
discussion is that during this extended period corrupt and
arrogant forces hijacked religion and G-d. For close to
two millennia religious authorities dominated and wreaked
havoc. Multitudes were killed in various religious crusades.
First the Christians, then the Muslims determined that their
Divine mission is to conquer the world with their beliefs,
by sword if necessary.
Over the centuries this religious dominance
took its toll. We can, and may, never fully understand our
attitudes today to religion and G-d without deeply analyzing
the damage endured by the abuse of religion over the centuries.
Even one individual is irreparably scarred by religious
(or any form of) abuse. How much more so the scars that
we collectively carry by the religious forces that have
affected the critical mass?
As a result of this authoritarianism and other
factors, there was finally a backlash, which leads us into
the next stage of religious history. Some ascribe the Enlightenment
to this backlash; a reaction to years and years of relentless
suppression of the individual spirit. Obviously, no change
happens for one reason alone. Yet, no one can deny the powerful
influence of religious control on the breakout of free spiritedness.
However, though driven by some healthy impulses,
this rebellion also went too far in many circles. In face
of the newfound science and freethinking atmosphere, religion
began to be seen as at best an idea whose time had passed.
It may have served the needs of a primitive people, but
is no longer necessary in our rational world. Even if it
serves the fragile human need for hope and comfort, religion,
the Bible and all matters of faith feed the emotional part
of us, and should not be seen as empirically true, as say,
science. At worst, religion was denigrated as foolishness
embraced only by imbeciles, not by any rational, logical
person. Some even claim that religion is plain dangerous
or even a form of psychosis.
In short, in the new progressive world, G-d
was rendered either optional, unnecessary, irrelevant or
Today many thinkers acknowledge that the Enlightenment
went too far. The reason for going overboard may be justified
due to the centuries of religious abuse. However, it’s
still gone too far.
Why too far? Because it is clear – and
becoming clearer each day – that rational science
is not enough to live a wholesome life. We have spiritual
needs, which are far deeper and more necessary to find meaning
and higher purpose in life than any scientific pursuit.
Indeed, some assert that science and spirituality complement
each other, and should not be seen as two opposing forces.
Another case for religion is called ethical
Monotheism. Morality needs to have an absolute, Divine backbone,
lest it be rendered into an arbitrary, relativistic system
driven by whims or consensus, which can often be quite horrendous
(Nazi Germany is a blatant example).
Essentially, we are evolving into a much more
sophisticated place regarding our attitudes to spirituality,
religion and G-d.
But the battle still rages between the two
extremes, and we are resultantly trapped today between both
sides: Religious bigotry on one end and, its bastardized
child, secular bigotry, as Edward Gibbon, the 18th
century British historian jibed against those French thinkers
who “preached the tenets of atheism with the bigotry
of dogmatists.” Sadly, this line of thinking strongly
influenced many so called emancipated Jews, which helped
define some of the founding principles of Modern Zionism.
This distorted backlash – and the confusion
resulting from being trapped between both extremes –
lies at the heart of today’s confusion and crisis:
The fallacy – the tragic myth – of many of
our contemporary secular leaders is that we can cut out
the soul of life. Not Zionism, not Socialism, not religionism,
not any of the isms, can survive without a soul.
Many of the Enlightenment – which influenced
the founders of some of the isms – believed that with
time religion would either die out, at least for the thinking
elite, or it would be relegated as an “opiate for
the masses,” for "la canaille” [the
rabble], a phrase used in disdain by the French Enlightenment
to denigrate the masses. Religion, Voltaire wrote to Diderot,
“must be destroyed among respectable people and left
to the canaille large and small, for whom it was
They were half right: false religion would
die. But not the real thing – which beats like a heart
inside every fiber of existence.
Yes, many of the 17th, 18th
and 19th century free thinkers did not believe
that religion would be so alive today, albeit distorted.
According to their grossly mistaken – and contemptuously
condescending – viewpoint, Israel by now would have
been a totally secular state; the Arab world would be moving
toward secularism, as they embrace Western values, McDonalds
and Coca Cola (not to forget Google and Microsoft), and
some sort of vague democratic politics would be the governing
Well, wake up. It’s now early 21st
century and religious passion is alive and well –
often to our dismay. A billion plus Muslims will not let
us forget that religion is a powerful force. Neither will
over a billion Christians and billions of others who embrace
various religious/spiritual beliefs.
Mind you, much of this religion still smacks
of the bigotry and radical dogmatism of the last two millennia.
But that doesn’t diminish its power. And on the other
side we have the forces of Enlightenment, many of which
take on an equally radical anti-religiosity.
And we are left crushed in the middle trying
to pick up the pieces.
The only way out of this mess is to return
to the beginning. Moses’ words say it all: Embrace
your Divine calling and all nations will respect you. And
this calling is so just that all nations will recognize
that these are the most “righteous rules and laws.”
Indeed, I submit a bold premise: The exclusively
secular version of Zionism or any ism will not fully respect
the sacred, inalienable rights of all people, including
the Arabs living in Israel and its surrounding territories.
This also includes religionism: A distorted view of religion
will always discriminate against others.
Ironically, or perhaps logically, the obnoxious
elitists of the Enlightenment, in the name of their so-called
forward “march of the human spirit,” felt a
deep contempt for the masses. Diderot believed that we must
distrust the judgment of the “multitude” in
matters of reason and philosophy because “its voice
is that of wickedness, stupidity, inhumanity, unreason and
prejudice.” “The multitude,” he concluded,
is “ignorant and stupefied.” As Tocqueville
sardonically observed about the French, “I could mention
several who despised the public almost as heartily as they
despised the Deity.” They adored the human intellect
and had supreme confidence in its power to transform laws,
institutions, and customs. But the intellect they adored
was only their own. This was very different, he added, from
the respect shown by Englishmen and Americans for the opinions
of the majority of their countrymen. “Their intellect
is proud and self-reliant, but never insolent; and it has
led to liberty, while ours has done little but invent new
forms of servitude.” (See America
The one and only way that all humans will
be treated with the highest level of respect – is
by embracing, as Moses spelled out so clearly, the highest
standard of Divine law, a law that will be recognized for
its “wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations.”
Interestingly, the Founding Fathers of the
United States appeared to have grasped the need to balance
the two forces – of the Divine and of personal liberty
– in their Declaration of Independence: “We
hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created
equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain
unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and
the pursuit of Happiness.”
So, my initial call for a new religion is
actually about a religion that is not new at all. It is
a universal belief system that was in place from the beginning
of time. Our challenge is to transcend the distortion of
history and go back to the original, presented by Moses.
As a group of great thinkers commented on
a professor’s brilliant paper, “it’s both
good and original.” Before the professor could celebrate,
they added: “Problem is that the part that’s
good is not original and the part that’s original
is not good.”
You want to know what true lasting Zionism
is? Don’t go to Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann or Ben-Gurion.
Go visit Moses, Abraham and the hundreds of others that
gave their lives to enter the Land from the beginning of
history. They will tell you what life’s mission is
all about. They will explain to us the meaning of the Promised
and Holy Land.
515 prayers is a big number. And Moses would
have continued praying were it not for G-d telling him “enough.”
Our sages tell us that had Moses entered the
Promised Land no destruction of the Temple would ever have
been possible. So G-d, in effect, tells Moses: Sadly, the
time had not yet come for Israel to be at peace. The world
is not yet ready for you to enter the Holy Land. But do
not dismay. Your prayers are not in vain. Each one of your
515 cries will help your people in generation to endure
their growing pains as they earn their right to enter and
settle the Holy Land.
Coming off the saddest day of the year (Tisha
B’Av) when we relive the destruction of the Holy Temple
and all subsequent destructions, we are profoundly consoled
by reliving Moses’ passionate appeals. Standing on
the shoulders of giants, we can today learn to merit our
spiritual right to Zion.
What we need today is nothing less than a
revolution. Not one that begins from the top (from the establishment),
but from the grass roots.
We need to reject all the false gods and religions
that have plagued us throughout history and continue to
We must ask ourselves, as Moses reminds us
this week: Have we forgotten the things our eyes have seen?
Are we holding on to the spiritual memory in our hearts
all the days of our lives? Are we teaching our children
and children’s children abut the day we stood before
Are we demonstrating to the world that we
are a great nation, a wise and understanding people; A nation
close to G-d with the most beautiful righteous laws and
Time has come to rediscover our eternal truths.
Time has come to display the virtues Moses, so long ago,
expected of us.
Time has come for the true G-d to rise.