A birthday is a time for celebration but also a time for reflection. What have I achieved in my years on this earth? Have I lived up to the mission which brought me here? A birthday begs us to ask the biggest question of all: Why was I born in the first place? What is the purpose of my life?
As people celebrate the 60th birthday of the modern state of Israel, it’s a most appropriate time to reflect on the nature and purpose of this complex land, and is it living up to its mission.
In truth, Israel is not 60 years old. It is more like 3745 years old – if you count from the time that Abraham first settled in the land. Or 3280 years old – from the time the Jewish people entered the Promised Land. This number is not just a matter of semantics; it had far reaching consequences. For example, if Israel is only 60 years old what right does it have to displace millions of Palestinians who have been living there far longer?
Regardless – Israel’s age is not the focus of this article – since Israel’s birthday is in the news, it’s hard to ignore the relevance of this week’s Torah portion, which defines in succinct and pointed terms the purpose of the Land of Israel.
Contrast always helps crystallize matters. Examining the wide range of opinions about Israel’s mission will help us appreciate, by contrast, this Torah portion’s glaring message to us on this matter.
From the time of modern Zionism’s birth in the 19th century, the meaning of the return to Israel and creation of a Jewish homeland was fraught with different interpretations and objectives. Some argued that the objective of the state was a political one. There were those that maintained that the return to the Jewish homeland is of religious nature, while others adamantly opposed the state as defiance of G-d. Other groups focused on the culture, language and economics of the state. From one extreme to the next, the meaning and purpose of Israel, was a matter of hot debate: Labor, socialist, revisionist, political, agrarian, synthetic, utopian, nationalist, cultural, religious – are among the different shapes Zionism took on. And anti-Zionism too comes in various colors.
To this day no consensus has ever been reached as to the purpose of the Land of Israel. No wonder Israel was never able to adopt a formal constitution (and instead has their “Eleven Basic Laws” as they’re called), because of a conflict over what constitutes fundamental law within Israeli society. Many religious Jews hold that the only real constitution for a Jewish state is the Torah and Jewish law (Halacha). They not only see no need for a modern secular constitution, but even see in such a document a threat to the supremacy of the Torah and the constitutional tradition associated with it that has developed over thousands of years to serve the Jewish people in their land and in the Diaspora. The secular majority wants the state to be strictly secular (as in the slogan “a state of chok (civil law), not a state of halacha”). With all the attempts to achieve reconciliation, the issue remains deadlocked and the heart of the polarization, which has not allowed a formal constitution to be ratified.
In such a muddled quagmire how can we ever effectively reflect on the meaning of Israel’s birth, and what would constitute success? The answer, of course, depends on what we call success, which brings us back to the question: what is the identity and nature of Israel?
For instance, if Israel is strictly about a Jewish homeland, you can call it a huge success: Just 60 years ago its Jewish population was 800,000 (in 1914 it was 60,000), and today it is close to 6 million – the largest concentrated population of Jews on earth, for the very first time surpassing the United States in that status.
If Israel is about defense and a strong army, or about developing technologies and standard of living, it clearly is also a success.
As a center for Torah scholarship and thriving religion – Israel is also a shining triumph.
But if Israel is about spiritual vision, unity among Jews, leadership, soul, a moral standard, a light unto nations – then there is much to be desired (some would say far worse).
Enter this week’s Torah portion, Behar:
When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land must be given a rest period, a Sabbath to G-d.
The question is asked: The next verse spells out that for six years plant your fields, prune your vineyards, and harvest your crops, but the seventh year is a Sabbath of Sabbaths for the land. It is G-d’s Sabbath. So why the need for the opening, redundant, statement that when you come to the land that I am giving you, the land must be given a rest period, a Sabbath to G-d?
The order of events is that when you enter the land the six years of harvest precede the Sabbatical; why does the Torah state that “when you come to the land” immediately give it a “rest period?”
The significance of the Sabbatical year – this year happens to be one – is to remind us that earth belongs to G-d, not to man. It makes us aware of the purpose of our lives and our hard work (six years of planting, pruning and harvesting) – to transform and spiritualize the material universe, elevating it to a state of Sabbath holiness.
By opening with the mitzvah of the Sabbatical year the Torah is brilliantly emphasizing the mission and purpose of coming “to the land that I am giving you.”
When you come to the land that I am giving you – never forget its purpose and raison d’etre: The land must be given a rest period, a Sabbath to G-d.
What happens when an entity sadly forgets its purpose or wanders off course? It cannot function properly, as it becomes displaced from its driving ethos. Think of a machine that is not following its engineer’s objectives.
When the purpose of the land is tragically forgotten displacement follows: “Exile comes to the world for… not resting the earth (during the Sabbatical year)” (Avot 5:9).
Conversely, when the Sabbatical purpose is remembered redemption comes to the world (this may explain the Talmud: at the end of the Sabbatical year Moshiach will come – Sanhedrin 97a).
Everything in this world has a soul. Health is dependent on the body and mechanics being aligned to their soul. How much more so when it comes to the Holy Land, the Promised Land – its optimal welfare and success is contingent on it living up to its soul (see The Death of Modern Zionism?).
This week’s Torah portion reveals for us a profound secret – the secret why Israel has dominated the news not only for 60 years, but for the last four millennia. Disproportionate to its size the Promised Land carries unparalleled influence throughout history. From the beginning of time people, nations and religions have been fighting for control of the Holy Land. What is the mysterious power of this small piece of geography (the size of New Jersey)?
The answer is Israel’s holiness. Israel is the soul of the universe; its spiritual vortex. Its’ destiny will define the destiny of the entire globe.
So what is Israel’s secret weapon?
The Sabbatical Year.