The Millennia-Old Problem of Yom Ha’atzmaut in America

I asked a friend tonight if he could identify the most recent time in Jewish history that every single Jew was in the Land of Israel at the same time. He noticed that it wasn’t the time of Yehoshua, because 2 1/2 tribes (see Yehoshua 22:1-9) were on the other side of the Jordan (or at least their wives and children when the men were fighting in Israel; see Bamidbar 32:26-27). The answer, I offered, is even earlier than that in history: it is the moment just before Yosef’s Yishmaeli caravan crossed the border from Canaan into Egypt (see Bereishit 37:28). Yosef would never return, at least not alive (see Bereishit 50:25, Shemot 13:19, and Yehoshua 24:32). Reuven, Gad, and half of Menashe would decline to enter the Land for what sound like highly materialistic reasons – the better for their cattle to graze (see Bamidbar 32:1-2). Seventy years after the Jews were exiled to Bavel following the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash, the majority chose not to return to the Land of Israel (see Ezra 2:64). It was the resulting Babylonian community which produced the Talmud Bavli – that essential bedrock of Jewish civilization – and whose tentacles spread outward to Spain (link), France, and Germany (link). Meanwhile, the Israeli community lay dormant, persecuted by Pablo Christiani after his conversion in 312 made life in Israel too difficult to be deemed worthwhile and the vast majority of the Israeli scholars moved to Bavel. The near-irrelevance of the Talmud Yerushalmi at any point in history makes clear that it was outside Israel that the Torah flourished in Talmudic times. It was in galut that we produced the Rambam, Tur, and Shulchan Aruch and all of their commentaries. For millennia, the question of whether we were geographically dislocated or how we could rectify that situation took a backseat to the question of how we could fulfill our God-given purpose in the world wherever we happened to find ourselves at the moment.

With the rise of European nationalism in the 19th century, a wave of Zionistic fervor took hold, eventually finding a religious foothold in the writings of Kook, Teichtal, and Tukochintsky. In the unclouded mind of the simple American Jew unencumbered by the antagonism of Satmar or the antipathy of Agudas Yisroel, a sense of Messianic progress is felt today after 1948, 1967, and even 1973 showed what seemed like at least B+ miracles, if not A-. Listening to a Lakewood-influenced Rav tonight express flippant sarcasm about Yom Ha’atzmaut, I couldn’t help wonder how he would have reacted if he had been present to see Keriyat Yam Suf, the splitting of the Reed Sea. “I mean, it was nice and everything – but shira? I don’t know. I need a little more than that. So a sea split – can we be sure that that is supposed to mean something?” How ironic that it is the frummest elements of our community today who would have been among the 4/5ths of the Jews who felt insufficiently impressed by the makkot to believe that they were supposed to mean that the redemption was imminent. A tiny Israeli army defeats the entire Arab world in six days? Who knows – I’m certainly not one to say it has Messianic significance. Missiles flying from Gaza reroute themselves to land in the sea, resulting in inexplicably few injuries and not a single death? Our job is to wait in Galut for a significant sign from Hashem that the end is near.

So we wait indeed, together, from the frummest cynics to the most apathetic Reformers, an incongruous mix crowded together at a rapidly decaying bus stop watching bus after bus pass by, bound together by our inability to recognize that all that time spent waiting for the bus was never intended to be the point of it all. Among us there are those who are teachers, leaders, outreach workers; we turn up our noses at our brethren on the bus who have disregarded the bus stop community and all of its heavy needs. But the students and laymen whom we teach, lead, and guide, they who have slowly turned the decrepit bus stop into a luxury hotel, largely have no response, and we begin to resent them too as the ruse grows older with each passing year. By and large, the leaders and teachers would be the first ones to finally board the bus if their services were no longer needed at the bus stop. For the entire crowd, but most particularly for the leaders, Yom Ha’atzmaut is less a day of revelry than one of reflection and consternation: What is going on here? Why are we watching buses pass by when we could be sitting on them? But an escape hatch, an exit strategy, appears noticeably and inexplicably lacking as all our pleading to the crowds falls on deaf ears. An American Jewish outreach worker said to me a few years ago, “I like Israel, but I love Jews.” To we who have prioritized the crowds at the bus stop over the destination promised by the passing buses, we have been offered a nauseating choice by our proteges: abandon the historical principle for which we have striven since Yosef’s caravan left Canaan, or abandon the responsibility we have been handed in our own time. At least for me, no day represents that awful choice more than Yom Ha’atzmaut.

I will dance with my students tomorrow in the dwindling hope that at least a few will board the bus when they have the chance in a few years, and indeed it is possible that some of them finally will, even after their parents’ apathy gives us little reason to expect that the next generation, too, will not spend a lifetime watching buses pass by. Yet I will also continue to teach my 6th graders shalshelet ha’mesorah tomorrow, the history of Halacha, one colored by individuals who by and large thought far less than we do about the possibility of moving to Israel and yet who managed to accomplish an awful lot stuck out in the rain. Can we be certain that, even if Mashiach came tomorrow and the third Beit Hamikdash was built, there would not continue to be a Diaspora community, as there was during the time of the second Beit Hamikdash? Aside from the millions of Israeli citizens who, absent a State, would make the Diaspora community far more vibrant than it is today, is there any reason to believe that we cannot be equally or more productive than Yosef, Mordechai, Shmuel Hanagid, or Abarbanel – each of whom maintained dual relationships with the King above and the king below? Perhaps we can do so much more at the bus stop than watch buses pass by, as so many did before us; or perhaps that is an outmoded hope which has not been relevant since the United Nations told us even more boldly than Koresh in his time that the time has come to punch a one-way return ticket home.

My friend remarked that it is interesting that Yosef’s caravan of Yishmaelim marked the end of the time of complete Jewish population in Israel, because it is Mashiach ben Yosef who will bring us back together once again. Quite right. Although Galut Mitzrayim was preordained, it also had to be brought about by our own hands, by an unconscionable act of baseless brotherly hatred. So began what has in reality been a single exile, albeit one with different stages. Today we stand on the cusp of redemption, but perhaps our only ticket out is to act on an urge of brotherly love unequaled in its intensity since the reverse emotion brought about that very exile. Short of that impulse, as Tevya said, “I guess we’ll just have to wait someplace else.”

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