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The Book of Isaiah and the Unintended History of Israel, Part 1

August 19, 2013

Years ago, I was contemplating the upcoming Yom Yerushalayim celebration, or lack thereof, on our first trip to Israel after our wedding. Some weeks before that, I had told a friend that if one were to map out Jewish History on a graph with the X axis representing time and the Y axis representing what I termed “geula potential,” one would find that over the course of the centuries there were various spikes that represented periods when we could have achieved our divinely ordained goal, the last of which being the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War. I thought the story was pretty much well known. The Arab hordes threatened to destroy all of the Jews of Israel, world Jewry believed them, the religious prayed and fasted, and then, miracles of miracles, they were delivered, with the added bonus of receiving control of the holy places. How could Jews across the world not celebrate the holiday?

At our own Yeshiva, some of the faculty had their own opinions of the day. Rabbi Yehuda Parnes had the most telling. He acknowledged that at the time, “it was a great y’shua [salvation],” but the feeling wore off. Students would say Rabbi Yehuda Shmulewitz claimed that the Mir Yeshiva did celebrate the day because the Yeshiva was saved from destruction thereon. Something about a missile that nearly hit the beis midrash, or the like. I did not understand the argument. Were not all the yeshivoth of Jerusalem spared destruction? Were not all the people of Israel spared destruction, for that matter? It should have thus been a holiday along the lines of Purim and Hanukkah.

When we were in Israel for Jerusalem Day 5766, there were of course those Jews that celebrated the day, and then there were those who did not. If someone was not religiously inclined, or was such a hard leftist that he believed Rachel Corrie was murdered by the Zionist regime, then I could understand why he felt no reason to celebrate, but there were many so-called religious people who did not celebrate. That was inexcusable. When I would speak to many people my father’s age or older, people who were at least young adults at the time of the Six Day War, they all acknowledged, like Rabbi Parnes, that the events were nothing short of miraculous, but somehow, either the “gedolim” did not feel it was necessary to ordain a holiday, or some other cop-out would be offered. (I say cop out because the answers would be devoid of halachic reasoning and argumentation. According to Hazal, just dropping a big name when not invoking a tradition is not a valid halachic argument.) Worse, among the next generation I found that there was, most importantly, an utter lack of knowledge of what had happened at all, let alone that the day should be a holiday. As a good test case, in my yeshiva, the younger faculty knew that there had been a war and that only hard core Zionists or modernishers observed the holiday, and among my peers just a few knew what the Six Day War was and when it happened, and these were young men who were mostly from Modern Orthodox backgrounds!

A week later, as we sat in the Old City of Jerusalem preparing with the rest of the Jewish people for the Shavuoth holiday, a holiday that has been transformed beyond recognition and is no longer observed the way it was intended, I realized why it was so important to establish holidays, especially new ones.

Why, I asked, did G-d ordain that so many commandments, like all sabbbaths and holidays, and tzitzis, tefillin, mezuza, tzedaka, and shemitta, and numerous others, be in memory of the Exodus? Why do I have to specifically and verbally recall the Exodus every evening and morning in Kriath Sh’ma? Was not Passover enough to memorialize the event? Was Passover even necessary to memorialize the singular event that transformed us into a nation, that changed all of us from idolater slaves to free monotheists? Should not such a formative experience be forever on our minds? If you had grown up all your life in an underground prison, wouldn’t the day of your emancipation, your first day above the surface, be like your new birthday?

The answer is that because we are human, we need to constantly remind ourselves of these things. We only appreciate what has been done for us lately. Because the Exodus is so important, G-d ordained that so many of his commandments be predicated on it. The first of the Ten Commandments is fittingly “I am the L-rd Thy G-d Who took thee out of the Land of Egypt,” and not “Who hast created the Heavens and the Earth.” The commandment had to be relevant to our natures. Were it not for all these observances, we may have very well forgotten about the Exodus.

That is why it was so important for us to establish the holidays of Purim and Hanukka. The great salvations thereof might have become forgotten if not. Indeed, in our own generations, the fact that Israeli Independence Day and Jerusalem Day were not treated with the proper reverence in their first few years resulted in a new generation that has paltry appreciation for the magnitude of the historical significance of those days. Short-sighted sages of the past generation debated the minutiae of, for example, the propriety of the recitation of the Hallel on those days, but at least they were starting from the assumption that the days were special and called for something. However, because they felt bound not to innovate any observance or too humble to advocate applying well-known but little-invoked laws, the next generation took the lack of practical religious observance of those days as an indication of those days lacking religious significance. As we shall see, our sages believed that such mistakes could have the capacity to alter history and delaying the coming of the Redemption.

(Part 2)


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