ON May 14, 1948, the first prime minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, read the declaration of independence, thereby establishing the modern state of Israel.
hebrewscriptures with BENJAMIN LEON
What was the secret of this magical land?
When the state of Israel was proclaimed, the world watched with great anticipation. Everyone knew of the Jews’ awesome impact — from the rabbinic greats Maimonides and the Vilna Gaon, to the groundbreaking work of Freud, Einstein and countless Nobel laureates. If the Jews could achieve this despite difficult exile — Crusades, Inquisition, pogroms, and Holocaust — then reunited in their ancient homeland they would surely transform the world.
Israel’s first 70 years have been nothing less than astounding. Israel rose from a population of 800 000 in 1948, to 8,6 million today — multiplying more than 10-fold. (By contrast, the US population has slightly more than doubled in that time.) Prior to the Holocaust 80 years ago, only 3% of Jews worldwide lived in Israel. Today that number is 45%, and for the first time in 2 000 years, the largest Jewish population centre is Israel.
On a broader scale, Israel’s growing economic, military and diplomatic clout now ranks it one of the world’s top-10 superpowers. Israel has achieved the unimaginable by reviving Hebrew as a spoken language, while miraculously “ingathering the exiles” — nearly a million immigrants from Middle Eastern countries, and another million from the former Soviet Union, plus dramatic returns of Ethiopian Jews and “lost tribes” from the Far East.
This rebirth of the Jewish people in their homeland is totally unprecedented in the annals of history.
Along with the remarkable emergence of Israel as a start-up nation, in the field of Torah (Five Books of Moses) education, modern Israel has witnessed an explosion, with citadels of Ponevich, Chevron and Mir — the largest yeshiva (college) in the world with 9 000 students. It is here that Jewish ethics are honed: the balance of individual and communal rights; end-of-life issues; and the moral code of modern warfare. And it is here that Jews learn of the obligation to inspire the rest of the country, to create positive PR for God and His Torah. As Maimonides writes, the definition of Kiddush Hashem (bless the Almighty) is where somebody sees a religious person acting with kindness, compassion and integrity, and thinks: “If this is what Torah does for a person, then I want it, too.”
Given all they have achieved in 70 years, the Jewish historical mission — to bring the light of Torah to all humanity — is not yet complete. The prophet assures us that wisdom emanating from Jerusalem’s study halls will one day “fill the land with knowledge of God, as water covers the sea” (Isaiah 11:9).
As Rabbi Noah Weinberg said: “I’ve seen it time and time again: When a Jew is turned on to Torah, it sparks enthusiasm, energy and unbridled passion. Imagine an entire nation of Jews empowered to carry forth the Jewish message of rational, relevant wisdom for living. With technology, the message can go forth rapidly and effectively. How beautiful this would be!”
So what will be our national passion? Israel’s founding father, the staunch secularist David Ben-Gurion, was torn. On one hand, he proclaimed Israel’s “dream to be a normal people with our own prostitutes and thieves.” On the other hand, appearing in 1936 before the British Peel Commission, he declared: “The Bible is our mandate to the land.”
Herein lies the dichotomy.
Yes, they have succeeded in building the finest hospitals, roads, schools and industry. Yes, they are lauded as the “start-up nation,” a hi-tech leader in science, medicine, agriculture, energy and security, with the largest number of Nasdaq-listed companies outside of North America. These are indeed tremendous achievements, and they did it all amidst boycotts, terror and war.
But there is more. If this infrastructure is the “body” of Israel, Torah (Five Books of Moses) is our nation’s soul.
Benjamin Leon is a member of the Jewish community in Zimbabwe.
Feedback: vleon@ mango.zw