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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776

Going up, going down III

Galilee Diary #206
November 7, 2004
Marc J. Rosenstein

The Torah consists, in large part, of a "user manual" for the promised land. The laws of agriculture, worship, justice, and social organization are essentially a constitution, given in the desert before our arrival in Eretz Yisrael, intended to define and govern the society that we would establish upon our arrival. Whether we ever really finally did implement all the provisions of this instruction is a subject for debate both among the rabbis and among the historians. In any case, what is certain is that the assumption of the Torah was that its point of reference was a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael. Therefore, the exile that followed the Babylonian conquest in 586 BCE was not just a political, but a theological crisis. If our institutions of social order and of religion were based on existence as a state, how would we exist scattered about among other states, far from the homeland that had been the natural soil in which our collective existence had been rooted?

Well, we figured it out. We created communities, we adapted large parts of the Torah for the governance of these communities, we created a whole structure of observances that constituted a vicarious connection to the homeland. And we were so successful at this that most of us, throughout the generations, were content to pass up opportunities to return to Israel, and accepted the fate of exile as a given. At the same time, however, we did not stop reciting, with great emotion, the texts that spoke of the vision of return. We did not stop praying, with sincerity, for God to repent of His anger and restore "the good old days" of national existence in our homeland.

Then, driven by a humanist world view that believes that we are responsible for our own fate, Zionism came along and in the course of a century brought about what looks like the fulfillment of many of the prophecies of return and restoration. Initially this endeavor was strongly opposed by most of the Orthodox world; today that opposition is still firm in many communities – but in many others, the prayerbook refers to the state of Israel as "the first flowering of our redemption."

For years, it was taken for granted by Zionists and Israelis both secular and religious that the ingathering of the exiles we have witnessed since the 1940s represents the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. For example (Isaiah 43:5-6):

…I will bring your people from the east, will gather you out of the west;

I will say to the north, “Give back!” and to the south, “Do not withhold!

Bring My sons from afar and My daughters from the end of the earth…”

The "words of the prophets are written on subway walls," or at least on the walls of absorption centers and government offices etc. The absorption of the refugees from Europe, the airlifts from Yemen and Ethiopia, the rich, multicultural, Jewish melting pot/pressure cooker/tossed salad that makes Israel so wonderful – are moving and inspiring and seem an epic worthy of the prophets' intentions.

However, an implication of this line of thought, from the prophets to Herzl, is that the Diaspora is destined to disappear. If this is the redemption, then it is supposed to involve the return of all the Jews to their homeland, not just those who are in distress in a particular corner of exile. This used to be a significant theme in Zionist rhetoric, and Israelis took it for granted. Today, reality has tempered the rhetoric, and we seek a new way to look at our place in history, in which Israeli and Diaspora communities coexist in mutuality or even symbiosis. The question is: is this a new definition of redemption, or just acceptance of the fact that we are still nowhere even close to messianic times?

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