Tag Archives: Holy Land

1909: End of the “Jewish Curse” and Fulfilment of Prophecy

Towards the end of this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, we read a long list of horrifying curses with which God threatens the Jewish people if they stray from the path of righteousness. What’s more shocking than reading this terrible list is realizing that the Jewish people have experienced just about every one of these curses in our long history: oppression, destruction, injustice, fear, poverty, starvation, exile, genocide, desperation, forced conversion, captivity, expulsion, and utter annihilation. The Torah says that these travails will be so extensive that the Jewish people “will become an astonishment, an example, a byword among all the peoples to whom Hashem will lead you.” (Deut. 28:37) Israel will become the very epitome of curses and suffering. Indeed, history has confirmed this unfortunate prophecy.

Thankfully, the prophecies don’t end there. The haftarah for this parasha is a passage from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah prophesies the very opposite, and says that a time will come when all of these curses will be reversed into blessings. Whereas Moses says God “will scatter you among all the nations, from one end of the earth to the other,” (28:64), Isaiah says that “all have gathered, they have come to you; your sons shall come from afar, and your daughters shall be raised…” (60:4). While Moses warns that “your skies above you will be copper, and the earth below you iron” (28:23), Isaiah says that “Instead of the copper I will bring gold, and instead of the iron I will bring silver.” (60:17) God confirms that He has put us through many trials in the past, and while this was long in duration, it was nonetheless only temporary, for “in My wrath I struck you, and in My grace I have had mercy on you.” (60:10)

Amazingly, we are living the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecies. The Jewish people have returned en masse to the Promised Land, have made the barren deserts bloom once more, and have miraculously defended their borders time and again. In the span of just several decades, the State of Israel has transformed into an agricultural, technological, and military powerhouse – despite very few natural resources, a small landmass, and a tiny population. As Isaiah predicted “…the abundance of the west shall be turned over to you, the wealth of the nations will come to you.” (60:5) Now, all that remains to be seen is the last part of Isaiah’s promises:

Violence shall no longer be heard in your land, neither robbery nor destruction within your borders, and you shall call your walls “salvation”, and your gates “praise”… And your people, all of them righteous, shall inherit the land forever, a scion of My planting, the work of My hands in which I will glory. The smallest shall become a thousand and the least a mighty nation; I am Hashem, in its time I will hasten it. (60:18, 21-22)

Israel will finally have true peace, with the world no longer questioning the indigenous Jewish people’s legitimacy to inhabit their Holy Land. The very last verse of this prophecy then says that when that time finally comes, God will “hasten” its arrival. This is quite the perplexing statement, and one that has kept rabbis and scholars thinking for millennia. The problem is as follows: If something is being hastened, then it is obviously coming before its time, and if it is coming on time, then it hasn’t been hastened!

Another way of looking at it is that one makes haste when they are already late. Few would disagree that this final redemption is long overdue. Since it is so late in coming, God will make haste to bring it about. An even simpler explanation is that when the time comes, God will hasten the series of events to bring about that happy ending. Recent history has shown that this is exactly what has happened.

In the late 1800s, the thought of an independent Jewish state in the Holy Land was still a very distant dream. The “first aliyah” began in 1882, and though as many as 35,000 Jews migrated to Israel by 1903, some scholars estimate that up to 90% of them left Israel soon after because of unfavourable conditions.

Then came 1909. In that year, a group of ten men and two women established a unique collective near the Galilee which would become the first kibbutz. The model of the kibbutz proved successful, and expanded from twelve people in 1909 to four thousand people living in thirty kibbutzim across the country by 1929. The kibbutz became one of the most significant factors in the rebirth of Israel, playing a key role in defending the land, driving agricultural innovation, and inspiring the “Israeli dream”.

Degania Alef, the first kibbutz, in 1910 (Left), and in 1931 (Right)

Degania Alef, the first kibbutz, in 1910 (Left), and in 1931 (Right)

Around the same time in 1909, a group of 66 families parceled out a plot of land outside of Jaffa (which was previously purchased by a wealthy Dutch Jew named Jacobus Kann). By 1922, this little settlement had become the bustling city of Tel-Aviv, with a population hitting 34,000 just a few years later. It would only take two more decades for the declaration of independence to be proclaimed from that city, and two more to liberate all of Jerusalem.

66 Families Parcel Out Tel-Aviv in 1909 (Left), the city in 1922 (Middle), and Tel-Aviv today (Right)

66 Families Parcel Out Tel-Aviv in 1909 (Left); the city in 1922 (Centre); and Tel-Aviv today (Right)

Events have certainly progressed very quickly, and a glance at today’s geopolitical situation shows that they continue to rapidly accelerate. The spark for it all appears to have been lit in 1909 by those two seminal events – the first kibbutz and the first city – which propelled the rebirth of Israel and the fulfilment of Biblical prophecy. What’s most interesting is that this special number – 1909 – is precisely the gematria (numerical value) of that final cryptic verse of Isaiah: “The smallest shall become a thousand and the least a mighty nation; I am Hashem, in its time I will hasten it.”


The above is adapted from Garments of Light: 70 Illuminating Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion and Holidays. Click here to get the book! 

Yom Ha’Atzmaut: Uniting the Secular and the Religious

The 5th of Iyar is Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. It was on this day in 1948 that David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel. Immediately, the armies of three neighbouring Arab states—Egypt, Jordan, and Syria—declared war and invaded. Iraq and Saudi Arabia sent in additional forces. Lebanon assisted them, too. Yemen, Pakistan, and Sudan sent even more fighters. On top of that, there were fighters of the Holy War Army, essentially a local Arab militia composed of over 1,300 troops, as well as the Arab Liberation Army, with over 6,000 troops from various Arab states. Despite being completely surrounded, outnumbered, and outgunned, the nascent State of Israel miraculously destroyed its enemies in just under ten months.

The miracles did not stop there. In 1967, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq amassed 550,000 troops to “drive Israel into the sea.” With less than half of those numbers, Israel launched a pre-emptive strike that decimated the Arab forces in six days. Jerusalem was reclaimed, allowing Jews to visit their most holy sites for the first time in centuries. The miracles continued through the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and even through the 1991 Gulf War (which Israel did not directly take part in), and continue to this day. Ben-Gurion’s famous words are fitting: “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.”

Despite the fact that Jews once more have an independent state that is strong and prosperous (for the first time since the Maccabees defeated the Greeks and established the Hasmonean kingdom over 2000 years ago) there have been some, particularly in the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish world, that have opposed the State. This opposition comes in various degrees, from those that simply don’t support the secular government; to those that refuse to participate in state programs, military or national service, and the like; to those that completely side with anti-Israel groups bent on annihilating the State. Although, of course, the State of Israel is far from perfect, and its secularization often takes reprehensible forms, opposing the State makes little sense, particularly in light of what Jewish holy texts tell us.

Meanwhile, the ultra-secular elements in Israel, who strive to expunge Judaism, make even less sense, considering that the only claim Jews have to the land is tied to the Torah—the fact that God gave us this land, and we are its indigenous people, inhabiting it since Biblical times. Without the Tanakh, what claim does a secular person have to live in Israel? Moreover, many secular Israelis are blinding themselves to the miracle that is Israel, failing to see God’s hand in every step of its history.

By properly exploring Israel’s miraculous existence, perhaps the gap between the secular and the religious may be bridged. The former can come to see the validity and truth of God and His Torah, while the latter can come to see the State of Israel as a fulfilment of Biblical prophecy.

Prophecy Fulfilled

A look through history makes it clear: if it were not for God’s incredible miracles, the State of Israel would have never gotten off its feet, nor would it have survived to this day. God promises us in the Torah that “five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall chase ten thousand; and your enemies shall fall before you by the sword.” (Leviticus 26:8) This is precisely what has happened in every single war that Israel has participated in. In 1948, Israel tragically suffered 6,000 casualties, while the Arabs suffered over 20,000. In 1967, Israel suffered as many as 983, but the Arabs over 24,000. In 1973, Israel was surprise-attacked on Yom Kippur, completely unprepared for battle, faced with an invasion that had over one million troops from literally all over the world, including nearly 4,000 from Cuba! In comparison, Israel had 400,000 at best, reservists included. The highest estimates place 2,800 Israeli casualties, compared to 20,000 for the attackers.

In one well-known incident from this war, 150 Syrian tanks went up against just 7 remaining Israeli tanks left with no ammo in the “Valley of Tears” of the Golan Heights. Just as Israeli commander Avigdor Ben-Gal prepared to send a message saying his forces could no longer hold on, the Syrians suddenly retreated in a panic. All in all, Israel lost around 60 tanks in the Valley of Tears; the Syrians lost over 500. To this day, military analysts are puzzled by the Syrian withdrawal. Many theories have been proposed, including that the Syrians thought it must be an ambush, or even that higher up in the government Israel had threatened Syria with a nuclear strike. One Syrian soldier would later reveal what may have been the real reason: they thought they had been swarmed by an army of angels!

It isn’t just in military victories that God has clearly blessed the State. In under 70 years, Israel has flourished and is among the most developed and prosperous countries in the world. Isaiah prophesized:

The wilderness and the parched land shall be glad; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice… they shall see the glory of Hashem, the excellency of our God. (Isaiah 35:1-2)

Indeed, Israel and its once-parched lands have blossomed abundantly. Israel is now self-sufficient in its food production (meaning no one will starve if Israel stops all imports of food) and exports over $1.3 billion in food every year.

Israel famously exports a great deal of innovation and technology, too, and is a global leader in science. Its high-tech sector, nicknamed “Silicon Wadi”, is second only to Silicon Valley. Despite its short existence, Israel ranks 12th in per capita Nobel Prizes—higher than Canada and the US, Germany, France, and the entire European Union for that matter. There are nearly 400 million Muslim Arabs across 22 countries, and altogether they account for just 7 Nobel Prizes (of which two were “peace” prizes for terrorist-sponsors Anwar Sadat and Yasser Arafat!) while some 6 million Jews in Israel alone have won 12 Nobel Prizes. There is no doubt that Israel, with God’s blessing, has lived up to the Biblical ideal of being a “light unto the nations.” (Isaiah 42:6)

History makes it clear that the establishment and survival of the State of Israel is nothing short of a divine miracle, and would not happen were it not for God’s support and supervision. Before Moses passed away, he sang his final song to the people, and told them: “Remember the days of old, understand the years of past generations.” (Deuteronomy 32:7) Consider the historical facts: does history not make it so plainly obvious? “How could one chase away a thousand… if not for Hashem who delivers them up?” (Deuteronomy 32:30) Is it logical that 7 tanks can scare off 150? That a million invaders can be subdued by mere thousands? That a nation so soon back from the brink can rebuild such a prosperous state in a barren desert so quickly? And that it was all prophesied long ago, as Ezekiel foresaw that “in the End of Years” the Jews people shall return to their land, coming back from “the sword, gathered from among many peoples, [returning] upon the mountains of Israel, which have been a continual waste…” (Ezekiel 38:8) Is it not obvious that God is pulling the strings?

Uniting in Righteousness

Finally, the Torah also tells us a well-known principle: the land of Israel is holy, and “vomits out” anyone who does not deserve to live there. In light of this, the great Moroccan sage Rabbi Avraham Azulai (c. 1570-1643) wrote in his Chessed L’Avraham (Ma’ayan 3, Nahar 12):

And you should know, every person who lives in the Land of Israel is considered a tzadik, including those who do not appear to be tzadikim. For if he was not righteous, the land would expel him, as it says “a land that vomits out its inhabitants.” (Leviticus 18:25) Since the land did not vomit him out, he is certainly righteous, even though he appears to be wicked.

Thus, as a general rule, all Israelis—secular and religious—are deemed righteous in their own way, and for any one side to label the other as “wicked” is incorrect. We mustn’t forget that the Holy Temple was destroyed because of sinat hinam, baseless hatred and incessant infighting. Instead of opposing one another, we should all strive to support one another, to understand each other, and make Israel—the one homeland that we all have—the best that it can be. Then we will be able to realize the prophecy of Isaiah:

I will set your stones in fair colours, and lay your foundations with sapphires. And I will make your pinnacles of rubies, and your gates of carbuncles, and all your border of precious stones. And all your children shall be disciples of God, and great shall be the peace of your children… (Isaiah 54:11-13)


The above is an excerpt from Garments of Light, Volume Two. Get the book here

What It Really Means to Be “Israel”

This week’s parasha, Vayishlach, begins with Jacob’s return to the Holy Land following a twenty-year stay in Charan. The most famous passage of this parasha is Jacob’s battle with a certain angel. After its defeat, the angel gives Jacob a blessing and renames him Israel. What is the meaning of “Israel”? What was the purpose of this battle to begin with? And what does it all have to do with Jacob’s difficult twenty years in servitude to his deceiving father-in-law Laban?

Jacob vs. Esau

The Torah describes in quite some detail the conception, birth, and early lives of the twins Jacob and Esau. We see that Jacob was an “innocent man, sitting in tents” while Esau was a “hunter, a man of the field.” As twins, and the only children of Isaac and Rebecca, they were meant to work together in carrying on the divine mission started by their grandfather Abraham. The mission was to rectify the world, and fill it with true Godliness and righteousness. Such work mainly consists of educating others, doing good, and spreading the light. However, when that doesn’t work, it is also necessary to fight evil head-on. This was exemplified well by Abraham, who was both a wonderful preacher and, occasionally, a fearless warrior (as in the “War of the Kings” in Genesis 14).

Jacob and Esau were meant to take this to the next level. Thus, Jacob was blessed with extra intellect, wit, and spirituality, while Esau was blessed with extra strength, physical abilities, and ambition. In an ideal world, Jacob would have acted as the peaceful teacher, while Esau would defeat any remaining evil in battle. As partners, they would have been unstoppable in bringing light, morality, and a new God-consciousness to the world.

Unfortunately, the two couldn’t channel their blessings in the right direction. Esau’s physicality got the better of him, and he descended into a never-ending spiral of materialism. At the same time, Jacob used his cunning to take Esau’s birthright instead of using his intellect to put his brother back on the right path. Nonetheless, Jacob remained dedicated to fulfilling his divine mission, while Esau “despised his birthright” (Genesis 25:34).

By taking Esau’s birthright and blessing, what Jacob had done was to take Esau’s mission upon himself. He, too, would have to become a fighter. However, Jacob was born soft and meek—not fit for battle—while Esau was the one born muscular and hairy, as if already a grown man (hence his name Esav, literally “complete”). Could Jacob really become that holy warrior that Esau was meant to be? Jacob had to be put to the test.

Becoming Israel

Right after receiving Esau’s blessings, Jacob was told that his brother was out to get him. The soft Jacob immediately fled the Holy Land, as far away from his brother as he could. This was true to his character as a docile man, “sitting in tents”. But this was clearly not what a holy warrior would do.

Jacob ended up in the home of his uncle and future father-in-law, Laban. He instantly fell in love with Laban’s younger daughter Rachel, and agreed to work for Laban for seven years to be able to marry her. After seven years, Jacob was tricked into marrying the elder Leah instead of his beloved Rachel. It is hard to miss the irony of it all: Jacob, the one who tricked his father into getting his older brother’s blessing, is now tricked by his father-in-law into marrying his beloved’s older sister!

Laban forces Jacob to work for another seven years. This is, of course, completely unjust. A man such as Esau would have surely taken on Laban in combat, but the spineless Jacob simply agrees, and slaves away for seven more years. Following this, Laban finds more ways to trick Jacob out of an honest wage. Thankfully, Jacob is starting to learn, and begins to counter Laban’s wits with his own, soon building even greater wealth than his father-in-law.

At this point, Jacob hears that Laban is not very pleased with Jacob, and Jacob fears for himself and his family once again. As he did twenty years earlier, he decides to flee. While Laban was away shearing his sheep, Jacob takes the opportunity to run, taking the whole family with him. It appears that Jacob fails the test yet again, and is unable to confront his evil enemies.

Ten days later, Laban and his men find Jacob, and everything begins to change. Laban waltzes in to Jacob’s camp and begins threatening his son-in-law as he’d always done in the past. But this time Jacob has had enough, and realizes he can’t run away anymore. “And Jacob was angered, and battled with Laban” (Genesis 31:36). Jacob succeeds, and Laban seeks a peace treaty (v. 44). The two make a pact and part ways, never to see each other again. Jacob is becoming a fighter.

Jacob vs. Israel

This sets up parashat Vayishlach, where Jacob has to face off with Esau twenty years after running away from him. The night before, Jacob goes off on his own and is confronted by a mysterious figure (see ‘With Whom Did Jacob Wrestle? in Volume One of Garments of Light). The two battle it out all night long, and Jacob finally prevails. He is certainly no longer that weak, passive man he was two decades earlier. He has earned his badge of being a holy warrior. And with this, he is given a new name: Israel, one who “battles with God”; not against God, but alongside God, to defeat evil and make the world a better place. Jacob finally proves that he can indeed be Esau, and is worthy of having taking Esau’s birthright and blessing.

The Sages tell us that this is the real reason why Jacob had to marry both Rachel and Leah. Originally, since Rebecca had two sons and Laban had two daughters, the plan was for the younger Jacob to marry the younger Rachel, while the older Esau would marry the older Leah (Bava Batra 123a). Truly, these two couples were soulmates. However, Esau lost his spiritual essence to Jacob, and with it, his spiritual counterpart, Leah. The problem is that the Torah forbids a man from marrying two sisters! The Arizal (Sha’ar HaPesukim on Vayetze) tells us that, in fact, Rachel and Leah did not marry one man, for Jacob and Israel were really two souls in one body, and while Jacob married Rachel, it was Israel that married Leah. After all, Israel was the new Esau, the part of Jacob that wasn’t just “sitting in tents” but was capable of being a “man of the field”, too.

We later see that Israel was Jacob’s true self, his more-elevated inner being, and what he was really meant to be all along. God confirms this with a prophetic blessing (Genesis 35:10): “‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.’ And He named him Israel.”

This brings a tremendous lesson for all of us: we are not meant to be the weak Jacob, passively sitting in tents and being pushed around. Rather, we are meant to be Israel, who can balance study and prayer with strength and might; who can balance the physical with the spiritual, science with religion, and who knows both when to seek peace and when to pursue war. It is most fitting that the founders of the modern Jewish State decided to call it “Israel”. (In fact, they had originally planned to call it “Judah”, then “Zion”, and even “Tzabar”, before voting 7 to 3 in favour of “Israel”). If Israel is to fulfill its divine task, it should live up to its name: battling alongside God, as holy, righteous warriors, to repair the world—physically and spiritually—restoring it to its original, perfected state.


The above is an excerpt from Garments of Light, Volume Two. Get the book here