Who was the real Jacob and what was his true destiny? What is the link between Esau and King David? Why did Jacob buy Esau’s birthright, and trick him out of their father’s blessing? What was so special about Leah? With whom did Jacob wrestle, and why was he renamed “Israel”? Join us as we answer these and other enigmatic questions:
This week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, begins in the year 2023—of the Hebrew calendar, that is. In traditional Jewish chronology, Abraham was born in the year 1948 AM (Anno Mundi, or “world year”). At the start of the parasha, we are told that Abraham was 75 years old when he settled in the Holy Land, meaning it was 2023 AM. Many have pointed out the intriguing “coincidence” that the forefather of the Jewish people and the first to settle in Israel was born in the same numerical year as was born the State of Israel and the Jewish people’s return to independence in the Holy Land in 1948 CE. More amazingly, we find that key dates in the life of Abraham align with key dates for the State of Israel, all the way up to the present situation that we find ourselves in today.
The Torah has very little to say about Abraham’s early life. In fact, all it tells us is that he was born, got married, and left Ur-Kasdim. The Torah then jumps ahead to his 75th birthday. What happened in the first half of Abraham’s life? Rabbinic tradition fills in a lot of the details, including that he was imprisoned for ten years! (Bava Batra 91a) At the end of that decade came the most notable event of Abraham’s early life: He was brought before the king and commanded to abandon monotheism and worship idols. Abraham refused, and was thrown into a fiery furnace. God miraculously saved him—marking the first time God openly revealed Himself to Abraham. Immediately after this, Abraham left Ur to settle in Haran. This event happened when Abraham was 52 years old, in the year 2000 AM. It launched what the Talmud calls “the Era of Torah”, lasting 2000 years until 4000 AM. (The first 2000 years of history, starting from Adam, were called “the Era of Chaos”.)
We find a similar monumental shift for the State of Israel in the year 2000 CE. A few key things happened then. In May of 2000, the IDF withdrew from southern Lebanon, where they had been stationed since 1982. This allowed for Hezbollah’s subsequent takeover of the region. (Just a few months later, Hezbollah terrorists launched a cross-border raid and abducted three Israeli soldiers.) In July of 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak headed to Washington for the Camp David Summit with Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat. Barak offered Arafat just about everything he wanted, including all of Gaza and over 95% of the West Bank, with land transfers to make up for the other parts. Arafat notoriously walked away from the table without offering any explanation why, then launched the Second Intifada. A peaceful resolution to the conflict was not in the interest of the corrupt Palestinian leadership.
These events were the nail in the coffin for the Oslo Accords, and proved that the Palestinian leadership didn’t care for any two-state solution. Their goals were obvious: the destruction of the State of Israel and the takeover of the entire region “from the River to the Sea”. The peace process had always been a ruse. That year, 2000, officially marked the death of the peace process, and wiped away the possibility for a two-state solution. The majority of the Israeli population woke up to realize that peace had only been a dream. Since then, Israeli society has noticeably and understandably shifted right-ward. More broadly, the years that followed saw a religious revival in Israel and in Jewish communities around the world, with a large and global baal teshuva movement reminiscent of Abraham’s “Era of Torah”. Thus, just as the year 2000 AM marked a great shift in the life of Abraham, the year 2000 CE marked a great shift in the life of the State of Israel and Jews worldwide. The parallels don’t end there.
After 23 years living in Haran, God commanded Abraham to finally settle in the Promised Land. However, Abraham was confronted with a difficult reality upon arrival. There were hostile Canaanites in the land (Genesis 12:6), as well as rampant famine (12:10), forcing Abraham to head south to Egypt. There, his wife Sarah was abducted. After returning to the Holy Land, Abraham settled between Beit El and Ai. He finally found prosperity, but this led to quarrels within the family, particularly with his nephew Lot. And so, we find that in 2023 AM, Abraham experienced economic difficulties, hostile neighbours, abductions of family members, and internecine brotherly conflict, much like the people of Israel have experienced in 2023 CE.
Some years later, a war came to the Holy Land, with the Sodomite confederation of five cities falling to an alliance of four Mesopotamian kings. Many of the Sodomites were taken captive, including Lot. Abraham went to war and rescued them. When the Sodomite king offered Abraham riches as a reward, Abraham refused and said he wouldn’t take even a “thread or shoe strap”. The Talmud (Sotah 17a) states that in the merit of this, Abraham’s descendants were gifted the mitzvot of tzitzit (the threads) and tefillin (the leather straps). Both contain immense spiritual power, and are said to confer protection to Jewish warriors. It is therefore fitting that there has been an immense desire for IDF soldiers to get tzitzit, and volunteers have tied over 60,000 shirts so far. Meanwhile, Jews around the world are newly inspired to lay tefillin, and over 2300 have already signed up to receive a free pair.
Right after the War of the Kings, God appeared to Abraham and Abraham complained that he was still without a child (Genesis 14). God allayed his concerns and told him he will indeed have much progeny. Right after this comes the account of the birth of Ishmael, forefather of all Arabs and, by extension, all Muslims. Ishmael was born when Abraham was 86 years old, in the year 2034 AM. Ishmael would go on to cause a lot of trouble, but our Sages say that he did ultimately repent and died a righteous man (see Rashi on Genesis 25:17).
What does all of this mean for us, as we look ahead to the next decade? Will things get worse before they get better? Will there be a larger, long-lasting regional war as in the days of Abraham? And will, at the end of it, the House of Ishmael experience a “rebirth” and find righteousness like their ancestor? Perhaps then we can finally have peace.
In the Torah’s chronology, the long-awaited Isaac would be born when Abraham was 100, in the year 2048 AM. And our Sages teach that Itzchak (יצחק) is ketz chai (קץ חי), symbolic of life at the End of Days. Isaac is the only forefather who dwelled securely in the Holy Land and never had to leave. He enjoyed me’ah she’arim, hundred-fold prosperity. The Zohar (I, 137a, Midrash haNe’elam) compares his “return” following the Akedah at age 40 to a “resurrection” of sorts, and sees this as a sign of the final Resurrection of the Dead, to come forty years into the Messianic Age. Based on the Abraham-Israel connection and the pattern outlined above, the Torah years of 2034 AM, 2048 AM, and 2088 AM might offer us hope to expect events of great significance to come in 2034 CE, 2048 CE, and 2088 CE.
As for the present, the Zohar (I, 83b) says that when Abraham entered the Holy Land at age 75, in the year 2023 AM, he received a brand new nefesh. It was like he became a totally new person. Then, when he went south (before going to Egypt) he received a new ruach, the second and higher soul. It was only years later, after returning from Egypt, parting from Lot, and becoming even more prominent—right before the onset of the War of the Kings—that Abraham received the lofty neshamah, at the moment when “he built an altar to God” (Genesis 13:18). For the State of Israel, too, 2023 CE will undoubtedly be the year that it received a brand new nefesh. In light of what has happened in recent weeks, the country will never be the same again, nor will its people. And following the model set by Abraham, the next decade will surely transform the country as it receives a new ruach, too, and eventually its true divine neshamah. We hope it will then become the proper holy kingdom of God that the State of Israel was always meant to be.
Today we celebrate Yom Ha’Atzmaut, the modern State of Israel’s Independence Day, which immediately follows Yom HaZikaron, when we commemorate those who have given their lives for Israel. Each one of those lost is an indescribable tragedy. Though Israel has won the majority of its wars, the price has been devastatingly high. We know that what happens in this material world is often just a reflection of higher realities occurring in the spiritual worlds. With that in mind, what can we all do spiritually to affect the worlds above, in order to strengthen Israel militarily here below? The Torah gives us four major tools that a Jew can do that will go a long way in boosting Israel’s might and, God willing, reducing casualties in war.
The first of these tools comes from this week’s parasha, Acharei Mot, which spends many lines describing the Yom Kippur service. Commenting on one of the verses here (Leviticus 16:12), the Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1340) points out that “in the merit of the Yom Kippur service, [the Israelites] would win wars.” Although we do not have a Temple today to fulfill all of the services, nonetheless our heartfelt prayers and repentance on Yom Kippur affect a change in the Heavens that result in Israel becoming militarily stronger and victorious in war.
We see a perfect demonstration of this in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel was surprise-attacked by its Arab neighbours, totally unprepared and with most of its soldiers in the synagogues. The war initially went very badly, and military analysts even predicted the impending demise of Israel. Yet, things turned around quickly, and just two weeks later the war ended with a resounding victory for Israel. Henceforth, the Arabs never tried another invasion, and Egypt—the leading power in the Arab world—gave up any goals of destroying Israel, instead pursuing peace. The Arab armies thought that by attacking Israel on Yom Kippur they had a big advantage. The reality was the exact opposite! In the merit of Yom Kippur, Israel won the war and permanently altered the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East.
Six years earlier, before the similarly miraculous Six-Day War, the Lubavitcher Rebbe instituted another campaign to strengthen Israel militarily: encouraging the donning of tefillin. Ever since, Chabadnikim around the world go to street corners, supermarkets, bus stops and other public places to encourage Jewish men to wrap. Various reasons have been given for why the Rebbe chose tefillin specifically as a way to strengthen Israel. The main one is based on a passage in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17a). Here, the Sages discuss an End of Days prophecy in Zechariah which states a third of the population will be purified “by fire”. The Sages say these are the rebellious people who sinned with their bodies. The Talmud further defines that when it comes to the gentiles, the ones who sinned with their bodies are those who engaged in sexual sins. When it comes to Jews, however, it refers to those who never put tefillin on their bodies!
Based on this, the Rebbe saw that there is tremendous merit in donning tefillin, and puts a Jew into a wholly different spiritual category once he has done so, even just once. Moreover, since the verse in Zechariah is talking about an End of Days prophecy about the final apocalyptic war before Mashiach’s arrival, the Rebbe saw further significance to our day and age, hence the message that we should increase the observance of tefillin. Indeed, the tefillin campaign was a huge success, as was Israel’s subsequent Six-Day War, with huge implications for the coming of Mashiach, since this is when Jerusalem and the Jewish heartland of Judea and Samaria were reclaimed and liberated.
I believe there is another proof for the tefillin-military might connection: In Berakhot 57a, we read that a person who dreams of himself in tefillin should expect greatness. This is based on Deuteronomy 28:10 which reads: “And all the peoples of the earth shall see that the name of God is called upon you; and they shall be afraid of you.” The Sages ask: what does it mean to have the “name of God” upon you? It means putting on tefillin, since this is when God’s Name is literally wrapped upon a person’s body! And, when the gentiles see a Jew in tefillin, it inspires a sense of awe and fear among them. So, just as Deuteronomy promises, when the Jewish nation carefully and diligently dons tefillin, it will inspire fear in our enemies.
Another segulah for reducing Israel’s casualties on the frontlines and beyond is the mitzvah of charity. This one is well-known and needs little elaboration, since the Tanakh emphatically states that tzedakah tatzil mimavet, “charity saves from death” (Proverbs 10:2). As explained in detail elsewhere (see ‘How Charity Can Save Your Life’ in Garments of Light, Volume One), providing a financial contribution to a worthy cause affects a change in the Heavens that can tear up a decree hanging over a person’s soul. This is because the money one earns is tied directly to the exertion they put in to earn that money, since a person invests their time, energy, and soul into their work. The Torah tells us that giving even a half-shekel serves as kofer nefesh, an atonement for the soul (Exodus 30:12). There is a beautiful mathematical proof to this in that the words shekel (שקל) and nefesh (נפש) have the same numerical value (430)!
Finally, the Torah states that if we are worthy, “Five of you shall chase away a hundred, and a hundred of you shall chase away ten thousand; your enemies shall fall before you by the sword.” (Leviticus 26:8) A classic question here is regarding the ratios: five chasing away a hundred is a ratio of 1 to 20, but a hundred chasing away ten thousand is a ratio of 1 to 100! What we can learn from this is that the more Jews are united and fighting together, the stronger we become. That strength does not just grow linearly, but exponentially! The message is that we must all be united. Instead of sinat hinam, baseless hatred and enmity, we must have ahavat hinam, baseless love and unity. This is our greatest source of strength.
Putting it all together, we have four key tools to increase Israel’s military and physical might: Yom Kippur, tefillin, tzedakah, and ahava. Amazingly, if we take the initials* of these terms (י כ ת צ א), they spell out כי תצא, as in כִּֽי־תֵצֵ֥א לַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה עַל־אֹיְבֶ֑יךָ וּנְתָנ֞וֹ יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ בְּיָדֶ֖ךָ, “When you go out to war against your enemies and God will deliver them into your hand…” (Deuteronomy 21:10) There is no better proof than this that if we increase our observance of these crucial mitzvot as a nation, we will undoubtedly be invincible, and God will deliver all of our enemies into our hands.
Yom Ha’Atzmaut Sameach!
*If we take only the first initials of the four mitzvot above (without the kaf of kippur), we have יתצ״א, which carries a value of 501. This is a very significant number, too. At the Pesach seder, we group the Ten Plagues by their initials and recite דצ״ך עד״ש באח״ב. The great kabbalist Rav Shimshon of Ostropoli (d. 1648) taught that the value of this phrase is 501, equivalent to an angel named תק״א that facilitated the plagues and punished the enemies of Israel. Additionally, this is reminiscent of the “Angel of God” that struck down the Assyrian camp of 185,000 soldiers to protect Jerusalem in the time of King Hezekiah (II Kings 19:35).
From the Archives: The Kabbalah of Yom Ha’Atzmaut