This Wednesday, the 5th of Iyar, is Israel’s Independence Day, Yom Ha‘Atzmaut. That the State of Israel was born on this date in particular is no coincidence. On the surface, the reason it happened on this date is because that was when the British Mandate expired, and was the earliest opportunity for the Zionist leadership to declare independence. Behind this, however, there is a far deeper mystical reason. Continue reading
This week we commemorate Yom Ha’Atzmaut, the State of Israel’s Independence Day, marking seventy years since its founding. Although the State is certainly far from perfect, its establishment and continued existence is without a doubt one of the greatest developments in Jewish history. Many have seen it as the first steps towards the final redemption, and even among Haredi rabbis (which are generally opposed to the secular State) there were those who bravely admitted Israel’s significance and validity. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (1910-1995), for example, considered the State as Malkhut Israel, a valid Jewish “kingdom”—at least for halakhic purposes—while the recently deceased Rav Shteinman unceasingly supported the Nachal Haredi religious IDF unit despite the great deal of controversy it brought him. Rav Ovadia Yosef permitted saying Hallel without a blessing on Yom Ha’Atzmaut, and some have even composed an Al HaNissim text to be recited. While we have already written in the past about the significance of the State’s founding (along with one perspective to bridge together the secular and the religious on this issue), there is something particularly special about Israel’s 70th birthday.
The number 70 holds tremendous significance in Judaism. It is the number of root languages and root nations in the world (with Israel traditionally described as “a sheep among seventy wolves”). It is the number of Jacob’s family that descended to Egypt and from whom sprung up the entire nation. The number of elders that assisted Moses, and parallel to them the number of sages that sat on the Sanhedrin. Although Moses lived 120 years, he wrote in his psalm that 70 years is considered a complete lifespan (Psalms 90:10), and King David, who put the final edit on that psalm and incorporated it into his book, lived precisely 70 years. As is well-known, David was granted those 70 years by Adam, which is why the Torah says Adam lived 930 years instead of the expected 1000 years. (See here for how he may have been able to live so long.)
The Arizal taught that Adam (אדם) stands for Adam, David, and Mashiach, for the final redeemer is both a reflection of the first man, and the scion of David. More amazingly, as we wrote earlier this year it is said that David is literally the middle-point in history between Adam and Mashiach, and as such, if one counts the years elapsed between Adam and David then it is possible to find the start of the messianic era—which just happens to be our current year 5778. In this year, the State of Israel itself turns 70, and our Sages speak of “seventy cries of the soul during labour”, and parallel to these, “seventy cries of the birthpangs of Mashiach”. It is possible to interpret these seventy birthpangs preceding the arrival of the messiah as the seventy years leading up to the redemption. Thus, Israel’s seventy years potentially bear great significance.
Just as Psalms says that seventy years is one complete lifespan, for the State of Israel these past seventy years can be likened to the end of one “lifetime”, with Israel now standing at the cusp of a new era. Indeed, with all that has happened in the Middle East in recent years and months, Israel has undoubtedly emerged stronger and more secure than ever before. In this seventieth year, the world has begun to recognize Israel’s permanence, and affirm its unwavering right to Jerusalem the Eternal. We see more and more nations formally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s rightful capital, and the United States plans to open its new Jerusalem embassy on May 14, which is Yom Ha’Atzmaut according to the secular calendar.
These seemingly disparate points—David’s seventy years, the completion of Israel’s first seventy year lifespan, and the recognition of Jerusalem—are actually intricately connected, for it was King David who established the first official, unified, Jewish state in the Holy Land, with Jerusalem as its capital. In fact, David’s kingdom was the only fully independent, unified Jewish state until the modern State of Israel! (Other Jewish entities, including the Maccabean and Herodian, were essentially always vassals to some greater power like Greece or Rome.) It is therefore quite fitting that the State of Israel has the Star of David on its flag, and it is this Davidic symbol that has become emblematic of not just Israel itself but all of modern Judaism.*
Perhaps the most famous seventy in Scripture is the seventy year period of exile in Babylon, between the First and Second Temples. It is said that God decreed a seventy year exile in particular because Israel failed to keep seventy Sabbatical and Jubilee years between the settling of Israel under Joshua and the destruction of the First Temple. While the Exile was certainly a “punishment”, we know that God never truly “punishes” Israel, and out of each devastation (which is nothing more than a just measure-for-measure retribution) emerges something greater.
As we’ve written before, it is in Babylon that the vibrant Judaism that we know was born. (See ‘The First Jewish Holiday’ in Garments of Light.) Unable to journey to the Temple, the Sages reworked each holiday to become more than a pilgrimage; unable to offer sacrifices, the Sages established prayers instead, “paying the cows with our lips” (Hosea 14:3); unable to fulfil the many agricultural laws, the Sages taught that learning the laws was as good as observing them. The Judaism of study, prayer, and mysticism was born out of the difficulty of the seventy-year Babylonian Exile. These past seventy years for Israel—also of great difficulty, and coming on the heels of another great devastation—was similarly one where Judaism has evolved considerably, and instead of dying out as some feared, has actually flourished.
Many have pointed out another modern “Babylonian Exile”, too. This is the communist regime of the Soviet Union, where millions of Jews were trapped for some seventy years. (The officially accepted start and end dates for the USSR are December 30, 1922 to December 26, 1991.) The histories of Russia and Israel are tightly bound, for many of Israel’s founders came directly from the Russian Empire, including Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Golda Meir, and the Netanyahus. Some even argue that the severe persecution by the Russians—unrivaled until the Nazis—is what gave the greatest motivation for the founding of Israel. The Kishinev Pogrom of 1903 was the final straw for the Zionists. The description of that pogrom by Bialik (another Russian Jew, and later Israel’s national poet) aroused the masses to take up the call and make aliyah, and convinced many more of the necessity of an independent Jewish state.
Russia’s involvement is all the more significant when we consider the possibility of Moscow as the prophesied “Third Rome”. As explored in the past, the “Red Army” headquartered in Moscow’s Red Square brings to mind the villainous Edom. Just as Rabbi Yose ben Kisma taught long ago in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a-b) that Mashiach will come when Rome/Edom falls for the third time, and there will not be a fourth, the Russian monk Filofey of Pskov (1465-1542) wrote of Moscow that “Two Romes have fallen, the third stands, and there will be no fourth.” This is all the more interesting in light of what we see in the news today about the growing conflict between the West and the Russia-Syria-Iran axis. It is important to keep in mind that Iran (Paras or Persia) is explicitly mentioned in Ezekiel’s prophecy of the great wars of the End of Days, the wars referred to as Gog u’Magog. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni on Isaiah 60, siman 499) comments on this that
In the year that Mashiach will be revealed, all the kings of the nations of the world will provoke each other. The king of Persia will threaten the king of Arabia, and the king of Arabia will go to Aram for advice. The king of Persia will then destroy the world, and all the nations will tremble and fall upon their faces, and they will be grasped by birthpangs like the birthpangs of labour, and Israel, too, will tremble and falter, and they will ask: “Where will we go?” And [God] will answer: “My children, do not fear, for all that I have done, I have done for you… the time of your salvation has come.”
Those who follow geopolitics will immediately identify this midrashic passage with current events. The war in Syria is very much a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, just as is the war currently raging in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has joined the Western (Aram?) camp, and has even begun to speak positively of Israel in public. The prophet Jeremiah (49:27) further details that Syria will be the epicenter of the war, and the “end” will come when Damascus has fallen. Amazingly, Jeremiah calls the king of Damascus Ben Hadad (בן הדד), the gematria of which happens to equal Assad (אסד). And it also happens that the value of Gog u’Magog (גוג ומגוג) is 70.
Thus, Israel turning 70 carries remarkable symbolic meaning. The Midrash states that Israel has 70 names, and these correspond to the 70 names of the Torah (and the Torah’s 70 layers of meaning, to be revealed in full with Mashiach’s coming), as well as the 70 Names of God, and the 70 names for the holy city of Jerusalem. The last of these names, the Midrash says (based on Isaiah 62:2), is “a new name that God will reveal in the End of Days.” The struggle over Jerusalem and the Holy Land will soon end, with a new city and a new name to be reborn in its place.
May we merit to see it soon.
*Judaism began with Abraham. In an amazing “coincidence” of numbers, Jewish tradition holds that Abraham was born in the Hebrew year 1948. The State of Israel was, of course, born in the secular year 1948. Jewish tradition also holds that Abraham was 70 years old at the “Covenant Between the Parts”, when God officially appointed Abraham as His chosen one. This means the Covenant took place in the Jewish year 2018, paralleling Israel’s 70th birthday in this secular year of 2018.
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.
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)