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Guardian of Israel - Watch Over the State of Israel

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Adapted by Aviad Hacohen

Translated by Kaeren Fish

The prophet Yishayahu says (51:16):

"I have put My words in your mouth and have covered you with the shadow of My hand, to plant the heavens and establish the earth and to say to Zion, You are My nation."

"To say to Zion" - Targum Yonatan translates: "to those who dwell in Zion."

Many midrashim elaborate the connection between the nation of Israel and the land of Israel. This connection goes back to the very beginning of the nation and of the land, to the root and essence of these two great entities. Judaism and the Jewish people are born when Avram is commanded to go to the land of Israel (Bereishit 12):

"And God said to Avram: Go out from your land, from your birth-place and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, and you will be a blessing."

A nation is generally not a deliberate creation. It is always post-facto: when there is a common language, blood relation, a common territory, and common historical experiences, then, over the course of the years, a "nation" comes into being. Opinions differ as to the process itself and as to whether all of the above elements are necessary for the creation of a nation. But the decision to establish a nation was a one-time phenomenon in the history of mankind.

The Rambam explains that the aim of the forefathers throughout their lives was to establish a monotheistic nation (Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim, end of chapter 1). Avraham understood that after the great flood, the debacle of the tower of Babel and the downfall of the city of Sedom, there was no longer any room for optimism as to the direction that humanity would take. Preaching was useless. It was necessary to establish a nation that would realize the values and ideals of justice and righteousness in its own behavior. Avraham knew that the process would take thousands of years, but it had to begin somewhere. If there is anything unique about the Jewish people, it is its beginning: its deliberate creation as a nation, rather than its evolution and development into such an entity.

The same applies to the land of Israel. We read in Tehillim (105:9-12):

"[The covenant] which He made with Avraham, and His oath to Yitzchak; and He set it for Ya'akov as a law, as an eternal covenant for Israel, saying, 'To you I will give the land of Canaan, the tract of your inheritance,' when they were few in number, barely living there."

The land of Israel was given to the Jews because the nation of Israel was created. Usually, a nation comes to possess its land through prolonged habitation there, over hundreds of years. The nation of Israel acquired the land of Israel even before dwelling there. Likewise, the nation of Israel maintained its connection with the land of Israel throughout thousands of years of exile, although Jews lived in Yemen and in Spain for more years than the nation dwelled in the land of Israel during the First and Second Temple periods combined.

Since the Second World War, many new states have been created - they number nearly one hundred, if not more. Each celebrates its own Independence Day. Is our Yom Ha-Atzma'ut (Independence Day) like that of any other country, aside from the fact that we attribute the event to Divine Providence?

There is a great difference between the establishment of the State of Israel and the establishment of any other country in the world. In each of the relatively newly independent countries, the population previously lived there under colonial rule, until the time came for their freedom from that yoke. And in each instance, the new country was established for the inhabitants who had lived there until then. The only country that was established not for its inhabitants, but rather for those who did not yet inhabit it, was the State of Israel. This remarkable phenomenon was noted not only by us, but also by the nations of the world that assisted us in realizing it.

Only 650,000 Jews lived in Israel at the time of our independence – a small fraction of the millions who live here now. These 650,000 could have become the sole citizens of the new country, but the State of Israel was established for the sake of those who did not live here. This was a continuation of the original nature of the connection between the land and the nation, dating back to a time before the nation of Israel numbered millions. All of this lends a metaphysical dimension to the State of Israel and defines its purpose: the State of Israel was founded for the nation of Israel in exile.

Various movements attempted to create a State that was severed from the Jewish diaspora, to create an "Israeli" identity as opposed to a "Jewish" one, to regard "Sabras" as a separate nation. All failed completely. There is nothing more symbolic of the fact that the State of Israel was created for the nation of Israel than the very first expression of Israeli sovereignty on the 5th of Iyar 5708, when the country's gates were opened wide and thousands of Jews who had been held in detention camps in Cyprus were gathered in. This is the primary and most fundamental significance of the State of Israel: it is a land that is given to each and every Jew. The Holy One gave a gift to every Jew - a part of the land of Israel, and its acceptance depends only on the choice of the individual himself.

The land of Israel is a destination for every Jew in the world, without exception. Sometimes it is the land of his eternal rest - "This is my rest forever; here I shall dwell, for I have desired it" (Tehillim 132:14) - as a dream and vision that he attains after overcoming all the obstacles on the way. Sometimes it is a land of refuge: when all hope is lost, a Jew knows that he has a place in the land of Israel. This knowledge accompanies every Jew in the world - even those who oppose Zionism. They know that in the event of disaster, if they are ever forced to leave the place where they live, they can come to the land of Israel.

Therefore, the land of Israel has significance for every Jew. The matter depends entirely on one's own choice: one may choose it as a goal and destination, as a final station of his own volition, or as a last refuge - "bread in his basket." Let us not underestimate this last fact. Owing to our many sins, there are Jews in the world - mainly in Russia - who have no connection to Judaism at all. They know nothing of their religion, other than one single fact: that if there is no choice, they can come to Israel. This is the last vestige of Jewish identity that burns within them, and it gives them a certain measure of comfort.

Once I asked the director of the College for Jewish Studies in Leningrad (St. Petersburg today), "How many Jews live here?" He answered, "About eighty thousand." I asked, "How many of them have some connection to Judaism - how many ever go to a Jewish play, to a synagogue, to your college?" He replied, "I would be optimistic to the point of exaggeration if I said that about two thousand maintain such a connection." I asked, "And what about the other 78 thousand?" He said, "They know that they are Jews, and that if they're in trouble they can go to Israel. That is the sum total of their Judaism."

Therefore, every Jew in the world is a citizen of the State of Israel. There are those who dream of coming to Israel but face obstacles relating to family, finances, etc., and there are others who will come to Israel as a last resort, when no other alternative is open to them.

In the Book of Ezra (3:11-12), we read about the celebration when the foundation was laid for the Second Temple:

"They sang praise and gave thanks to God, for He is good, for His mercy to Israel endures forever. All the people shouted a great shout in their praise of God because of the foundation of the house of God. But many of the Kohanim and Leviim and the elders who were heads of households, who had seen the First Temple - when they witnessed the foundation of this Temple, they wept with a great voice, while many others shouted and raised their voices in joy. And the people could not distinguish the voices shouting with joy from the voice of the crying among the nation, for the people shouted with a great shout and the sound was heard from far off."

When the Second Temple was built, following the return from the Babylonian exile, there was both bitter weeping and a great shout of joy. The weeping came from the elders who remembered the glory of the First Temple. The joy came from the younger generation, who had been raised in exile and had never seen the First Temple.

Sometimes I feel like one of those elders from Babylonia, but in the opposite sense: I know how to celebrate freedom because I experienced something of the bitterness of a Jew persecuted like a dog. In the Holocaust, I knew Jews who never tasted freedom, who dreamed of walking freely in the streets of a city, who ran from one cellar to another, never daring to venture out into the open.

For me, Yom Ha-Atzma'ut is a day of experiencing freedom. For those of you who have grown up in the State of Israel or in other free countries, it is more difficult to give thanks to God. "What's the big deal? In America we were free too." You were born into that atmosphere. The problem is that it is not only the sense of freedom that is lacking in the younger generation. Unfortunately, Jewish sovereignty is also sometimes undervalued.

The Rambam writes (Hilkhot Chanuka 3:1) that the crux of the achievement of the Hasmoneans was to bring back Jewish sovereignty "for more than two hundred years, until the destruction of the Second Temple." What kind of sovereignty does he mean? The reign of Herod and his sons. Nevertheless, the Rambam emphasizes that this was a historical achievement. Therefore, we light candles and recite Hallel - for the return of Jewish sovereignty "for more than two hundred years."

I do not feel that Israeli youth appreciate Israeli independence to the proper degree. Each year, I try to convey to my students the sense of ">From the straits I called to God; God answered me with the open expanse" (Tehillim 118:5). I try to make them feel the sense of expanse, as opposed to the sense of constriction. But to my sorrow, as the founding of the State recedes into historical memory, the significance of Yom Ha-Atzma'ut is gradually becoming blurred. Among Jews who are not observant, the fifth of Iyar has become the "festival of nature," celebrated by going out on hikes and picnics. Observant Jews regard it as the festival of the land of Israel. To my mind, we have not yet perceived the depth of the importance of this day.

In the past, there were Jews who did not know what blessing to recite over independence or freedom. There were some who perceived the greatness of the day specifically in the military victory over the Arab states. This idea began to find its way into religious Zionist circles too. Those who gave praise said, "What's a state, after all? They wanted to kill us, we were saved - that's something." They based the argument that one should recite Hallel on Yom Ha-Atzma'ut on a comparison to the exodus from Egypt: If we recite a blessing and give praise for coming out of slavery to freedom, then how much more appropriate is the praise for coming out of death to life!

The other aspect of the day, that of freedom, receded from view. A new generation arose, a generation born into freedom, a generation that never knew restrictions on Jews. This generation sought to imbue the fifth of Iyar with meaning - and so this day became the festival of the land of Israel. Diaspora Jews were happy with this, because the question they must ask themselves is, "Where are we?" This question is applicable only if the rebirth of the Jewish State represents the beginning of the flowering of our redemption. But if this day is "Eretz Yisrael's festival" - the festival of the nation that has returned to the land - then the Jews of New York also have their portion in it, and what need is there to immigrate there?

Another point should be kept in mind. In the wake of the severing of Jewish continuity following the Holocaust, the new generation lacks the rootedness that nourished its forefathers. It must examine everything anew, with a wretched sense of insecurity. Anything that isn't included explicitly in the Shulchan Arukh cannot be assimilated into one's inner world. Concerning Eretz Yisrael, in contrast, there is a famous comment by the Ramban emphasizing the relevance of the mitzva of settling Eretz Yisrael in every generation. "Freedom? What section is that in the Shulchan Arukh? Jewish sovereignty - Rambam mentions it in passing, but there's no such heading in the Shulchan Arukh." They are trying to understand what Yom Ha-Atzma'ut is. In this way, the day assumed a character related to the land, a trend which only became stronger following the Six-Day War.

My Zionist belief is not related to the question of whether the Halakha follows those who say that there is a mitzva to settle Eretz Yisrael in our times or whether the mitzva does not apply today. Once a learned Torah scholar asked me whether Zionism is possible according to the school of Rabbeinu Chaim, one of the Tosafists, who rules (Ketubot 110b) that in our times the mitzva of settling Eretz Yisrael does not apply. What has the one thing to do with the other? The question is one of faith: if a person sees the Holy One leading the nation of Israel back to the land of Israel, is he obligated to recite Hallel?

I was once witness to a conversation between two great Torah scholars. One asked the other, whose heart and soul are bound to the Gush Etzion area, "If you had been given the opportunity, on the fifth of Iyar 5708, to remain in Kfar Etzion, but not under Jewish rule, what would you have done?" The man wrestled with this question for some time and then admitted ashamedly that he would not have had the strength to remain as a Jew in Kfar Etzion and not to enter the Jewish state. I stood watching this and thought to myself, "Master of the Universe! After two thousand years the Holy One bestows a gift of unparalleled preciousness - freedom - and there are Jews who even contemplate whether it would be better to refrain from accepting that freedom, so long as we may fulfill the mitzva of settling Eretz Yisrael specifically here?"

The same problem exists in relation to Jewish sovereignty. To see the importance of Jewish sovereignty is difficult. There is no section of the Shulchan Arukh devoted to it, nor any teaching by the Ramban.

The Gemara (Bava Metzia 30b) teaches that "Jerusalem was destroyed only because … they based their rulings on strict Torah law and did not go beyond the letter of the law." Every mitzva that we perform has two aspects. There is the halakhic aspect and there is the ethical aspect. Concerning mitzvot that relate to one's relationship with God, we are commanded "You shall be holy" (Vayikra 19:2). When it comes to mitzvot that pertain to interpersonal relationships, we are commanded "You shall do what is upright and good" (Devarim 6:18). The Ramban, in his famous commentary (Vayikra 19:2), notes that it is possible for a person to be a "scoundrel within the bounds of Torah" - he may fulfill the letter of the law in every halakha, but forget their moral message. He may carefully avoid transgressing the commandment not to steal, while at the same time losing the ethical aspect of loving his fellow man, of pursuing justice and uprightness. A person may likewise guard himself from speaking "lashon ha-ra" about someone else, but allow himself to feel jealous of him, to hate him and to rejoice in his failures.

Destruction comes when we turn the Torah into "law" and lose its ethical aspect, the dimension that is beyond the letter of the law. It is possible to treat Eretz Yisrael, too, as a halakhic issue, while simultaneously losing our relationship with it as our homeland. We must regard our homeland in the same way as the gentiles, on their part, regard their respective homelands. What is Jewish sovereignty? Is it the natural feeling that we have sovereignty, that Israel is respected? There is no such discussion in the Shulchan Arukh, but it is a most fundamental value in our lives. What is the universal significance of Jewish sovereignty?

In the past, the Vatican would refuse to recognize the State of Israel. This lack of recognition had its foundations in Christian faith; when Jewish sovereignty was established, it created a great shock wave throughout the Christian world. Who can estimate the historical and meta-historical significance of the fact that the Prime Minister of Israel arrived in Poland fifty years after the Holocaust, and the Polish army saluted him and welcomed him like royalty? Could any single Jew among the millions who perished in the Holocaust dream of such a possibility?

Someone who pays attention only to the halakhic aspect and not to the greater ethical, historical and meta-historical picture, is like one who insists on adhering only to the "letter of the law" in Torah while rejecting anything that is "beyond the letter of the law," and his way brings destruction.

After decades of the existence of the State of Israel, we still face great dangers, but I have complete faith and confidence that we shall prevail. We carry with us the words of Rav Herzog, of blessed memory, who declared - while the Germans were advancing on Eretz Yisrael - "We have a tradition that there will not be a third destruction."

We cannot interpret the revival of the State of Israel in terms of any biblical verse other than those that speak of the return to Zion. "The beginning of the redemption" is not a promise that "everything will be okay." The students of the Vilna Gaon spoke of the "beginning of the redemption," R. Eliyahu Guttmacher of Graidetz spoke of the "beginning of the redemption," and Rav Kook also spoke of the "beginning of the redemption." Yet after all of these came the Holocaust. But the return to Zion continues. We have no guarantee that all will go smoothly. But the process in its entirety will lead to the complete redemption. So we are promised.

Concerning one thing we cannot be certain, and I must say this openly. We are promised that the nations of the world will not succeed in destroying the State of Israel. But we cannot be certain that, heaven forbid, it will not be Jews who bring about its destruction. The possibility exists. Not from the direction of the likes of Neturei Karta, who pray for the destruction of the State, but rather from other elements.

Some years ago, during the Lebanon War, there appeared on the left side of the political map movements such as "Yesh Gevul" ("There is a border"), who published articles in praise of refusing to obey decisions of the State and of the government. They called for rebellion, and we were all shocked. Today, in our many sins, the right wing is repeating and quoting the same messages, encouraging the disobeying of orders and denying the need to accept the decisions of the majority and of the government.

Let this be clear: if we are not careful, this can bring about, God forbid, the destruction of the State. Everyone has the right to criticize the government - any government. Everyone is entitled to protest and to hold demonstrations. But the decisions of a government elected by a democratic majority must be respected. Someone who regards such decisions as illegitimate nullifies, heaven forefend, Jewish sovereignty. It is unimportant whether the decisions are correct or not. That is the power of sovereignty, and we have to remember that. I pray that whatever situation may arise, responsibility and common sense will prevail. The nation of Israel needs Jewish sovereignty; God forbid that we should undermine the legitimacy and the functioning of the government of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces. Every Jew in the world needs to know that the State of Israel is there for him, and we must all guard it with the greatest care.

We have to know that the blessing and praise that we offer God for the State of Israel is, first and foremost, a blessing over Jewish sovereignty. At the time the State was established, there were Jews in the world who had nothing. Holocaust refugees, thousands who were left in Germany after the Holocaust, languished in camps. The countries of the world refused to open their gates. Each had established its own quota and would not budge. What would have happened to those Jews had the State of Israel not arisen? Imagine the hopelessness that would have been their lot.

The State of Israel arose as a sanctification of God's name, following the terrible desecration of God's name in the Holocaust. We must ensure that the State of Israel continues to be a symbol of kiddush Hashem, that Israeli society will be one characterized by sanctification of the God's name - a society where justice and righteousness prevail.

I pray to God that we shall know no more war and bereavement, that we will guard the State of Israel as our most precious possession. All that has been said here is nothing compared to the ethical and historical power and significance of the State of Israel.

Elsewhere, the conclusion might be, "Long live the State of Israel!" Instead, we beseech God: "Guardian of Israel - watch over the remnant of Israel; watch over the State of Israel."

[This sicha was delivered on Yom Ha-Atzma'ut 5753 (1993).]