Victory and Spiritual Revolution
Adapted by Chaim Rosner
with Elya Aharoni and Yakir Levinstein
Translated by Kaeren Fish
In Divrei Ha-yamim we find an account of the war waged by King Asa against Zerach the Kushite:
And there came out against them Zerach, the Kushite, with an army of one million men, and three hundred chariots, and he came to Maresha… And Asa called to the Lord his God and said, “Lord, it is nothing to You to help, whether with many or with those who have no power; help us, Lord our God, for we rely on You, and it is in Your Name that we have come against this multitude. Lord – You are our God; let not man prevail against You.” And God smote the Kushites before Asa and before Yehuda, and the Kushites fled. (Divrei Ha-yamim II 14:8-10)
Asa's desperate plea emerges against a fairly desolate religious and spiritual background. Following the account of this battle, the text provides a general picture of the situation: “For a long time Israel had been without the true God, and without a Kohen teaching, and without Torah” (15:3). Asa rises to power following a long period of profound spiritual rot. Despite this degeneration, when Asa calls to God, God hears him and brings him a significant victory.
Asa’s triumph seems to contradict the prophets’ message that, in order to merit God's salvation, it is necessary to repent and to do that which is good and right in His eyes (as the Rambam describes at the beginning of Hilkhot Ta’anit). In Asa's case, this had not happened: The nation lives “without the true God,” with no kohanim instructing them, and with no Torah study – and despite all this God sends deliverance. The same phenomenon repeats itself in the time of Chizkiyahu. While the situation during that period was somewhat less dire, the prophets nevertheless describe many sins. For instance, Yeshayahu aims bitter criticism at Jerusalem in a passage read yearly as the haftara of Shabbat Chazon (the Shabbat immediately preceding Tish’a Be-Av): “How the faithful city has become a harlot; it was full of judgment, righteousness lodged in it – but now murderers” (Yeshayahu 1:21). Despite the city’s sinfulness, when Sancheriv declared war on Jerusalem, and the fate of the city seemed to be hanging by a thread, God answered Chizkiyahu’s prayers for salvation and thwarted Sancheriv. The nation was not worthy – even the prophet had thrown up his hands in despair – but God saved His people nonetheless.
The same feeling prevailed on the eve of the Six Day War. I speak here from my own experience. As a 17-year old youth, I did not see any justification for the great privilege that had been bestowed on us, our emergence from darkness to a great light. During the days leading up to the war there were many prayers, but certainly no feeling that we were especially worthy. After the war, the general feeling in the country was that we had not deserved the great miracle performed for us.
The transition from imminent destruction to deliverance was so stark in my mind that I could not doubt its miraculous nature. There was a sense of God's hand leading His people to redemption, but the price of this redemption was unclear. It could have been terrible: The Knesset had spoken of 100,000 casualties – assuming that we would win the war. The salvation that came with that great victory could not have been imagined in advance. There was a certain feeling – one might call it messianism – in the wake of the war. Rav Kook wrote, “When there is a great war in the world, the power of the Messiah awakens” (Orot, Ha-milchama, 1). Today, this sort of militarism seems off-putting, since war brings to mind mainly loss and bereavement, even in victory. For this reason, I had always tended to interpret Rav Kook's words as relating solely to the war that he experienced – the First World War. His words turned out to be almost prophetic (he published the article in 1914): At the start of that war, the Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael was diminished by almost a third, from 81,000 to 57,000. And then it became apparent, towards the end of the war, that as in Daniel's vision, the four kingdoms that had ruled the world – the Russian Empire, the Prussian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire – were now disintegrating. One nation arose, and with it, the Balfour Declaration and all that followed.
But Rav Kook's words also provide a general perspective on war. War, with all the hardship and loss that it entails, can also embody something exalted: self-sacrifice for the sanctification of God's Name. In a generation of individual rights, “Each of you to your tents, Israel” masquerading as human dignity and freedom, there is something exalted in the rise of forces of self-sacrifice on the part of the individual for the sake of the general good. Perhaps this is what Rav Kook is referring to when he writes:
We look at the early generations, as described in the Torah, in the Books of the Prophets and the Ketuvim; those generations that engaged in war – and they themselves are the great ones whom we regard with affinity and holy esteem. (Orot, Ha-milchama, 2)
The connection with Tanakh – both in terms of emphasizing the connection between the individual and the nation as a whole, and in terms of the overt and unexpected salvation – greatly strengthened Rav Kook’s sense of God's revelation and of His redemption.
But the moral teachings of the prophets offer no “free lunches.” There are certain situations, as at the time of the Exodus, when God does not take into account the spiritual level of His people; He saves them despite their shortcomings. However, this is not a gift, but rather a loan – and the debt must be repaid. This idea finds very strong expression in the case of Asa:
And the spirit of God came upon Azaryahu, son of Oded. And he went out before Asa and said to him, “Hear me, Asa, and all of Yehuda and Binyamin: The Lord is with you while you are with Him; and if you seek Him, He will be found by you, but if you abandon Him, He will abandon you.” (Divrei Ha-yamim II 15:1-2)
Asa is encouraged by this message:
And when Asa heard these words, and the prophecy of Oded, the prophet, he took courage, and removed the disgusting idols from throughout the land of Yehuda and Binyamin, and from the cities that he had captured in Har Efraim, and he renewed the altar of God that was before God's porch. And he gathered all of Yehuda and Binyamin, and all of the strangers with them from Efraim and Menashe and Shimon – for they had deserted to him from Yisrael in great numbers when they saw that the Lord his God was with him.
And they gathered in Jerusalem in the third month of the fifteenth year of Asa's reign. And they sacrificed to God at that time of the spoil they had brought – seven hundred oxen and seven thousand sheep. And they entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, God of their fathers, with all their hearts and with all their soul; that whoever would not seek the Lord, God of Israel, would be put to death, whether young or old, man or woman. And they swore to God with a loud voice, with shouting and with trumpets and with shofarot. And all of Yehuda rejoiced over the oath, for they had sworn with all their heart, and sought Him with all their desire, and He was found by them, and God gave them rest round about. (Divrei Ha-yamim II 15:8-15)
The scene is almost a direct parallel of Mount Sinai. The revelation at Sinai consists of two parts. Usually, we emphasize the aspect of God descending upon the mountain. But I believe that there is another miracle, no less astounding: That all of Israel declared in unison, “We shall do and we shall obey.” In the case of Asa, the entire nation congregates following the war, swearing an oath to serve “the Lord, God of their fathers, with all their hearts and with all their soul.” It would seem that even the miraculous military victory itself could not diminish the power of this public transformation, which appears to be a miracle of far greater proportions.
In the days of Chizkiyahu, in contrast, there was no repentance and no oath. The emissaries of Merodakh Baladan came to Chizkiyahu, who showed them his entire treasure house. Apparently, following the victory, the spoils of war had been transferred mainly to his royal treasury; only afterwards did part of it reach the treasury of the Temple. Chizkiyahu attributed the victory partly to his own ability, and the tremendous spiritual transformation that could have taken place in the wake of the miracle never happened. The miracle that saved Chizkiyahu and his city from Sancheriv was flawed; it was certainly a strategic victory on the battlefield – but it could have been much more.
Similarly, Yom Yerushalayim expresses the spiritual aspect of the Six Day War. The 28th of Iyar was chosen because this was the date of the Kotel’s liberation, giving profound expression to both the individual’s connection with the nation and the nation’s connection with God. But the process was halted due to the lack of spiritually sensitive national leaders who could translate this initial experience into an enduring spiritual revolution, as did Asa. Instead, immediately following the war the country was filled with a nearly religious worship of mortal leaders, especially military officers and politicians. People attributed the victory to “my might and the power of my hand.” Some anti-Zionist rabbis attributed the victory to the forces of impurity – but how can we deny the divine hand just because we were unable to translate it into a spiritual transformation? And how can we criticize the attitude of the non-observant public, if we ourselves did not spearhead the process that should have taken place?
It was difficult for us to spearhead an enduring spiritual revival for two reasons. First, we had been unable to plan for this new reality; it had not even entered our minds as a possibility. The question of survival had been foremost in our minds; no one took the time to devise a long-term plan for repairing Am Yisrael. The second reason is that, in truth, we were not part of the public. The religious public – both charedi and national-religious sectors, which were very similar in terms of mentality – was a separate group. Our part both in the war and in the casualties was relatively small. We were in no position to lead an ongoing spiritual campaign throughout a nation that we were never really part of in the first place.
However, not all is lost. An enduring spiritual transformation did in fact take place, on two fronts. One front concerned the Jews of the former Soviet Union, where the war led to a national revival that resembled Yechezkel's vision of the dry bones. Suddenly, after the war, many Jews began to relate proudly to their Jewish identity. The other front concerned the revolution within our own sector. The atmosphere of adulation towards military commanders existed among us, but it remained marginal. It never succeeded in clouding the light of deliverance that transformed us, as a public, into completely different people. The air of deliverance, in the wake of which we saw ourselves as a continuation of our biblical past, standing on the shoulders of giants, changed our entire spiritual world. The State of Israel was transformed, in our conceptual terms, into “malkhut Yisrael” – the Jewish sovereignty of yore; Yehuda Maccabi and Bar Kokhba joined with the IDF and our entire conceptual system was revolutionized. This change certainly did not carry the same power that characterized the revival in Asa’s time, but it was an irreversible change that has continued to develop for forty years and counting.
Today, too, we need to plan so that events of this sort will not catch us unprepared. If, one day, there is a deliverance, we must recognize that on the following day the hearts of the people will be open to a spiritual process like that of King Asa’s time, and we dare not miss the opportunity. Don't think that, prior to the Six Day War, the people were more prepared to open their hearts to God than they are today, and that a spiritual revolution such as I described would be impossible today. In the days of Asa, following that long period that “Israel had been without the true God, and without a Kohen teaching, and without Torah,” the situation was no better than it is now. Despite this, there was a moment when the people’s hearts opened. We must prepare for that possibility – the opportunity of the day after deliverance.
How do we prepare? One day the great shofar will be sounded, and you will hear the call. Don't start looking for the chametz then; don't start looking for your shoes, don't start thinking what you'll need for the way. Everything has to be ready; all your bags must be packed. Each one of you is on standby: Each one of you must do his part in carrying out this great spiritual process when the time comes.
(This sicha was delivered on Yom Yerushalayim 5768 .)