Iyar: Solidarity with Israel

Nov 17, 2014
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by Andrew White, London (Darche Noam Alumnus)
Thursday 24 May 2001 – 2 Sivan 5761

Making the Spiritual Connection

At this time of anguish for the Jewish people, those of us who live outside Israel have an obligation to respond through our spiritual efforts.

We here in England, and elsewhere in the diaspora, are physically distant from the land of Israel. However, we are all connected to the situation. This connection is not about politics but is rather about our essential identity as part of Klal Yisrael – the community of Israel.

Our fellow Jews are enduring outrage upon outrage. Families, schools, communities, army units have been shattered – bombs in shopping centers, on buses and in other public places, sniper and mortar attacks, drive-by shootings, kidnappings – an unbearable list.

The most holy sites to the Jewish nation are under assault – machine-guns attacks on Kever Rochel (Rachel’s tomb), repeated stonings of the Kotel, the destruction of Joseph’s tomb, synagogues desecrated.

Israel’s political compromises – far-reaching and controversial – have been rebuffed by violence. And Israel’s efforts to defend its citizens against attacks of a type which no other democratic country has to confront have been condemned by the world.

There can be no country in the world that yearns for peace as much as Israel. Israel has no interest in an unending conflict. It has taken risks, withdrawn from territory and made difficult concessions. And yet hopes for peace, however real or illusory they were, appear to have been dashed.

Instead, there is acute anxiety over security throughout the country. And to compound all of this, there are the other major challenges of daily life: the water crisis, the economic downturn and so on (The Jerusalem wedding hall tragedy occurred on the day this piece was submitted.) Hardly surprisingly, there is despondency in the country. Peoples’ faith and willpower are all being deeply tested.

In this piece, I would like to share some sources which can help us to understand our responsibilities at this time: the requirement for solidarity, the power of prayer, ways of sustaining hope, and why it is important to express constant gratitude to Hashem for the miraculous accomplishments of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.

The Foundations of Solidarity

The starting point for the Diaspora is solidarity.

There is a lot of talk about solidarity – trips to Israel, public rallies, increased fund-raising, lobbying the media for balanced journalism, and so on. All of this is no doubt important.

But this is only half the picture. The concept of solidarity is rooted in the Torah. Solidarity is not just a desirable instinct or a set of gestures, but an everyday religious obligation. It is not a political statement, but a religious one. We are one people, dependent on Hashem, and the Torah teaches that we have a duty to identify totally with our fellow Jews in their current anguish.

The Jews in Egypt

We learn “solidarity” from the earliest moments of our national history.

The angel of Hashem appears to Moshe Rabbeinu to deliver the message of redemption, from a burning thorn bush. Why a thorn bush, uncomfortable and lowly, rather than another location more in keeping with the elevated nature of the moment?

Rashi explains that the angel of Hashem appeared in a lowly bush in order to fulfil the verse in Tehillim (91:15) “Imo Anochi be’tzara” – I am with him in distress”. The Jews were suffering under the Egyptian taskmasters, and Hashem wished to demonstrate, as it were, that He shared in the distress of the Jewish nation (see comments of the Mizrachi).

The War with Amalek

The concept of solidarity is likewise taught when the Amalekites attack the Jewish nation. Moshe Rabbeinu raises his arms to inspire the nation to faith and prayer (see Shemos 17:11-12). The verse then states:

“The hands of Moshe Rabbeinu grew heavy, and [Aharon and Hur] took a stone and they put it under him, and he sat on it.”

Rashi asks: why a stone? Would it not have been more fitting for Moshe Rabbeinu, the leader of the Jewish people, to rest on a pillow or a cushion, rather than a hard stone? To which Rashi answers – Moshe Rabbeinu said at that moment (see Rashi 17:12):

“The nation Israel are absorbed in distress, also I will be absorbed in distress.”

Sitting on a stone indicated solidarity – total identification – by Moshe Rabbeinu with the nation in crisis at that time.

“Do Not Separate Yourself From the Community”

The idea is also taught in Pirkei Avos (“Ethics of the Fathers”). The Tanna Hillel states: “Do not separate yourself from the community” (Avos 2:4). Rav Ovadia Bartenura, in his commentary on the Mishna, teaches that the Tanna is referring to the concept of solidarity – total identification. In the Bartenura’s words “Do not separate yourself from the community – rather, be a partner in their experiences of distress”. He continues, strikingly, by teaching that “he who separates himself from the community will not see the consolation of the community [at the time of the Moshiach]“.

The Bartenura’s comment is based upon a Talmudic source, which reinforces the idea of “total identification”. The Gemara teaches (Ta’anis 11a):”At a time when the community are in a state of anguish, a person should not say – I will go to my house, and eat and drink- such a person will not see the consolation of the community… rather, he should share in the suffering of the community”.

This principle is codified by the Rambam (Hilchos Teshuva 3:11) and by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 574:4) as binding halacha.

We thus see the need to rise to the challenge of solidarity with dedication and seriousness.

For those of us who are not experiencing the tension day to day, the least we can do is demonstrate a continuous awareness of the tzara (distress) of our fellow Jews. We cannot continue on the basis of “business as usual.”

We need to understand (from family, friends and reliable reporting sources) what Jews in Israel are experiencing (because we certainly will not obtain this from most accepted news sources).

And, above all, we need to be willing to share, even from a distance, their pain. No one is suggesting this is easy, and I wish I knew myself how to do this. But this is what we are religiously obligated to do.

Solidarity Across Boundaries

It is natural to feel solidarity with immediate family, community or peer group – this is vital in itself – but the Torah obligation does not stop there. The mutual obligation of solidarity applies among Jews – strangers to each other -of all affiliations. A Jew with right-wing ideology is obliged to identify with the distress of a fellow Jew – religious or secular – on the “left”. And Jews on the left are obliged to feel solidarity with Jews on the “right”. Solidarity cuts across the Haredi world, to the national religious, and to the secular. It cuts across cultures.

And it doesn’t matter where the person lives who is experiencing anguish: Kfar Sava, Kfar Darom, Sderot, Tekoa, Hebron, Netanya, Efrat, Jerusalem or the Lebanese border, or anywhere else in the country. Solidarity at time of distress knows no territorial boundaries or ideological cut-off points.

Solidarity through Elevating our Conduct

There are many ways of expressing solidarity in our daily lives.

On the spiritual level, we have to remind ourselves that the conduct of each of us has the potential to influence the collective merit of the Jewish nation, and the mercies that Hashem bestows upon the nation. It follows that we should all look to our conduct and find some way, however large, however small, of elevating it in response to the current situation.

Increased Torah learning; enhanced observance of mitzvot; efforts to reduce lashon hara, and to strengthen ahavas chinom (unconditional love between Jewish people), and so forth. All have been urged upon us in recent months.

Enhancing our Efforts at Prayer

The most central expression of spiritual solidarity is through tefilla – prayer.

We are the nation of tefilla – it defines our approach to our national destiny – “they by chariots and they by horses, but we… call out to Hashem” (Tehillim chapter 20). Our individual lives and our national history have always been dependent upon our tefillos: see the Ramban (Nachmanides) on Shemos 2:25 who explains that the Jews’ cries to Hashem in Egypt were a precondition to their redemption from slavery.

Tefilla offers many opportunities for solidarity. Every time we open the siddur we can embark upon a personal solidarity mission.

The following are extracts from a call which was issued last summer (two months before Rosh Hashanah and therefore before the outbreak of the current wave of violence), by a distinguished group of rabbinical leaders in Israel:

“People of Hashem – awake and rouse yourselves and call out to Hashem.

We are full of trepidation over the current, difficult situation in the Eretz Hakedosha, where no person knows what each day will bring.

…. these are matters of life and death for everyone living in the Land.

It is a sacred obligation on every single individual to strengthen themselves in Torah and in the fear of Heaven, in the keeping of mitzvoth and in acts of chesed, and to multiply prayers and entreaties, so that He may have pity on His poor and destitute nation, have mercy and remember His people quickly for a salvation, and that the [Righteous Redeemer] may come speedily in our days….”

If this message was powerful ten months ago, then how much more so now?

There are many ways of channelling our efforts. (I am speaking 100% to myself here, only doing so out loud):-

Increasing our Kavana – or Spiritual Focus

To daven with increased kavana, to work on our sense of our utter reliance on Hashem, to open up our hearts to the tribulations of our fellow Jews in Israel, to pray as fervently as we can that these tribulations cease, and that the shechina of Hashem rest fully on the land – these are themes which can pervade our davening every day.

Absorbing the words themselves.

It may sound obvious to say so, but if you simply read the words of the brachos of the Amida, slowly and with reflection, one can be overwhelmed by their power for today’s situation. The brachos of Go’el Yisroel, of Ve’Lirushalaim, of Modim, of Sim Shalom – and so on. It is a striking thought that Jews everywhere in the world, from Jerusalem to Jonannesburg, Manchester to Mexico City, and Moscow to Melbourne, can all turn to the identical words to channel their feelings towards the Almighty. It might be said that we have a spiritual solidarity meeting with our fellow Jews in Israel and around the world every time we daven the amida with sincerity.

The extra tehillim.

Many months ago, leading rabbis in Israel called for Jews around the world daily to say three tehillim daily in response to the situation:

Chapter 83 (“A song with musical accompaniment by Asaph “O Hashem, do not hold yourself silent “)
Chapter 130 (“Mima’amakim” – “From the depths I called you, Hashem”)
Chapter 142 (“A Maskil by David – when he was in the cave – a prayer “)

The words of each of these Tehillim (interpreted through our classic commentators: see the Artscroll Tehillim’s wonderful anthology) are acutely relevant in the current situation.
The call of these Rabbis is more pressing than ever, today. Starting to say these Tehillim daily is an expression of solidarity we can each make, at no price, and with minimal effort.

Praying for the captured Israelis

Israeli soldiers are, today, held prisoner in Lebanon – we do not know if they are alive, and if so whether they will be returned. Can you imagine the anguish of their families? “Imo Anochi be’tzara – “I am with him in his distress”. How about saying Tehillim each day for their safe return? Chapters 63 or 143 – two of the Tehillim customarily said at a time of tzara – come to mind.

Children and Tefilla

Our Rabbis teach that children have a particularly strong channel of communication to Hashem, when they daven with sincerity. I know of families where the parents regularly say Tehillim together with their children in response to the current situation. This is surely an appropriate act of solidarity (besides being good chinuch – character shaping – for the children). And is it not within the immediate, daily reach of many of us?

“Focusing on the land of Israel, and Jerusalem”

Our prayers are rich with references to Jerusalem, the holy city. The Torah is infused with the centrality of the Land of Israel, from the first verse of the sedra of Breishis (see Rashi there). At a time when our national connection with Jerusalem, and with the Land as a whole, have come under intense challenge, it is an expression of solidarity to reinforce our connection with each by (for example) selecting divrei torah on these themes, saying Chapter 122 of Tehillim regularly, and by learning the many passages in the commentary on the Torah of the Ramban which relate to the Land.

We know that there is no guarantee that our tefillos will be answered. And it goes without saying that, in Israel, tefillos need to be accompanied by practical measures of security – the armoured buses for school children, and so on. Our tefillos are our way of invoking Hashem’s mercy that these daily efforts of our fellow Jews do indeed protect them from harm.

“Kave El Hashem” – Prayer as a Means of Maintaining Spirit and Resolve

In the current situation, many are dispirited.

Yet we are a people of faith, of optimism, of hope – and prayer can, we learn from our Rabbis, help to sustain hope.

We learn this lesson strikingly from the verse at the end of Chapter 27 of Tehillim (“Ledavid Hashem”) which we read in the period between Ellul and Hoshana Rabba. The verse there states:

“Kave el Hashem” – “Place confidence in Hashem, strengthen yourself and He will give you courage, and place confidence in Hashem”.

This verse is expressed as a spiritual progression – but what does it mean?

The Gemara in Brachos (32b) provides the classic interpretation. The verse is teaching that even if prayers are not answered immediately, we should persist – hence the repetition of the words. The same Gemara goes on to teach that there are four areas of life which require Chizuk (constant upward reinforcement) – Torah study, good deeds, prayer and livelihood. The source cited for that concept is this verse – “Kave el Hashem”.

The Radak, one of the major commentators on Tehillim, adds a further insight. He suggests that the verse is explaining how prayer can enable a person not to lose hope as a result of the plans of an adversary.

He explains: “Place confidence in Hashem” – a person should sincerely pray for the aid of Hashem, and not pay heed to the words of the adversary. “He will strengthen you, and give you courage” – If a person strengthens his conduct, then Hashem will strengthen the person’s heart and enable him not to be weakened by the words of the enemy. The verse then repeats “Place confidence in Hashem” a second time, to teach that such a person can always have hope, and his heart will not weaken.

The relevance of the Radak’s interpretation is clear: prayer can serve as a means of retaining spirit and resolve even in the most difficult of times. No one is saying this is easy. But the opportunity is there.

“The Abundant Redemptions” of Hashem

People often comment that they find the current situation “impossible” – that there are no political “solutions”.

But we are a people of faith. The fact that we do not see a resolution reflects limitations in our vision.

We can learn this lesson, once again, from a verse in Tehillim. In the famous chapter 130 (“Mima’amakim” -see above) which is traditionally said in times of crisis, we read:

“Let Israel hope in Hashem, for with Hashem there is kindness, and with Him are abundant redemptions -VeHarbe Imo Pedus” (verse 130:7).

What is meant by the expression ” abundant redemptions”? Rashi explains this to be a reference to the past – that Hashem has repeatedly exercised miraculous power to redeem us – from Egypt, from Bavel, and so on. These are the “abundant redemptions”.

But the Sforno provides a slightly different perspective. He writes:

“even when the natural means of redemption are exhausted, there are many ways before Him to redeem you”.

According to this interpretation, the verse is not a description of the past, but a description of the infinite power of Hashem applying both to the past and to the future.

By all natural calculations of diplomacy, of politics and of pragmatism, we may regard a situation as being “impossible”. The “natural means of redemption”, in the Sforno’s words, may appear “exhausted”. But that is looking at a situation through our eyes. Hashem has “abundant” means of redemption that we cannot begin to grasp, by which He can redeem us.

Jewish Life in Russia – the “Abundant Redemptions”

As a generation we are fortunate to have seen a process which might bear out this idea: the rebirth of Jewish life in Russia, and in Eastern Europe, the mass migration of Russian Jews to Israel, and the disintegration in the most humiliating manner of Soviet communism, arguably the most “invincible” political system in history. Children are learning Torah in Kiev while statues of Lenin are demolished for the sake of construction schemes.

No one would have dreamed of these extraordinary events even twenty years ago. But Hashem has “abundant redemptions”.

As a generation which has witnessed these events, we should be cautious before declaring, based on our understanding, that the present situation for Israel is “impossible”. After seeing such miracles (and there are many others which could be discussed), who can say what is and is not possible?

Miraculous Events in Israel

This idea has added, immediate relevance to events in Israel. It is not out of place to observe that even in these last months on the ground, we have seen many “impossible” events, defying rational explanation, and rules of nature. The bombs which “failed” to explode; the devices which were “miraculously” defused by amateurs; the weapons armouries discovered “by chance”; the weapons-loaded infiltrators intercepted “by chance”; the shootings which “missed” their targets; the attacks which “miraculously” backfired.

Through such episodes, Hashem is daily conferring his protection on the Jewish nation, by events that are beyond human power to control, and which have no rational explanation. Our spiritual efforts need to focus on these miracles, and express our gratitude for them. They are a demonstration of “Veharbe Imo Pedus – He has abundant redemptions”.

“He who makes peace in His heights” – Bringing Together Irreconcilable Forces

It is often said that the Jewish nation and their adversaries are irreconcilable. But through the teachings of our Rabbis we can find the encouragement to look beyond this analysis.

We read every day at the end of the amida, and also at the end of birkat hamazon :

“Oseh shalom bimromav”- He who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace for us and for all Israel”.

What do these words mean? In what sense does Hashem make “peace in His heights” ? And in any event how does this relate to peace for the nation of Israel?

The explanation is linked to an aspect of creation, of brias haolam. In the second chapter of the book of Bereishis we learn of the creation of “shamayim” – heaven. Shamayim – even the very word itself – is a synthesis of fire (“esh”) and water (“mayim”) – (see Rashi, Breishis, 1:8). Hashem brought together fire and water. Despite natural laws as we understand them, the water did not extinguish the fire – they coexisted.

The words “Oseh Shalom Bimromav – He who made peace in His heights” are found in the Book of Job. Rashi there comments (Book of Job 25:2) that they are referring to this aspect of creation. Hashem made “peace” in “His heights” by mixing together the natural forces of fire and water which according to the rules of nature were irreconcilable.

It was suggested to me (by Mr Jonathan Halberstadt from London) that from here we can understand the meaning of the words at the end of the Amida.

“He who makes peace in His Heights” – between the elements of fire and water – “may He make peace for us and for all the Jewish nation” – may He reconcile seemingly opposing people so as to bring about peace for the Jewish nation.

It is no more “impossible” for Hashem to make peace for the Jewish nation than it was to bring together fire and water in heaven.

But we express a further idea when we say “Oseh Shalom Bimromav”. It is one thing to make peace between friends but another between adversaries. The verse teaches that it is beyond the Jewish people to make peace, unguided. We need Divine assistance, encouraged by the awareness that nothing is “impossible” to the Almighty.

Expressing Gratitude in Our Daily Lives

When we think of the purpose of prayer to the Almighty, we naturally think primarily of requests.

But there is another dimension to Tefilla: “shevach” – praises, which flow from a sense of gratitude for that which we receive from the Almighty.

The Gemara (Brachos 4b) discusses the fact that we say chapter 145 of Tehillim (known as ‘Ashrei’) three times daily – twice in the morning, and once before the Mincha amida. Why this chapter of Tehillim in particular?

The Gemara teaches that it was selected because it expresses our gratitude for the essential sustenance that we receive from Hashem – “Poteach et yadecha” – You open Your hand and fulfil the desire of every living being” (Tehillim 145:16). (There is a discussion in the Gemara about why this chapter was selected in preference to Hallel Hagadol (Chapter 136) but that is not the issue for these purposes).

Expressing gratitude to Hashem for the basic things which we and our loved ones receive in life – health, food, shelter and so on – is central to our lives as believing Jews.

Expressing Gratitude on a National Level

“Ashrei” emphasises gratitude in relation to our personal lives. But the obligation to express gratitude to Hashem applies to our national circumstances too. When the people of Israel, as a nation, receive kindnesses from Hashem, we have an ongoing obligation to express our gratitude for this fact.

We learn this most tellingly from a verse which we say every morning in shacharis: “Hashem favours His nation, He adorns the humble with salvation” (Psalm 149:4).

What does that verse mean? In what sense is the nation “humble”, and how does this merit Divine salvation?

One of the attributes of a humble person is that he or she takes no credit for personal achievement but acknowledges Hashem for them. That is humility.

According to the Radak (in his commentary on the above verse in Tehillim) that is what is being referred to by David Hemelech. If the Jewish nation acknowledges Hashem as the Master of its national achievements, the nation demonstrates “humility”. Hashem, says David Hamelech, “favours His nation” – favours such acknowledgement by the nation. And Hashem responds by “adorning” the nation with salvation.

There is a strong lesson here for today. If we wish to be “humble”, we need to deepen our sense of gratitude to Hashem for the extraordinary kindnesses that Israel embodies:

The survival of the country

In 1948, Israel was a country of 550,000 Jews. Within two generations of the Shoah, it is home to over five million Jews – a ten-fold increase in population in 53 years! The country has miraculously prevailed in wars, absorbed millions of Jewish refugees in times of trouble, and created reasonable material prosperity. We have to express our gratitude to Hashem for this;

Torah and Chesed in Israel

Hundreds of thousands of people, hundreds of communities, and entire towns, are built around the learning of Torah, the fulfilment of mitzvot and gemillus chasadim. We are witnessing an amazing blossoming of religious schools, chedarim, yeshivot, kollelim, and outreach activities up and down the country. Chesed is practised, day-to-day, on a vast scale – little commented upon, little noticed by those outside the immediate environment. We have the ability to pray at the Kotel and access to the holy sites throughout the Land. And the opportunity to fulfil mitzvot like shmitta (the sabbatical year) in a manner which for our ancestors was just a distant, unimaginable dream. We need to step back and express our gratitude for this;

Israel can help the Sick, the Poor and the Victims of Calamity

Israel is a leader in medical technology and agricultural expertise. Its universities are centres of innovation. Many of the resulting inventions are of greatest benefit to the poor, the sick, and the blind in Israel and beyond. Meanwhile, when a natural calamity strikes – earthquake in Turkey, flood in the Ukraine, monsoon in India, to name three recent examples – it is the Israelis with their mobile field hospital who are among the first on the scene, saving lives, rescuing victims, tending the injured. These rescue efforts are a Kiddush Hashem. We are obliged to express our gratitude to Hashem that Israel has the means to provide for itself and to help the needy (inside and outside Israel) in this way;

Respect for Human Life and Dignity

Even when under ruthless attack, Israel endeavours to preserve the rights of its Arab minority. Thousands of Arabs enjoy the benefits of the Israeli healthcare system (it is an ultimate irony that Jewish victims of the current violence have included health workers famed for treating Jews and Arabs in the hospital system without favour or preference). Arabs throughout Israel have freedom to worship, while Israeli leaders publicly express regret at the loss of innocent Arab life. Even under the most extreme conditions, Israel upholds the basic principle of kavod habrios (human respect), and we need to recognise this fact.

If we take to heart the Radak’s interpretation of Psalm 149, this compels us to consider how we speak about Israel. Our starting point is not pride but humility. By expressing gratitude to Hashem for the miraculous accomplishments of the Jewish people in the Land, we can all help to lay the groundwork for salvation : “He adorns the humble with salvation”.

Spiritual Resources are our Greatest Asset

The greatest resources of the Jewish people are spiritual, and solidarity with Israel at this time must absorb us, spiritually and emotionally. In that way we can each contribute in some way – however big, however small – to bringing nearer the peace and blessing for the Jewish nation for which we all so deeply yearn.

“Hoshiya et Amecha” – Save Your nation, and bless Your estate, and tend them and elevate them for ever” (Tehillim 28:9).

Andrew White studied at the Yeshivat Darche Noam (“Shapell’s”) in Jerusalem, and now lives in London where he belongs to the Golders Green Beth Hamedrash (“Munks”). He is involved with adult education programmes. This piece is adapted from various shiurim and talks given in the past year. The opinions expressed are his own. The piece may be redistributed as long as it includes this paragraph and the one preceding the article.

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