By Rabbi Jim Rogozen, September 17, 2022
You see that little bracketed word in the Prayer for the State of Israel? שתהא ? I saw that word for the first time 4 years ago when we came back to LA. I don’t like that word!
That word takes the assertion – that Israel is ראשית צמיחת גאוּלתינוּ reishit tzemichat geulataynu… the initial sprouting or flowering of our redemption – and pivots away from it, turning it into a hope: “may it someday be” the place of our flowering redemption. תפילה לשלוֹם מדינת ישראל
The prayer was written by Israel’s chief Rabbis Yitzhak haLevi Herzog and Ben Zion Meir Uziel, and had the support of various Rabbinic groups around the country. It was first published in the religious Zionist newspaper Ha-Tsofeh on September 20, 1948. We are 3 days away from the prayer’s 74th anniversary
Even with all that Rabbinic support, this prayer was not universally accepted. Why? Because people have been debating the concept and the timing of Geula — redemption — for centuries.
Geula can refer to several things: physical freedom (like escaping Egypt), or leaving Galut (the Diaspora) to go to Israel. Some say it refers to the ultimate perfection of humanity preceding the Messianic Era.
For some, Geula required introductory conditions, referred to as Ithalta d’Geula, to be in place, such as fruits and plants being tended again in the Land of Israel or new building projects happening in the city of Jerusalem, or people moving to Israel.
It’s important to note, though, that these conditions rely on human activity. But there were opinions that any human intervention in the process of Geula was not just irrelevant, but harmful. Here’s just one thread:
The following verse in Shir HaShirim is repeated three times:
הִשְׁבַּ֨עְתִּי אֶתְכֶ֜ם בְּנ֤וֹת יְרוּשָׁלַ֙͏ִם֙ בִּצְבָא֔וֹת א֖וֹ בְּאַיְל֣וֹת הַשָּׂדֶ֑ה אִם־תָּעִ֧ירוּ
וְֽאִם־תְּע֥וֹרְר֛וּ אֶת־הָאַהֲבָ֖ה עַ֥ד שֶׁתֶּחְפָּֽץ׃
I adjure you (or make you take an oath), O maidens of Jerusalem,
By gazelles or by hinds of the field: Do not wake or rouse Love until it please.
Rabbi Yosi in Ketubot 111a claimed that these verses represent three “oaths,” two of which were binding on the Jewish People. One of them is שֶׁלֹּא יַעֲלוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּחוֹמָה meaning that Jews should not ascend to Eretz Yisrael “as a wall” — in a large group- but little by little. The second oath is that Jews will not rebel against the rule of the nations of the world. Pushing for a wholesale return to the Land, and establishing a new State of Israel, were seen as breaking these promises.
This is why, even now, 74 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, many Orthodox Rabbis believe that there is still no halakhic obligation for anyone to move to Israel.
So how could Rabbis Herzog and Uziel make the claim that Israel is Raysheet Tzmichat Geulataynu- the beginning of our Redemption?
Here’s a story: Rav Herzog was in the US in 1943 as the Nazis were moving into North Africa. People begged him not to go back to Israel because it was too dangerous. He said, “The Nazis won’t go into Eretz Yisrael.” Where did that come from?
It came from the Ramban’s commentary on Vayikra 26:16. In what probably sets a record for the longest Ramban comment, he says that there are two tochechot (or rebukes) in the Torah (B’chukotai and Ki Tavo – this week’s pasha), each of which mentions exile as a punishment for not observing the Torah. Since it only mentions two exiles, with only the second one being a complete redemption (what Ramban called a havtacha shleima – a full promise) we can assume there won’t be a 3rd.
Another source comes from the book of Amos 9:15
And I will plant them upon their soil, וְלֹ֨א יִנָּתְשׁ֜וּ ע֗וֹד מֵעַ֤ל אַדְמָתָם֙ Never more to be uprooted from the soil I have given them.
And in Sefer Yechezkel 36:8 on, v. 12
“I will lead the people—My people Israel—to you (the Land), and they shall possess you. You shall be their heritage, וְלֹא־תוֹסִ֥ף ע֖וֹד לְשַׁכְּלָֽם and you shall not again cause them to be bereaved.”
Rashi says that means, the people will not be driven out of the Land.
Arbabanel says: כי לא ילכו עוד בגלות – They will no more go into exile.
And the Malbim says the Land will be from that moment on a ירושה עולמית – a forever inheritance.
In 1967 Rav Shlomo Goren channeled Rav Herzog’s reasoning when he predicted that while the Arabs would soon invade Israel, they would not prevail. Why? Because there could never be a 3rd Hurban – destruction.
Rabbis have debated the value and potency of the Torah’s curses and predictions for centuries. Some say prophecies of punishment can be reversed… by doing Tshuva…look at Sefer Yonah. Some say a positive prophecy (like Amos and Yehezkel) cannot be canceled under any condition.
And some argue that prophecies weren’t guaranteed because they were often conditional.
That’s why, as early as 1956, Rav Soloveitchic wrote that while God had invited the Jewish People into a relationship, including settling the Land of Israel, after 8 years of the new State, the Jews hadn’t responded strongly enough and that there was a need for further spiritual elevation.
So, that little word — שתהא — that someday the State of Israel might be or would be the initial sprouting of our redemption — leaves us with some questions.
Are we waiting for God or are we in the middle of Geula? If so, how long will it take? Is there something we should be doing?
Or, as Rabbi Stewart Weiss phrased it: Have we entered the Messianic Age or is this just “Galut with a Kotel?” His answer: we have entered the process of geula, but redemption is a just that, a process, not perfection.
I understand both sides to this issue. It is only natural for us be wary of reading God into specific events or agendas. We’ve seen too much of that, in the U.S. and around the world. And we have our own history of false messiahs, generational trauma, and cynicism; too much to blindly accept such a huge theological shift.
But for those in doubt, for those who don’t want to go “all in,” Rabbi Alan Haber offers an interesting intellectual bridge. He quotes the Rambam in Hilchot Melachim that someone who compels all of Israel to follow the Torah, and fights on behalf of God, can be considered b’hezkat mashiach – a tentative, presumed Messiah, even if he performs no miracles, and no matter the outcome. This was based on his analysis of Bar Kochba, whom Rabbi Akiba thought was the Messiah, at least until Bar Kochba was killed in battle.
Rabbi Haber suggests that because we are witnessing the fulfillment of so many Biblical prophecies we should see ourselves as b’hezkat ithalta d’geula – we should presume or act as if we are at the beginning of the geula, and we should do everything we can to move things along.
I like this idea. It’s motivating, it elevates our actions, linking them to a greater cause, for both Israel and all of humanity. It’s a very reasonable “as if” approach.
By way of comparison, look at the Prayer for Our Country in the Siddur. The founding fathers, with their deist theology, didn’t assume for a moment that God had a special relationship with the U.S. When we ask for God’s help in bringing about peace and justice in our country, we are basically asking God to maybe step in once in a while.
Let’s face it: Israel’s challenges are many. The government there does things that drive us crazy! And God, for some reason, refuses to issue regular updates about where we are on the Geula timeline. But to use a version of T’filla l’shlom Medinat Yisrael that treats Israel as if it’s just another country, waiting for God to someday get involved, makes me uneasy.
Remember what Yaakov said, having spent his first night away from home and seeing the ladder up to heaven in his dreams?
אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣ש ה’ בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָֽנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי
“Indeed, God is in this place, and I did not know [it].”
Yaakov, at that moment, pivoted in terms of how he understood what he was living through.
Herzog’s original prayer challenges us — every week — to pivot — to pivot away from doubt and historical fear, and to step towards understanding the founding of the State of Israel, with all its warts and wonders, as the beginning of a divine process which just might generate some faith for the future.
As we get further into the High Holiday liturgy, it’s important to remember that each word we say, or don’t say, can make a world of difference.