On Israel’s 65th Birthday

Soon after the creation of the state, Rav Soloveitchik wrote an essay called Kol Dodi Dofek.  The title means “The voice of my lover knocks”.  The Rav is referring to the beloved of Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs.  The beloved is lying alone in bed and the lover knocks on the door, waking her up.  The Rav wants us to understand that history is knocking at the door and that we are in the presence of miracles.  Anyone who fails to see the miracle of the restoration of the Jewish people in the land is in danger of missing out on the encounter between the two lovers.

But there’s responsibility and danger too:  living in the Land is more complicated than living in exile, just as living in a couple is more complicated than living alone.  It’s not a coincidence that the masechet of Kiddushin, which deals with marriage, draws perpetual parallels between marital relationships and the relationship between Israel and the Land.

For example, the ‘tzara’at’ of the house, a mysterious infection described in the parasha of Metzora, only occurs within the Land of Israel.  Apparently the Land of Israel has a special quality and demands special behavior.  Furthermore, the tzaraat only occurs on a house that an individual owns.  Communal property is immune.  The Torah does not explain why but the Gemara in Yoma (11b) suggests a possible reason: it gives the example of an owner who has refused to lend out vessels or objects that he owns when he’s asked.  He won’t share his possessions.  For this he is punished:  first by having to take his possessions out of his house and put them in the street; then by demolishing part of his house; eventually, by demolishing the whole of his house.  Implicitly the Torah is telling us that ownership, if carried too far, especially in the land of Israel, destroys itself.  Just as in a marriage, if we hold onto ownership too tightly then we lose it.

We see the same idea in the halachot of shmita, the seventh year.  Shmita, like the tzar’at of the house, is another mitzvah that only applies in the land of Israel.  Many of us think of shmita as to do with not eating.  We don’t eat fruit from Israel in the 7th year.  But this is wrong.  Shmita is not about eating: if we wander into an orchard and pick, we may eat as much as we like in the 7th year.  The prohibition is on buying, selling and owning.  We may not trade 7th year produce; we are forbidden to own it; if we own land in Israel, we are forbidden to exercise our rights as the owner and to prevent others from walking in and eating.  The land is communal property, not personal property, in the seventh year.  And the Torah is clear about the fact that if we break this law, if we pretend to ourselves that we really own the land, then we lose it and go into exile.

I feel intense awareness of this complexity, this danger, because of the history of my own family.  My grandfather was someone who heard the knock on the door.  He gave his life’s work to build the state.  To this day, if you study Aristotle or Plato or John Locke or any of the other classic philosophers at the Hebrew University, then you’ll use a Hebrew translation of the classic texts that was made by him or by his students.  I learned this year that he not only translated the classics but also paid for their publication:  the university press had no money.  In other words, he created intellectual property and then made his property available to the community, just like the farmer in the 7th year.

But then my father, as a soldier in the Hagana in 1948, was among those who encouraged local villagers to leave their homes, putting them on buses and sending them away to Jordan.  Who pushed the boundary of ownership too far.  So I grew up with two stories – the miracle of the return to the Land and also the danger, the responsibility, the price of taking ownership too far.

Most of us have trouble holding onto two ideas at the same time.  We deal with conflict by suppressing our sympathy with one side or another.  So those who feel the tragedy of the villagers being driven away on the buses often deny the Jewish attachment to the land.  And those who celebrate the joy of the return often deny or minimise the tragedy of the other side.

Feeling sympathy with conflicting stories is hard.  But perhaps the right thing to do, rather than suppressing one or suppressing the other, is to try to deal with them together.  In order to suggest how we might do this, I turn to Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook, the first chief rabbi of mandatory Palestine, before the establishment of the state.

Rav Kook was famous for not cutting himself off from those who disagreed with him.  More than that, he celebrated opposites: opposite opinions, divergent opinions, conflicting opinions.  For Rav Kook, the opposites formed important parts of a larger truth.  Let me give an example from his book Orot HaRe’aya, which comments on the famous gemara in Eruvin about Beyt Shammai and Bey Hillel.  They argued for three years until a voice from heaven announced, “These and these are the words of the living God, but the halacha is according the Beyt Hillel.”  This gemara is hard to understand.  If the two opinions contradict, how can “these and these both be the words of the living God”.  Doesn’t God know who is right?

But Rav Kook reads the gemara with the emphasis on the “and”.  These and these.  Both opinions are required in order to complete the “words of the living God”.  Peace comes from integration of the opposites, from recognising that each opinion has its place and value, not from compromise between them.  Peace comes from holding onto both opinions in their fullness.

Rav Kook expresses this most beautifully in his famous poem, ‘Shir Meruba’ .  ‘Shir Meruba’ means four-sided song, or square song, or perhaps four-fold song.  The title is almost impossible to translate into poetic English but it refers, clearly, to multiple facets, multiple angles.  And, in ‘Shir Meruba’, he speaks of the relationship between the love that we feel for our ourselves, and for our own people and the love that we feel for the others in the world.   The relation, we might say, between nationalism and universalism.  Between Pesach and Sukkot.  Between Rabbi Akiva, who says “ v’ahavta l’reecha camocha” – “you shall love your neighbour” and Ben Azai, who says “zeh sefer toldot ha’adam” . . . . “all mankind is created equal”.

Let me read you his poem.  I am translating, and shortening too.  A fuller translation is posted in the April 2011 section of the blog.

There is one who sings the song of his own soul, and in himself he finds everything . . . . .

There is another who sings the song of the nation.  He leaves the circle of his own self, because he finds it without breadth, without ideals. He aspires toward the heights, and he attaches himself with a gentle love to the whole community of Israel.  Together with her he sings her songs.  He feels sorrow in her sorrows and he delights in her hopes.  He contemplates noble and pure thoughts about her past and her future; he probes with love and wisdom her inner spirit.

Then there is another, whose soul extends beyond the bounds of Israel to sing the song of mankind.  His spirit extends over the broad vistas of the majesty of man.  He aspires to man’s perfection and, from this source of life, he draws the subjects of his meditation and study, his aspirations and his visions.

Then there is one who rises towards still wider horizons, until he links himself with all creation, with all God’s creatures, with all the worlds, and he sings his song with all of them.  By tradition, whoever sings a portion of this song every day is assured of a share in the world to come.

And then there is one who brings all these songs into one harmony, so that they all give voice together. Together they sing their songs with beauty; each lends vitality and life to the other.  They make sounds of joy and gladness – kol sasson v’kol simchah – sounds of jubilation and celebration, sounds of ecstasy and holiness.

In this person, the song of the self, the song of the nation, the song of mankind, the song of creation, the four songs, all merge together, at all times, in every hour.

And this complete, perfect whole rises up to become the song of holiness, the song of God, the song of Israel, in its full strength and beauty, in its full authenticity and greatness.  The name “Israel” is an anagram of “Shir El”, the song of God.  It is a single song, a twofold song, a threefold song and a fourfold song.  It is the Song of Songs of Solomon, Shlomo, whose name means peace or wholeness.  It is the song of the King to whom all peace belongs . . . .

What is Rav Kook saying?  He is suggesting that we aren’t commanded to compromise, nor to walk half-way, between ownership and generosity, between nationalism and universalism, between the song of the nation and the song of the world. Instead, we’re commanded to choose both, to feel both sides, to live to both ideals together.

We’re commanded to sing both songs.  In fact, to sing all four songs.  That, according to Rav Kook, is the special song of Israel, our unique quality. The capacity to sing a song that combines all four together: concern for the self, love for the nation, concern for mankind and for the whole world.  To combine them into one supreme song in which all the voices are heard together.

If this was an important message in the time of Rav Kook, how much more so today.

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About Benedict Roth

An occasional Talmud student and popular teacher who has studied at Oxford and at Machon Pardes.
This entry was posted in Ethics, Talmud, Torah and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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