Yom Ha’atzmaut 5772: Believing in the Power of Possibility
Bnei Akiva service at Finchley Synagogue
Rabbanim mechubadim, president of the Board of Deputies, distinguished guests, friends. First may I, on behalf of all of us, thank, as usual, our host, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. Rabbi Mirvis, you are a truly great rabbi of a truly great community. We thank you for all you have given us, and may Hashem continue to bless you, your Rebbetzin, and your family. Amen.
Secondly, k’vod hashagrir, His Excellency, Daniel Taub, ambassador of Israel. Daniel, you were once our proudest export to Israel, now you’re one of Israel’s proudest exports back to us. We are so truly blessed by your extraordinary, articulate, and deeply moving advocacy of Israel. In you, Am Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael are truly blessed. And finally, and acharon chaviv, most precious of all, the chaverim and chaverot of Bnei Akiva. I think we all went to Bnei Akiva here. I think Bnei Akiva is the best school of leadership Anglo-Jewry ever created. You, the chaverim and chaverot of Bnei Akiva, are our inspiration. We need you this year to sing with a neshama yeteira, break the decibel records of the past, and may you continue to lift our spirits, and may Hashem continue to bless you. Amen.
Friends, this evening I want to tell the story of three miracles. And I begin with a famous passage from the Haggadah. “Amar Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah”, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said, “harei ani k’ven shivim shana v’lo zachiti”, I’m like a man of 70, and never before did I understand why we tell the story of yetziat mitzrayim at night, “ad shedrashah Ben Zoma”, until Ben Zoma explained it.
Ben Zoma said, “lema’an tizkor et yom tzet’cha mei’eretz mitzrayim kol yemei chayecha”, when the Torah says, ‘Remember the going out of Egypt all the days of your life’, “yemei chayecha, hayamim”, the phrase days of your life means the days. “Kol yemei chayecha, haleilot”, when it adds the word ‘kol’, it comes to include the word night, the idea of night. “Vachachamim omrim”, and the Sages said, no, “yemei chayecha, ha’olam hazeh”, it means this time. “Kol yemei chayecha, lehavi limot hamashiach”, ‘kol’ comes to include the Messianic age. That is the passage we read in the Haggadah.
However, the most interesting thing about the passage is the bit we don’t read in the Haggadah. The continuation of the conversation recorded for us in the Gemara in Brachot, on daf yud bet amud bet, which says the following. “Amar lahem Ben Zoma lachachamim”, Ben Zoma said to the Sages, “v’chi mazkirin yetziat mitzrayim limot hamashiach?” Will we, when the Messiah comes, still tell the story of Exodus from Egypt? “Vahalo kvar ne’emar”, did not the prophet Jeremiah say, “hinei yamim ba’im ne’um Hashem”, ‘The time will come’, says God, “v’lo yomru od chai Hashem asher he’elah et Bnei Yisrael me’eretz mitzrayim”, we will no longer say, ‘long live God who brought the Jewish people out of Egypt’, “ki im chai Hashem”, but long live God, “asher he’elah va’asher heivi et zera beit Yisrael me’eretz tzafonah u’mikol ha’aratzot asher hidachtim sham”, but long live God who brought the Jewish people from the lands of the north and from every country to which they were scattered.
Jeremiah says, there will come a second Exodus more remarkable even than the first, and that will displace the story of the going out of Egypt. And the Sages said, “lo shete’aker yetziat mitzrayim mimkoma”, it’s not that we won’t tell the story of the going out of Egypt, “ela shet’hei shibud malchuyot ikar, vitziyat mitzrayim tafel lo”, it’s just that the second Exodus will be the main story and the first Exodus, a mere footnote (Brachot 12b). In other words, essentially they agreed.
Now, reflect on the sheer improbability of that outcome. Jeremiah was not one of the mystics among the prophets. He wasn’t particularly an optimist. If Jeremiah came back to earth today, no doubt he would be an economist.
One way or another, here is a realistic man, not an optimist, who says there will one day be an Exodus of the Jewish people, and their return to the land that will be more miraculous even than the going out from Egypt. Now how can that be? The going out of Egypt was accompanied by signs, wonders, 10 plagues, the division of the Red Sea, manna from heaven, water from a rock. What can be more remarkable than that? Except that it happened, and some of us were privileged to see it.
Something happened during the first Gulf War in 1991. Saddam Hussein launched 39 Scud missile attacks on Israel. They were directed mainly on the coastal plane. Ben Gurion Airport was directly in their line of attack. All the flights to and from Ben Gurion Airport were cancelled for the whole of that time, for the duration of the war. The airport was like a ghost town. There was no one there, except for one flight that came in and left every single day, never stopped in the whole of that period.
What was that flight? The flight bringing olim chadashim, new immigrants to Israel from former Soviet Union. That flight never faltered and never stopped. And with a shiver down my spine, I realised that we were seeing precisely what Jeremiah had foreseen. How come? Because the Torah says, “vayehi b’shalach Paroh et ha’am, v’lo nacham Elokim derech eretz P’lishtim ki karov hu”, when Pharaoh let the people go, God didn’t take them the quick route, “ki amar Elokim, pen yinachem ha’am bir’otam milchamah”, lest the people change their mind when they see war and “v’shavu mitzraymah”, they want to go back. Even after all the signs, all the miracles and all the wonders, God knew that if they saw war, they would turn back and go back to Egypt (Shemot 13:7).
And so the people respond. At the Red Sea, they said to Moses, “hamibli ein kvarim b’mitzrayim l’kachtanu lamut bamidbar?” Was it that we were short of graves in Egypt, that you took us out from Egypt (Shemot 14:11)? Why did we ever leave Egypt? At the episode of the spies, they said, “nitnah rosh v’nashuva mitzraymah”, let us appoint a head and go back to Egypt (Bamidbar 14:4). And that, after all the signs and the wonders.
And there with our own eyes, 21 years ago, we saw, for the first time in all of history, a group of people, a massive group of people, eventually more than a million in number, following the first imperative of Jewry of all time, “lech lecha me’artzecha umimoladetecha umibeit avicha” (Bereishit 12:1), leaving behind their land, their home, their father’s house, and coming to live in a country at war and under missile attack, an event unique in history. We lived to see the fulfilment of Jeremiah’s vision, an Exodus not less miraculous, but more so than yetziyat mitzrayim.
The second miracle, Elaine and I witnessed a couple of years ago. A group of religious families forced to leave their home in Gush Katif as part of the Gaza withdrawal. Now, what did they do when they saw their homes, their farms, their shuls, everything they had built, forced to leave behind and eventually see destroyed? They could have sat and wept and never recovered. Instead, they found a place in the midbar, in the desert, in the Negev, so hostile to habitation that no people had ever made their home there. They called it Chalutzit [now Halutza], and they said, here we will build a home. And there, together with JNF, Elaine and I had the privilege of laying a foundation stone for the first school there.
And I stood there, and for a second time, shivers went down my spine as I realised that we had been privileged to see the realisation of a prophecy even older than that of Jeremiah, namely that of Isaiah, who said, as we say every motzei Shabbat, “ki nichem Hashem tzion”, God will one day comfort Zion, comfort all its ruins. How? “Vayassem midbarah k’eden v’arvatah k’gan Hashem”, He will make her desert like Eden, and her wasteland like the garden of the Lord (Isaiah 51:3). That is what the people of Halutza and others have done. And again, almost impossible to find a precedent for such behaviour in the whole of history. The second miracle, turning the wilderness into a garden, and a place of desolation into a home.
And then came the third miracle. Some of us may think that on the face of it, it is more secular, but I hope to persuade you that even so, it is a miracle, and a spiritual one. As late as the 1990s, Israel was known for what? For military hardware and for agricultural produce. That was its greatness. Since then, in the last 10 or 15 years, it has become the most intense, remarkable, and creative builder and shaper of new technology that the world has ever seen. In recent years, Israel has attracted more venture capital than France and Germany combined. Israel has had more successful high-tech startups than Japan, or the whole of India, or Korea, or for that matter, the UK.
Now go figure. Look at the disadvantages that Israel is in, compared to any other economy in the world. Number one, it is a tiny country. Number two, it has few, if any, natural resources. Number three, a mere 7 million inhabitants. Number four, surrounded by enemies. Number five, constantly having to cope with the threat of terror and war. Number six, forced to spend 10% of its GDP on defence and military spending, more than any country in the developed world. And number seven, having to absorb more than 1.5 million immigrants in the past 20 years.
How, faced with all these difficulties, did it achieve the miraculous? And the answer is, it turned every single disadvantage into an advantage. It used military technology to inspire civilian and peaceful technology. It used miluim, that military reserve service that brings Israelis of all kinds together, to create dense networks to fuel creativity. It used immigration to create diversity. It used its lack of natural resources to focus on its human resources. And so, after 64 years of unrelenting hostility on the part of its neighbours, and sadly, much of the rest of the world, Israel, in its very being, has brought to life a prophecy earlier than Jeremiah’s, earlier than Isaiah’s, a prophecy at the very beginning of the book of the Exodus: “v’cha’asher ya’anu oto, ken yirbeh v’chen yifrotz”, the more it was afflicted, the more it flourished and multiplied (Exodus 1:12).
I regard those as three among many extraordinary miracles: the new olim, the new chalutzim, and that ability to flourish in adversity, that make Israel a home of hope for the world. These were human miracles to be sure, but all three of them, I believe, were driven by ruach Elokim, by that Divine spirit that you inhale when you stand in Israel and breathe, and by the invisible Hand that has guided Jewish history from its first days to today. We have lived to see what the prophet Jeremiah could only dream of in a vision, that the day will come when the world will say, not just long live God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt in the days of Moses, but who brought them out of the lands of the north and every country to which they were scattered in our day.
We have seen “m’kimi me’afar dal, me’ashpot yarim evyon”, the Jewish people fell, and yet God lifted us. We were low, and God raised us up (Tehillim 113:7). “Even ma’asu habonim hayta l’rosh pinah”, this people, despised as a pariah by so many, become the head, the cornerstone of the building whose achievements others can only aspire to. And most movingly of all, “moshivi akeret habayit eim habanim s’meichah” (Tehillim 113:9). The Jewish people who are akeret habayit, having lost one and a half million of its children in the Shoah, has become again the joyous mother of children growing up in a Jewish land, breathing Jewish air.
So in our time we have seen miracles no less moving than those of yetziyat mitzrayim. And in Medinat Yisrael and in Am Yisrael, we see and we believe that those who have eyes open and a heart prepared to listen will also see in Israel a victory of life over death, hope over hate, and the defeat of probability by the power of possibility.
Therefore, tonight, as we celebrate that day, 64 years ago, when Israel and Jewish sovereignty was reborn, let us give voice with every emotion at our disposal to the word Am Yisrael taught the world, the word which Medinat Yisrael has caused us to say again with overflowing hearts: Halleluyah.
May we bless God, and may God bless the people and the state of Israel.