Thursday, July 02, 2015

"A Nation Alone" – Is that a Blessing or a Curse?

 By Rabbi Yisrael Rozen, Dean of the Zomet Institute

"Behold, this is a nation which dwells alone, and it is not taken into account with the other nations" [Bamidbar 23:9].
"When the nation of Yisrael remains alone and does not mix in with the other nations, it dwells with honor. But when it is among 'the other nations,' when it has a desire to become mingled with them, it will not be taken into account. They do not consider it as human but rather as if they were monkeys in the shape of a man." [Natziv, Haamek Davar].

Disturbed Foreign Relations
We are witness in recent weeks, months, and years, to a serious downward trend in our relationship with the other nations of the world. Examples are: The report of the Human Rights Commission that was sent to the International Court of Justice in the Hague; The increase in the calls for boycotting Israel in realms of international relations, academia, and economics; and the fact that the Vatican recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, among other troubling phenomena in the realm of international relations.
If we assume that the State of Israel and the nation of Israel in general exist only in the realm of nature, this situation is unpleasant and can be viewed as a cause for worry. We can look for consolation in the realm beyond nature, in the bosom of the Divine angel of history – and also in the Torah portion for this week. The most notable phrase in the curses/blessings by Bilam is quoted above, that Yisrael is "a nation which dwells alone." This is not a statement of fact. It is a prophetic statement by Bilam which is seen as a curse but hides within it a blessing: "And your G-d was not willing to listen to Bilam, and for you your G-d transformed the curse into a blessing" [Devarim 23:6].
It goes without saying that we cannot rely solely on mysticism, and we must do all we can in a natural way. This is precisely the main point of the dispute that took place (and possibly continues to this day) between the Zionist approach and that of the Chareidim. Will redemption take place as a natural or a heavenly process? Will the ingathering of the exiles come as a result of the efforts of messengers of the nation and Zionist groups or only after waiting patiently to hear the shofar of Mashiach? The same is true for the international relationships of the country, in matters involving Israel and the other nations: Should we constantly invest in public advocacy and propaganda (?), mainly waging war against the one-sided UN organizations and against falsehoods that are prominent in the halls of academia and justice? We discussed this matter in this column two weeks ago. Even so, we must make sure that we understand that at the level of exalted awareness our existence as a nation depends on a different set of rules than for others, rules that do not follow normal nature. And it is necessary for Israeli diplomats to understand this, just as the spirit of redemption and Mashiach accompanies and goads on religious Zionism in all walks of life in our land, including settlement activity, security, and more.

Where is Yaacov Herzog?
In my youth, we were brought up studying a publication named "A Nation which Dwells Alone," written a year after the Six Day War (in 1968) by a unique Israeli diplomat, Rabbi Dr. (of Law) Yaacov Herzog (he was the son of the Chief Rabbi, Yitzchk Herzog, the brother of the late President Chaim Herzog, and the uncle of Isaac Herzog, the current head of the Zionist Camp Party). Here is what he said:
"With your permission, I want to make a statement that is heretical: Here is our great paradox. Classical Zionism did not realize that it had two basic problems. It understood neither the Jewish nation nor the Arab nation. The Zionist leaders wanted us to return to the regular path of the twentieth century. After the First World War, dozens of nations achieved some sort of independence, and we would also become independent here in our land. We would become a normal nation, free from the suppression of the exile and accepted throughout the world. But the facts denied this theory, and in my opinion with a force with which no other theory has ever been rejected. Political Zionism felt that the concept of 'a nation living alone' is an abnormal situation. But the truth is that this concept is the natural situation of the House of Yisrael."
Yaacov Herzog first became famous as a result of another publication of his, a record of a historic debate that he held seven years earlier (in 1961), refuting the claims of the British historian Arnold Toynbee, who accused Israel of "Nazi crimes" against the Arabs during the War of Independence. At the time, this debate appeared prominently in the world press, and as I saw it then – as a youth in Bnei Akiva – his words were a natural extension of the theological debates held in the courts of kings by the Ramban, in the Kuzari, and in other similar sources. I do not know if this genre is suitable for the generation of internet and facebook, but the principle is as strong as it ever was: We must fight back in the realms of the enemies with the full knowledge that we will always remain "alone."

Shining Solitude
We can assume that Herzog the rabbi/lawyer was familiar with the words of the Natziv that we quoted above from this week's Torah portion, and the implication that if we want to be like all the other nations "we will not be taken into account" – we will not be accepted, and we will always remain different than the others. He would also have been aware of the approach of the sages, that it is within our power to establish whether the tag "alone" will be a blessing or a curse. Will we sit in solitude as mourners or as people at a higher level than others? "The Holy One, Blessed be He, said, 'I said, And Yisrael will dwell in safety, alone, like Yaacov, in a land of grain and wine' [Devarim 33:28]. Now (that they have sinned), they will dwell alone, as is written, 'How did it come to sit alone?' [Eicha 1:1]." [Sanhedrin 104a].
This, then, is the blessing: Solitude as viewed from the outside can and must provide greater strength for internal unity.

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