Where You Come From, Where You
Time and again, as I sat in Jerusalem, breathing its inspiration, one saying from Pirkei Avot 3:1 came into my mind, the saying of one of the great heroes of Judaism, Akavia hen Mehalalel. He said: histakel bishloshah devarim ve-ein atah ba lidei averah – Reflect on three things, and you will not transgress, go wrong, lose your way. Da meayin bata – know from where you came. Ulean atah holech – and where you are going. Velifnei mi atah atid liten din vecheshbon – and know before whom you will have to give an account.
Akavia was suggesting something daring and fundamental. We can go wrong as individuals or as a people, not necessarily because we are driven by malice, but simply because of failure of imagination. For a moment we lived for the moment; and we forgot what the past should have taught us, what the future consequences would be, and we forgot that there is always an accounting, a moral price to pay. We can go astray simply because of a failure of imagination. A failure of historical imagination: we forgot where we came from. A failure of prophetic imagination: we forgot where we were traveling to. Or a failure of spiritual imagination: we forgot before Whom we stand. Akavia spoke of individuals. But I want today to apply his three great questions to the Jewish people as a whole, because it is there that my vision belongs.
How does Jewish history begin? With a journey (Beraishit 12:1-3). Lech lecha, ‘get thee out.’ The very first words of God to Abraham set him on a journey, el ha’aretz asher areka, first towards a land, ve-escha legoi gadol, then towards nationhood, va’avarechecha va’agadla shemecha vehyeh berachah, and finally towards being blessed and becoming a blessing unto others. The whole of the Torah from Genesis to Deuteronomy is the story of that journey. But what happens?
And here we come to a mystery which haunts the whole of Jewish existence. The story the Torah tells about Israel begins with the journey of Abraham to the land. But by the time it ends his children still have not arrived. The book of Devarim ends with Moses on the mountain looking down on Israel from afar but still not having crossed the Jordan. Me’ayin bata ule’an atah holech? Where have the children of Israel come from and to where are they going? From a small family to a great nation. From exile to a land. From slavery to freedom. The five books of Moses tell that story. What they do not tell is what happened when Israel finally arrived.
We are an ancient people, older than almost any other. We have seen one civilization after another rise to power and then decline and fall. But in almost four thousand years of our history, only three times have we stood on the brink of our destination. Only three times have we been a great nation with freedom and a land. Once, in the days of Joshua. A second time when Cyrus of Persia gave the Babylonian exiles permission to return. And the third time today. The whole of Jewish history has been a journey to those three moments. What happened when we arrived?
On the first occasion, Israel fell apart. There was the period of the judges, when ish hayashar be’enav ya’aseh, each person did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25). Then, after only three kings – Saul, David, and Solomon – the country split into two with the ultimate loss of 80 per cent of the people of Israel, the lost ten tribes. Those that remained were too few and weak to overcome the might of Babylon. And so the first Temple was destroyed, the first arrival failed.
On the second occasion, Israel fell apart. Under Ezra and Nehemiah they renewed the covenant. But then they succumbed to Hellenization, what we would today call assimilation. There were fierce divisions within Jewry, even at times civil war. It was, said the Rabbis, a time of sinat chinam, of groundless hatred between Jew and Jew. And by the time Vespasian and Titus marched on Jerusalem, Jews were too disunited to resist. And so the second Temple was destroyed, the second arrival failed.
And at that moment a great question mark was raised over the Jewish people. We have an unparalleled capacity to travel hopefully. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, all of them spent their lives travelling in hope. But do we have the capacity to arrive? That is the single most crucial question facing Jewry today. Because, for only the third time in the annals of our people, we stand as Moses stood at the end of his life: within sight of the destination to which the whole of Jewish history has been a journey.
For nearly two thousand years of exile, we longed for freedom. We have it now. We prayed for a land. We have it now. We prayed to stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem. We have it now. We prayed for the ingathering of exiles from the four corners of the world. We have it now. Nothing stands between us and the realization of the greatest dream ever dreamed by our grandparents or theirs all the way back to Abraham: to be a mamlechet kohanim vegoi kadosh, ‘a people dedicated to God in freedom and sovereignty’. (Shemot 19:6)
We stand at the threshold of millennial longings. And only one thing stands in our way. A failure of imagination. Of historical imagination, meaning remembering where we came from and of prophetic imagination, remembering where we are traveling to. And of spiritual imagination, remembering before Whom we stand.
Consider this. For two thousand years we were the people of the book. No nation has ever cherished Jewish learning, education, as did we. Against every other civilization, Jews said education is not for an elite but as it says in Devarim 33:4, morashah kehillat Yaakov, the heritage of every Jew. It isn’t just for the young but chayenu ve-orech yamenu – it is our whole lives and the length of our days. Only one people ever predicated its very survival not on might or power but on a book: education is the link that binds the generations.
And today? Despite the great advances in Anglo-Jewish education, how many of our children have been to a Jewish school? How many of them can understand Hebrew, the one language that connects us to the Jewish people? How many of them carry on studying about Judaism beyond the age of twelve or thirteen, perhaps the earliest age that it begins to make sense? How often do we study a Jewish hook?
Or consider this. Since the time of Abraham and Sarah, if there was one thing Jews guarded as the very fulcrum of their survival it was the family. What did they pray for more than anything else? For children to carry on the covenant. When the prophets rose to the climax of religious passion, how did they describe the relationship between God and Israel? In the language of the family. Bni bechori Yisrael. We are God’s children and He is our father. Ve’erastich li le-olam. We are God’s betrothed and He is our beloved. The family was where Jews learned who they were, where they came from and to where they were going. The family was where Jews learned to love. The family was the crucible of Jewish survival.
Or consider this. For the last eighteen hundred years Jews were scattered across every country of the globe, from Babylon to Birmingham, from Buenos Aires to Berditchev. And yet they knew, and their neighbors knew, that they were an extended family, a single nation, yeshno am echad mefuzar umeforad bein ha’amim. Though they were dispersed, they were united: by a common past, a common hope and a common faith. They knew where they had come from, to where they were going and before Whom they stood. Though they had no land, they were one people.
And today: we have a land, but are we one people? We are more deeply divided than at almost any time in our history. Israel is divided. We in the diaspora are divided. A few years ago, Jewish thinkers asked the question: Will there be one Jewish people in the year 2000? Today there are already many prepared to give the answer “No”. These are fundamental rifts which threaten the very integrity of Jewry as am echad, a single people.
The Jewish people has lost its way. For generations we travelled hopefully; but do we now have the courage to arrive? For generations we prayed; but can we live with the answer to our prayers? We survived slavery; but can we handle freedom? We have eaten the bread of affliction; but can we handle affluence? We learned to live with Israel as a dream; can we live with Israel as a reality?
Can it be that on the very brink of the fulfillment of the hopes of generations, our strength of will might desert us at the last moment yet again? It cannot be. The first failure brought us an exile of seventy years. The second failure brought us an exile of one thousand eight hundred and seventy years. There can be no third failure.
A Jewish writer once said, “The number of Jews in the world is smaller than a small statistical error in the Chinese census. Yet … big things seem to happen around us and to us.” This century things have happened to us, for evil and for good, so big that they have no precedent since the days of the Bible; and they summon us to greatness. I pray: let our imagination not fail us now.
Because – meayin bata. Where did we come from? From a hundred generations of Jews who suffered because of their faith and people yet remained loyal to both. Le-an atah holech. Where are we going to? To the day when, living our faith in freedom and pride, veran kol amei ha’aretz ki sham Hashem nikra alecha, ’all the nations of the earth shall see that we are called by the name of God.’ Velifnei mi atah and liten din vecheshbon. And to whom are we responsible? To God, and to all the generations of Jews who came before us and prayed for what we have; and to all those generations yet unborn whose Jewish fate is in our hands.