Does the Torah Guarantee the Survival of Medinat Yisrael? – Part One by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


A large Religious Zionist congregation in North America slightly amends the standard text of the blessing for the State of Israel authored by Rav Yitzchak Herzog, the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Medinat Yisrael at the time of its founding in 1948. Instead of describing Medinat Yisrael as “Reishit Tzemichat Geulateinu” (the beginning of the flowering of our redemption), it adds the word ‘SheTehei’ (that it should become) Reishit Tzemichat Geulateinu.

When this prayer was recited one Shabbat, the word SheTehei was omitted, and instead, the standard Reishit Tzemichat Geulateinu was said. Shockingly, an intense shouting match ensued with passions running very high on both sides. What was it about the omission of one little word that invoked such heartfelt emotions? The participants in this melee probably did not realize that the difference in the two formulations represent two fundamentally different approaches amongst Religious Zionist Jews regarding whether the Torah guarantees the survival of Medinat Yisrael.

While the majority of Religious Zionists (at least in Israel) subscribe to Rav Herzog’s view that the Torah does make such a guarantee, a minority, such as Rav Aharon Lichtenstein (as confirmed in a personal conversation), does not agree. It is apparent from the essay “Kol Dodi Dofeik” that while Rav Soloveitchik adopts a very positive view of Medinat Yisrael, he does not agree with Rav Herzog’s assumption about a guarantee. Similarly, Rav Eliezer Waldenburg (Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 7:48:12) adopts a positive view of Medinat Yisrael but does not see it as beginning of a process that will inevitably lead to the building of the Beit HaMikdash. We should note that many of those Religious Zionists who do not subscribe to Rav Herzog’s view nonetheless recite Reishit Tzemichat Geulateinu without adding the word SheTehei, simply to avoid the type of Machloket described above.

Rav Herzog’s View

Religious Zionists are fond of relating the following story: In 1943, the Nazis (Yemach Shemam) were undefeated and had conquered all of North Africa all the way to the eastern portion of Egypt, within one hundred miles of Eretz Yisrael. Jews in Eretz Yisrael were severely panicked because the Allies had been heretofore unable to resist the Nazi advances in the Middle East or any other location. Rav Herzog, at that point, remarked that there was no need to panic, as the Torah guarantees that there will never be a third Churban (destruction) in Eretz Yisrael.

Rav Herzog took this belief quite seriously, as he made this remark upon embarking on a return trip to Eretz Yisrael in 1943 while the Nazis had yet to be defeated. Rav Herzog was in the United States fundraising for the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael and was accompanied by Yeshiva University Rebbeim to Kennedy (then Idlewild) Airport. The rabbis were begging Rav Herzog to remain in the United States for safety’s sake when Rav Herzog told them that there was no need for concern since he felt that the Torah guarantees that the Nazis would not advance into Eretz Yisrael. Indeed, Rav Herzog’s expectations were met when the Nazis were, Baruch Hashem, defeated for the first time at the decisive battle of El Alamein, which turned out to be the turning point of the war. Interestingly, I was told that the same attitude animated the Ponevitcher Rav when, in 1943, while the Nazis were poised to enter Eretz Yisrael, he bought at an astoundingly cheap price the land in Benei Brak on which the great Ponevitchter Yeshivah was to be built (though I also heard a different version relating that when confronted by critics who said, “Why are you building a Yeshivah if the Nazis would enter Eretz Yisrael in a few days,” he replied that it is worthwhile building a Yeshivah even if it will last only a few days).

Rav Shaul Chill of the Young Israel of Far Rockaway related a similar story in regards to Rav Shlomo Goren in 1967 (he related this story at Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, New Jersey on Parashat BeChukotai 5768 at the Aufruf of Dani Neuman, the husband of Rav Chill’s daughter Rena). Later the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Goren then was the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces (Tzahal). Immediately before the Six Day War, Rav Goren was in the United States raising funds. Rav Goren tried to make it home to Israel for Shabbat but was unable to and instead stayed in Far Rockaway for that Shabbat. It was Parashat BeChukotai, during which we read the Tochachah, and Rav Goren was praying at Congregation Sha’aray Tefillah in Far Rockaway. Rabbi Emmanuel Rackman introduced Rav Goren, and Rav Goren announced that there was soon going to be a war launched by the Arabs against Israel. The congregation began to weep as people feared a second Holocaust, Rachama Leizlan (heaven forfend). Rav Goren then calmed the congregation by telling them not to worry, since the Torah guarantees that there will not be a third Churban. Rav Goren ironically may not have been aware that Rav Herzog made a similar statement only a few miles from where Rav Goren was speaking.

Rav Chaim Sabato, in his acclaimed work “Tee’um Kavanot” (Adjusting Sights), relates that Rav Herzog’s remarks provided security and succor for the few dozen Israeli soldiers (many of them Yeshivat Hesder students) manning tanks and defending the Golan Heights at the outset of the 1973 Yom Kippur War against hundreds of invading Syrian and Iraqi tanks. Indeed, remarkable (many would say miraculous) stories occurred in repelling those enemy tanks that were poised to overtake the Golan and the Galil, as these few Israeli tanks were the sole Israeli defense between the Golan and Haifah. Although I am not aware of any stories to this effect, one can imagine that Rav Herzog’s remarks motivated many pious soldiers who fought in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence when the Jews were desperately outnumbered and poorly armed and trained.

The Source of Rav Herzog’s Assertion

Many explain that the Ramban (VaYikra 26:15) is the source for Rav Herzog’s bold assertion. The Ramban asserts that the two Tochachot (rebukes) that appear in the Torah foreshadow the two great destructions that would befall the Jewish People. The Tochachah at the end of Sefer VaYikra describes Churban Bayit Rishon (destruction of the First Temple), and the second Tochachah in Parashat Ki Tavo reflects the Churban Bayit Sheini (destruction of the Second Temple). The absence of a third Tochachah implies that there will never be a third Churban. Rav Herzog apparently regarded the sufferings of the Jewish People during the Crusades, Inquisition and Holocaust as part of Churban Bayit Sheini, since these events took place (for the most part) outside of Eretz Yisrael.

Moreover, the prophet Amos promises at the conclusion of his Sefer, which is read as a Haftarah for Acharei Mot (which, interestingly, we often read very near Yom HaAtzma’ut) that the day will come when we will return to Eretz Yisrael with the promise that we will never again be exiled from the land. Rav Herzog believes that this day has arrived.

Recall that Rav Herzog regards the State of Israel as Reishit Tzemichat Geulateinu, which means that the State is a part of a process that will inevitably lead to the construction of the third Beit HaMikdash. Moreover, Rav Herzog regards this process as having begun at least as far back as the 1880’s when Jews began returning to Eretz Yisrael in large numbers. What convinced Rav Herzog that it is being fulfilled in our time? It appears to be based on the following passage in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 98a): “Rabi Abba said, the following is the greatest sign that the Keitz (end of the exile) has arrived – the fulfillment of the Pasuk in Yechezkeil 36 that promises that eventually the mountains of Israel will once again bear fruit.” After nearly two thousand years of Eretz Yisrael lying in utter destruction (in fulfillment of VaYikra 26:32), as described by a variety of visitors such as Ramban (ad .loc.) and (LeHavdil) Mark Twain, as he describes in his famous work Innocents Abroad, in the 1880’s, the land under Jewish control began to be once again yield its fruit. Rav Kook and Rav Herzog both interpreted this stunning development as the fulfillment of Rabi Abba’s statement (though see Maharsha ad. loc. who presents two opinions as to whether the fruits to which Rabi Abba refers are natural or supernatural fruits). Thus, Rav Herzog saw the restoration of Eretz Yisrael through Jewish hands as a sign that the Keitz had arrived and that Amos’s promise had taken effect. Another partial motivation for Rav Herzog may have been the incredible survival of the Yishuv during World War One despite terrible oppression by the ruling Ottoman Turks.

Rambam (Hilchot Yesodei Torah 10:4) writes that, due to the possibility of Teshuvah, a prophecy of punishment need not be fulfilled. Yonah’s prophecy that Nineveh would be destroyed in forty days is a prime example of Teshuvah annulling a negative prophetic prediction. Indeed, Ashkenazic Jews state on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, “Teshuvah, UTefillah UTzedakah Ma’avarin Et Ro’a HaGezeirah,” “Repentence, prayer, and charity may cancel the evil decree.”

However, Rambam clarifies, a positive prophecy cannot be canceled under any conditions. Thus, the promise of there being no third Churban, coupled with Amos and Yechezkeil’s aforementioned prophecies, cannot be retracted under any circumstances.

One might argue that the belief in such a guarantee undermines the threat of exile and thus the motivation to behave well. One might respond that there is a guarantee only of no exile, such as occurs at the conclusion of Sefer Melachim. However, there can continue to be suffering within the land, such as in Sefer Shofetim, if we continue to sin.

Next week, iy”H and b”n, we shall present the view of those Religious Zionists who do not subscribe to Rav Herzog’s approach.

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