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The Return to Zion: Recognition of the Present and Vision for the Future

Excerpted from The Return to Zion: Addresses on Religious Zionism and American Orthodoxy by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, co-published by OU Press and Ktav Publishing House

Recognition of the Present and Vision for the Future*

The Jews sanctified the Land of Israel twice, the first time in the days of Joshua and the second in the days of Ezra. When one compares the two eras from a secular-historical standpoint, from a political-economic perspective, the second entry into the land, Ezra’s sanctification, is no more than a pale reflection, a weak echo, of a great and glorious epoch, such that the comparison itself arouses gloom. In the days of Joshua, the nation was young, filled with an aggressive, militant spirit, and pounced on the Land of Israel like a youthful desert lion, defeating thirty-one kings, claiming one victory after another. Nature itself helped the young Jewish people forge its destiny: “Stand still, O sun, at Gibeon, O moon, in the Valley of Aijalon!” (Josh. 10:12). “They conquered the land in seven years and divided it among the tribes in seven years” (Zevaim 118b). They were proud and youthful, pugnacious and courageous, filled with all the romanticism of a nation stepping out onto the historical stage and enjoying the respect, awe, and admiration of its neighbors. “Dread of you has fallen upon us, and all the inhabitants of the land are quaking before you” (Josh. 2:9).

In the days of Ezra, the ten tribes were entirely absent, having been exiled to Halah and Habor (see I Chron. 5:26) or, in the words of the Jewish aggadah, “beyond the Sambation River” (Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 10:5). A segment of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin wanted no part in the return to Zion, the Second Temple, or the redemption. They were happy sitting by their fleshpots in Babylon, Persia, and Media. Cyrus, Darius, Ahasuerus, and the other kings altered their edicts seven times a day, each new declaration repealing the previous one: one moment immigration was allowed, the next, they issued a White Paper halting entry. Even with someone positioned as close to the monarchy as Esther, the Land of Israel could not be mentioned: “At the wine feast, the king asked Esther, ‘What is your wish? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to half the kingdom, it shall be fulfilled’” (Esther 5:6). “‘Half the kingdom,’ but not the whole kingdom, and not something that would serve as a barrier to the kingdom. And what is that? The building of the Temple” (Megillah 15b). “Sanballat and Tobiah, and the Arabs, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites” (Neh. 4:1), Samaritans, enemies, informers, hateful broadsides, defamation and behind-the-scenes plots, fear of violent excesses and pogroms. “The basket-carriers were burdened, doing work with one hand while the other held a weapon. . . . that we may use the night to stand guard and the day to work” (Neh. 4:11, 16): with one hand, we have to extract water from the Negeb of the Land of Israel; with the other, we have to protect ourselves from Arab hooligans. And the internal situation? Economic hardship and spiritual impoverishment, intermarriage and ignorance, lack of language and tradition. And above all, “we have become a mockery” (Neh. 3:36): we have become objects of shame and derision.

Nevertheless, Maimonides, the great Jewish teacher, the pillar of the halakhah, comes along and rules that “the first sanctification . . . was in effect in its own time but not for all time,” whereas the “second sanctification is in effect forever, both in its own time and for all time” (Hilkhot Terumot 1:5). You hear? Joshua’s sanctification via capture and military victory, undertaken in an unbridled, gushing, enterprising spirit of conquest, when proud prophets, warriors, elders, students of our teacher Moses, and heroic legions seized the Land of Israel, was no more than a temporary phenomenon: Nebuchadnezzar abrogated it. But Ezra’s sanctification, which came about through daily, small-scale, unheroic, painstaking work, through disappointments and despair, intercession with and requests from the authorities, insults and humiliation – that remains forever: neither Titus nor Hadrian, neither Islam nor the Crusades, neither Turkey nor even the [British] Colonial Office can undo it.

Maimonides explains this halakhic paradox using the same philosophical idea: “Why do I maintain . . . that [the first sanctification] was not in effect for all time with respect to the rest of the Land of Israel vis-a-vis the sabbatical year, tithes, and so on? The reason is that . . . the requirement to observe the sabbatical year and the tithes depended on the land being conquered by the people, so that once it was taken away from them, their conquest was negated” (Hilkhot Beit ha-Beirah 6:16). Joshua’s sanctification was not the result of hardship but of historical success during glorious moments of Jewish history – none of which is forever. Ezra’s sanctification, by contrast, came about through occupation, settling the land, through the word of God, through adversity, martyrdom, spiritual pain and despair, mockery and derision. Ezra’s sanctification emerged from crisis, tribulation, and subjugation. Redemption born of suffering, the messiah born following birth pangs, are eternal – sanctification for all time!

How beautiful are the words we read in today’s haftarah: “The angel who talked with me came back and woke me as a man is wakened from sleep” (Zech. 4:1). The angel of redemption rouses Zechariah, the prophet of the return to Zion:

Prophet! Despair not, deliver your prophecy, spread the Torah of redemption, of the messiah, of the building of the Temple! Do not give up hope because of the pitfalls and obstacles on the road; because of the external Sanballats, Samaritans, and Arabs and the internal Satans dwelling in the houses of the Kohanim Gedolim; or because of the “filthy garments” (Zech. 3:3) worn by Joshua the Kohen Gadol, who was supposed to lead the people toward God! Deliver your prophecy, proclaim redemption, and awaken the people’s hearts so that they hear the steps of the messiah.

Look, Zechariah! “A lampstand all of gold, with a bowl above it. The lamps on it are seven in number, and the lamps above it have seven pipes; and by it are two olive trees, one on the right of the bowl and one on its left” (Zech. 4:2–3). You see such a great vision of light, anointing oil, priesthood, and kingship; you see the great drama of the End of Days that can result from this movement! Inform the people, tell them about the golden Menorah with its fount of oil, about the clear light radiating from its seven branches, about Jewish anointing oil, sanctity, purity, ethical ideals, and historical hopes. Talk to them, inspire them!

However, the prophet does not understand how the great light of the golden Menorah can be born of such modest circumstances, such political bankruptcy, such a disgraceful national condition, such a state of disintegration and disharmony. At most a small community will emerge, not any sort of epoch-making event. The angel asks him, “Do you not know what those things mean?” and he responds, “No, my lord” (Zech. 4:5): I do not understand! At that point, the angel reveals to him the great secret of suffering, adversity, and sacrifice. “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power” (Zech. 4:6). For the Second Temple will be built not with happiness and joy, not with the support of neighbors and great kingdoms, but in spite of the enemies, insults, and disruptions, in spite of the enmity and disdain exhibited by the rest of the world. Through adversity and hardship will the holy light of the golden Menorah shine forth, and eternity will prevail.

*This excerpt is taken from an address delivered by Rabbi Soloveitchik to the Emergency Conference of the Mizrachi National Council on June 2, 1945.