The State of the Nation

To speak about the State of the Nation is very presumptuous: Who has the right to do so? There are some people who may have a legal or other right to speak about the State of Israel; but who can speak about the Jewish nation as a whole? It is perhaps a few thousand years since there was any individual who could officially, legally, speak for the nation. Whatever right I have to speak about the State of the Nation stems from the fact that I love it, that I care for it; I am speaking as one who is in love. Even a cat may look at a king; and even I may look at the Jewish people and admire it, fight it and fight for it, and speak about what I see as the State of our Nation.

There is one point that I wish to make before I begin to discuss the main problems. There are many divisions within the Jewish nation. One, of course, is the clear-cut and ever-growing division between the State of Israel and what was once called galut (now known as “the Diaspora”). But beyond that there is, all around us, more and more division. Inside Israel, as well as in the Diaspora, there is more fragmentation, with different groups distancing themselves from each other. In some cases they fight each other, or hardly speak to each other, and sometimes hardly even know anything about each other.

Within our people there has always been a certain amount of dispute and disagreement, either because it is inherent in our nature or because we have acquired this behavior over the ages. Dispute in itself is not something that we oppose. On the contrary, there are cases of makhlokot l’shem shamayim, of well-intentioned disputes for the sake of the service of God, of which we even say that they are, and deserve to be, everlasting. We repeat them, study them, and live them. This type of difference is not supposed to cease even in Messianic times. For example, the book of Ezekiel envisions a totally new division of the Land of Israel; yet it also states that the Tribes of Israel will remain intact and distinct. We do not want to make all people look alike, think alike and act alike.

Over the last few decades, however, there has arisen a phenomenon, not entirely new, but one which has become very powerful in the life of our nation. A few old people who should have known better – and I do not want to mention names – themselves nice people who probably never carried a gun, and were too old to carry sticks, did something terrible: They legitimized hatred. Dispute, division and disagreement, by themselves, can sometimes be fruitful; hatred is always murderous. It is impossible to confine hatred. It grows and spreads, and gives people general justification to hate: When you hate me, I hate you, and I feel right in doing so. It takes a while until hatred kills in practice; but eventually it does.

This new hatred is always attached to the highest ideas, to the loftiest notions, even to the name of the Almighty. But hatred is like a cancer in the body of the nation: Wherever its starting point may be, it invariably spreads all over. Therefore hatred, and the feeling that it is legitimate – that I am not only allowed to hate others but also have a holy duty to do so – is something that we must fight against. It is said about lashon ha’ra, calumny, that it kills three people: The one who says it, the one who hears it, and the one about whom it is said. Hatred is the same kind of a killer: It kills the person hated, the person who hates, and everyone in the middle who does not stop it. This is, perhaps, one of the reasons why it is important to speak about the State of the Nation. We are so busy dealing with so many petty issues, so occupied in many unimportant internal battles, that we no longer see the important things – some of them terrible, some of them extremely dangerous – that are happening at this time.

In trying to describe what it is that is happening to the Jewish nation, I will speak not about this or that particular group of Jews, but about the nation as a whole. How many are we – 13 million? 16 Million? Who are these people? What is the state of our entire nation, throughout the globe? How are we?

To describe what is happening to us today, let us take a prophecy which was uttered in the Kingdom of Israel over 2,500 years ago, at a time when it was a powerful state: “Ephraim, he has mixed himself among the peoples. Ephraim is a cake not turned. Strangers have devoured his strength, and he knows it not. Gray hair is sprinkled upon him, yet he knows not. And the pride of Israel testifies to his face, and they do not return to the Lord their God nor seek Him for all this” (Hosea 7:8-10).

In what ways is this a description of the current State of the Nation? The first and worst point is that we are becoming mixed among the peoples. We are being lost. We are now, in many ways, a dying species, or one that is on the brink of extinction. It is not happening in any dramatic way. No one is sending great armies to kill us; there are no concentration camps. The best simile for what is happening today is Roman suicide: In ancient Rome, people would enter into a warm bath and slice their wrists. The blood would slowly, slowly flow out of their bodies and they would die a gradual, enjoyable death. Something like this is happening to the Jewish people, on a very large scale. For every tick of the clock, we are losing Jews: one, two, for every tick, twenty-four hours a day, everywhere.

People are worried about what is happening in the State of Israel, about what is going to happen to the Jews living East of the former Green Line. Of course, everyone – rabbis, generals, politicians – knows the answers. They are not the same answers, but everyone knows exactly what will happen in one, two, ten years from now. I cannot mix in the company of such knowers. And also, I am far more worried about what is happening on the Western side of the Green Line.

The danger of assimilation exists also here, in Israel, because assimilation is not just intermarriage. Intermarriage is a symptom – possibly one of the last symptoms – of assimilation. Some people say that intermarriage is the answer to the question that assimilation poses, not the question itself. Assimilation happens when a people loses its identity. It has happened in this country more than once before, when we were a majority here, and only with great effort – almost by miracle – were we saved from disappearing from this land. So this is one danger. Here in Israel it is not so immediate: It is far more acute for the Jews in Russia. But all the great Jewish centers – Russia, Europe, the US, Israel – are dwindling, because we are losing people.

The next sentence in this prophecy seems to be odd: “Ephraim is a cake not turned.” What does that mean? Anyone with the most meager experience in baking knows that a cake that is not turned has one side burnt and the other side raw; both are inedible and of very little use. This, too, describes how we are as a people: Extremes on both sides. On the one hand, there are those who become immersed in hating others because they don’t have the same hekhsher(Kashrut certificate), and on the other – people who do not even know what the word hekhsher means. There are people who deal with how long one must pronounce the letter zayin in the word “tizkeru” (Numbers 15:40), and others who have no idea what Keriat Shema is. This is our people – we have become so uneven.

As a result, “Strangers have devoured our strength.” We are doing many things: most of them, for others. As a nation, perhaps we still have more Nobel Prize winners per capita than any other national unit in the world. We have more writers, more creative minds. We are contributing a lot to the world, and strangers are eating our fruit, enjoying it, and from time to time perhaps even appreciating it. It is our people who do not know about ourselves, who do not appreciate ourselves, our nation as an entity that is not deriving benefit. As it says in the Song of Songs: “They made me the keeper of the vineyards; but my own vineyard I did not guard” (1:6). And so, our genius is sapped.

The problem is not that other peoples are utilizing us for their purposes. The problem is that we do not even know what is happening. We give to others because we like them, we admire them, and because so many of us have no idea that we possess an identity of our own, and that it is worthwhile to be nourished by it, and to give to it. The key sentence here is “and he knows not.” Because the national entity “knows not,” these things are happening again and again.

In the past, those who left the Jewish people by converting to other religions, or by simple assimilation, were the scum; morally, they were lowly and despicable human beings. Today it is no longer so, and not because the world has become a better place, but because our people do not know. It is their lack of awareness that is causing this depletion of our resources. People give all their energies to the outside world because they are totally unaware that there is something worthwhile inside; they do not know anything about themselves as a nation, and they lack the feeling of being united.

Another point is that “Gray hair is sprinkled upon him, yet he knows not” – we are becoming old. Firstly, this is a demographic statement: We are becoming an older people, since we have fewer and fewer children. In the Former Soviet Union, for instance, there are ten to eleven Jewish deaths for every Jewish child born. This is not just a bad demographic situation. It is, as I said, suicide – and that, without adding all those who convert to other religions or are lost in other ways.

Having children is a way of voting; it is a vote for the future. When people have children, it is as if they have stated, “As difficult as the present may be, we believe in the future. We know that it is worthwhile to go on.” When people do not have children, it is also a vote; it is as if they have said, “We do not care for the future. There is no future for us.” This is one aspect of becoming old, and except for a few pockets where the situation is different, the nation as a whole is growing old. The Reform movement invented a wonderful gimmick for doubling the number of Jews: They count both those who have Jewish mothers and those who have Jewish fathers. I once said that if they would do something like that with a bank account, they would be arrested immediately. But in fact, this is not even cheating — it is trying to pretend that nothing is happening, and that, too, is “and he knows not.”

Being old is not just the physical stage of being closer to the end; it is also the inability to do new things. We, as a people, used to be proud that we were always the first in everything worthwhile. We were always the spearhead. And that is the blessing, “The Lord shall make you the head and not the tail” (Deut. 28:13). As people grow older, they tend to repeat old known things externally, and even more so in their internal lives: no new ideas, no new movements – all is repetition. I am not speaking about revolutions, drastic and dangerous turn-abouts. But renewal in an organism, within its own parameters, is a sign of life. And when a person or nation loses the ability to grow new shoots, it is closer not only to physical disappearance, but also to the end of its spiritual life.

And so we have a two-fold problem: Our genius is being spent outside, whereas inside there is only repetition of old things, some of which have already been proven wrong and inadequate but still we persist in doing them. And in all of this, “he knows not.” Things are happening, and on a very large scale, throughout the entire nation; yet somehow, we do not know. We keep waiting for a disaster and then, so we say, we will move; but then it will be too late, far too late.

Soon there will be elections in Israel, and someone will win them. All in all, the difference between the various candidates is not that great. The freedom of movement of a people depends on the people itself, and when a people is moving in a certain direction, no leader can change it that drastically. So the election of this or that politician – these are not the great things that are going to happen. There may be other events too, that I would not like to see happen, such as the re-division of Jerusalem, which seems to be imminent. But even that is a detail; these are all details in a larger picture.

And the big picture is that there can be a turning point, a point of awakening, which is beyond continuing to do small things. Of course, all big things are made up of small steps. Even the biggest of waves, the greatest of earthquakes, is composed of a myriad of tiny movements. But for anything to happen, the first stage is to be aware of what the situation really is, what the real questions and problems are. Awareness is the beginning of change. We are now obsessed with many secondary, tertiary and even more marginal problems. Can we become aware of what is actually happening to our people?

The next five to ten years will be decisive. Personally, I always pray for the coming of Mashiach: Deus ex machina, solving all problems, so that I will be able to work in my garden and see if I can indeed grow a rose, something I have wanted to do for the past 25 years but just could not find the time. But speaking about the ways in which the world is now moving, the next five to ten years are crucial for the whole Jewish people. Certain things, if they go wrong, may be irreversible – which means that only a miracle may change the situation. A person falling accidentally from the 16th floor may, in the middle of the fall, say, “I am sorry, I would really like to change this faux pas.” Many people probably do say so during their fall – which does not help very much. But we have not yet reached that point.

This means that there are things to do. Going back to where I began: There are many things about which we disagree; but there are also certain things about which we agree, which may be even more numerous than those things about which we disagree. We are now fighting a non-dramatic, yet very crucial fight for survival as an entity that has meaning. We are fighting not for the survival of individuals, but for survival as a people. Can we? Should we? Do we want it? That is the point at which we now stand. In the big picture, the State of Israel is just a detail, the people in the US are another detail, and those living, say, in Denmark – another tiny detail; but all of them are parts of the same big problem: Is this people really dying? We can still decide.

The next verse in our prophecy is really very difficult to translate into English but would read something like “and the pride of Israel testifies to his face.” Interestingly, this verse does not try to speak from any kind of theological viewpoint. Rather, it speaks about the “Pride of Israel.” Or in other, coarser words – which I, not being a prophet, can afford to use – “Aren’t you ashamed? Aren’t you ashamed to allow the people to go like this?”

Some thirty years ago, one of my friends went to Russia to visit a cousin of his. That cousin was then a General in the Soviet army and, being a Jew from a nice Jewish family, was married to a non-Jewish woman, a Kazakh. In Russia at that time, children who turned eighteen could decide to which parent’s nationality they wanted to belong, and upon my friend’s arrival, the general and his wife were having a family discussion on this very issue. The Jewish father – who had succeeded in becoming a General, but knew that it had not been easy, and that it would not become any easier – said: This is our children’s chance, now they can decide to belong to the Kazakh nation and rid themselves of all the problems resulting from being a Jew. And his non-Jewish wife said: “Aren’t you ashamed? Your people has been fighting for survival as a people for over 3,000 years; and now you, because of some difficulties, are going to give it all up?”

I do not know how the story ended, since it is a true story and not a parable, but this, on the large scale, is the question that we should ask ourselves. This is “and the pride of Israel testifies to his face.” Do not speak about the Divine spark in our souls – speak about pride: Aren’t you ashamed not to say that we have to make a move?

This is what the prophet says. He said this so many years ago, and I cannot improve upon it. So why should I add to what has already been said? We are now in a situation in which we have problems and more problems. We will possibly experience small miracles, some of which will not look like miracles. We will also see disasters. That is the way of the world. But these are only ripples of the real problem, which is that we, as a people, as a nation, are in bad shape. And we are in bad shape because we are immersed in a myriad of small nonsensical details, because we are so busy hating each other, and we do not know, we do not care, we do not look at what is happening. We do not see one of the last windows that is still open to us.

But with all that I have described – the dwindling, the downward movement – this is not only the worst of times, but also the best of times. Things are still flexible, so very flexible; people can still change. The last real atheists have possibly been dead for many years. There are no more real atheists. There is no more real fight against Divinity. There is just a large percentage of people who are not practicing. We are in a twilight world in which, if we die, it will be due to lack of awareness because we did not do what we could have. There is still a chance because people are open; confused and astray, but still open for change. It is still possible to make an affirmation, a promise. We will persist, we will continue.

But why should we continue? I may give certain reasons, and other people may give many other ones. But one of those reasons is written in the Book of Isaiah, and in the midrash that follows. The verse states: “You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and I am God” (43:12). And the midrash there makes an awesome statement: “So long as you are there as my witnesses, I am the Lord; if you are no longer there as my witnesses, I am no longer the Lord” (Sifri Deuteronomy 346). This is why we must persist, and this is our position as long as we are here: We are still the witnesses. We not only maintain our own existence, but we also keep God in the world. And this is something worth doing.