Read this excerpt from Rabbi Sacks’ “Home of Hope,” which was re-released to mark Israel’s 75th anniversary.
The first reference to Israel outside the Hebrew Bible is on the Merneptah stele, a slab of black granite engraved in the days of Pharaoh Merneptah, successor to Ramses II, the man some scholars identify as the Pharaoh of the Exodus. It says, “Israel is laid waste; her seed is no more.” The first reference to Israel outside the Bible is an obituary. Israel’s enemies thought it was dead. More than 32 centuries, half the history of civilization, later, we can still say “Am Yisrael Chai, the Jewish people lives.”
Not only Jews, but people like Blaise Pascal, Jean-Jaques Rousseau and Leo Tolstoy, saw in this survival something miraculous, as if an invisible hand had written out of the lives of Jews across the generations a story about human possibility, about a journey from slavery to freedom across a great wilderness of space and time to a land of promise and hope.
How did a people survive for 20 centuries without a state, a home, a place where they could defend themselves? How did they sustain their identity when everywhere they were a minority? How did faith survive the massacres and pogroms, when Jews called and heaven seemed silent? That’s what astonished Pascal, Rousseau and Tolstoy before the 20th century.
But today the question is so much deeper. How could a people ravaged by the Holocaust survive that trauma and put their faith in life again? How could a nation that had not known independence or sovereignty for 2,000 years take it up again? How could they, with so little, build a land, a state, a society, a culture, that has achieved so much?
How, under constant threat of war and terror, surrounded by enemies pledged to their destruction, could they sustain a free and democratic society in a part of the world that had never known it; create an economy with outstanding achievements in agriculture, science, medicine and technology; produce a culture rich in art and music, poetry and prose?
How out of the most diverse population could they shape an identity? How could they build not only great secular universities but also thriving yeshivot, so that the words of Isaiah could come true in our time, that “Torah will come forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” How, so soon after the nightmare, could they realize so many dreams?
Somehow, in ways I don’t fully understand, the Jewish people has been touched by a power greater than ourselves, that’s led our ancestors and contemporaries, time and again, to defy the normal parameters of history. Somehow heaven and earth met in the Jewish heart, lifting people to do what otherwise seemed impossible. Descartes said: I think, therefore I am. The Jewish axiom is different. Ani maamin, I believe, therefore I am.
It was the most haunting of all prophetic visions. The prophet Ezekiel saw a valley of dry bones, a heap of skeletons. God asked him, “Son of man, can these bones live?” Ezekiel replied, “God, you alone know.”
Then the bones came together, and grew flesh and skin, and began to breathe, and live again. Then God said: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up. Avdah tikvatenu, our hope is lost.’ Therefore, prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what God says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the Land of Israel.’”
It was this passage that Naftali Herz Imber was alluding to in 1877 when he wrote, in the song that became Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikva,” the phrase “Od lo avdah tikvatenu, Our hope is not yet lost.”
Little could he have known that 70 years later, one-third of the Jewish people would have become, in Auschwitz and Treblinka and Bergen-Belsen, a valley of dry bones. Who could have been blamed for saying “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost.”
And yet, a mere three years after standing eyeball to eyeball with the angel of death, the Jewish people, by proclaiming the State of Israel, made a momentous affirmation of life, as if it had heard across the centuries the echo of God’s words to Ezekiel: “I will bring you back to the land of Israel.”
And a day will one day come when the story of Israel in modern times will speak not just to Jews, but to all who believe in the power of the human spirit as it reaches out to God, as an everlasting symbol of the victory of life over death, hope over despair.
Israel has taken a barren land and made it bloom again. It’s taken an ancient language, the Hebrew of the Bible, and made it speak again. It’s taken the West’s oldest faith and made it young again. It’s taken a tattered, shattered nation and made it live again. Israel is the country whose national anthem, “Hatikva,” means “hope.” Israel is the home of hope.
The digital re-release of Israel: Home of Hope is available at www.RabbiSacks.org/israel75, along with a captivating new animated video and accompanying teaching resources. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (1948-2020) was a global religious leader, philosopher, the author of more than 25 books, and moral voice for our time. He served as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. Rabbi Sacks passed away in November 2020. His series of essays on the weekly Torah portion, titled “Covenant & Conversation” will continue to be shared and distributed around the world.