I was a frail child who was often sick, and I therefore loved to read books. I developed an interest in the history of the earth’s peoples, and among the history books I read was a huge volume on the history of China. It was during this period that I started to attend the Hebrew School at our local synagogue, where I began to learn about the history of our people. A year after I started learning about Jewish history, I was in the fourth grade of our local public school, and our class was given a book on the history of the world. Towards the beginning of the book, there was a small chapter about the People of Israel, and this chapter ended with the story of King Solomon. The concluding message of this chapter was that the People of Israel began to decline after King Solomon passed away, and that they no longer had an important role in world history. The chapter on Israel was followed by a number of large chapters on the development and influence of Christianity. In the rest of the book, there was no mention of any Jewish contributions to the world, and this greatly troubled me. I felt that this omission was an insult to the honor of our people. I found some comfort when I learned about the coming of the Messiah and the birth of the messianic age, for in this age of our ingathering and renewal, the nations will finally recognize our contributions, and the honor of our people will be restored. As the Prophet proclaimed:
“Nations will perceive your righteousness and all the sovereigns your honor” (Isaiah 62:2).
Rabbi Gabriel Beer, the rabbi of our synagogue, noticed my growing interest in Torah study, and he suggested to my parents that I leave public school and begin to study Torah at a Jewish day school which was located in Far Rockaway, a few miles to the east of our neighborhood. My mother was the first to agree with the idea, and she told my father that I should be free to pursue my soul’s desire, as she had a feeling that the study of Torah was to be my life’s mission. My father was worried, however, that this religious study would cause me to become a parochial person who would no longer be concerned about the welfare of the world. After much discussion, he agreed that I should begin to study Torah at the day school, as his strong sense of fairness and his respect for my mother’s intuition caused him to feel that I should be free to develop the potential that my mother saw in me.
At age ten, I started to attend the day school, and my father’s fears were alleviated when he saw that I still had an interest in the problems of the world. We continued our regular discussions on the challenges facing humanity, and he was pleased when I would cite sources from our tradition which described the universal vision of the Torah and the way our people are to fulfill this vision. He was also pleased when I shared with him a little poem I had written which contained the following message:
We learned to fly in the air like birds; we learned to swim like fish in the sea, and now let’s learn to walk the earth like men.
A few years after I started the day school, I read an article which described how new states in Africa and Asia were sending farmers to the State of Israel, where they would learn about Israel’s innovative agricultural methods which were causing the desert to bloom. The story had a quote from Israel’s Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, who said that Israel’s help to these developing nations was a fulfillment of the biblical vision of our becoming a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). Although I thought it was admirable that the State of Israel was helping the developing nations in this way, I asked myself the following questions: Was the teaching of agricultural methods to other nations the goal of our long and challenging journey through history? Was this what the Prophet meant when he spoke of our being a light to the nations?
My parents had instilled in me a passionate yearning for a caring and just world; moreover, my rebbes (Torah teachers) made me aware that our path to such a world is through developing a caring and just society in Zion through fulfilling the Torah, as in this way, we could serve as a social model for all the nations. This is the messianic goal of our journey through history; thus, the Prophet Isaiah proclaimed to Zion:
“Nations will walk by your light and sovereigns by the glow of your dawn” (Isaiah 60:3).
The light of Zion is Torah, as the Prophet also proclaimed: “From Zion will come forth Torah (Isaiah 2:3), and as a result, the nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares” (Ibid 2:4). I therefore wanted Israel to be more than just a nation that would teach agricultural skills to other nations. I wanted Israel to teach through the power of its own example the spiritual skills which would enable all human beings to become truly human, so that the entire world will experience peace and harmony.
I was not always able to maintain a full awareness of this higher vision. The State of Israel’s technological and economic accomplishments, as well as its ability to defend itself against its surrounding enemies, were a source of enormous pride for many Jews, including myself, especially after the Holocaust. The excitement over these initial accomplishments is understandable; however, this excitement can cause us to forget the following truth: These accomplishments have the potential to serve as means to our ultimate goal, but they are not the goal itself. As the following story indicates, I needed to be reminded of this truth:
During a morning recess of my Talmud class when I was in my senior year of high school, I and a few friends were reading the New York Times, and we became excited about a front page story which showed a picture of Israel’s new and beautiful Trans-Atlantic liner – the “SS. Shalom” – arriving in New York on its maiden voyage. We were proud that a picture of Israel’s new luxury liner was on the front page of the New York Times, and we felt that this was a great honor for our nation. Our rebbe, Rabbi Gershon Weinreb, of blessed memory, noticed our great excitement. He came over, looked at the picture, and said to us in a gentle voice: “Is this what you are excited about?” He repeated the question and then walked away. I was at first stunned by his remark, but I then realized that he was trying to remind us that having a luxury liner like other nations was not the true honor of our nation. Another reminder came a few years later when, due to financial difficulties, the SS Shalom was sold to the German Atlantic Line in 1967.
When I moved to Jerusalem, I began to devote myself to the study of the universal role of our nation in the Land of Zion. I found it especially meaningful that the true honor of our nation among the other nations was defined by Moses, our teacher, in his farewell address to our people before we entered the Land. In the following passage, he conveyed to us the message that we will gain honor among the nations when we fulfill the Torah in the midst of the Land:
“See! I have taught you statutes and social laws, as Hashem, my God, has commanded me, to do so in the midst of the Land to which you come, to possess it. You shall safeguard and fulfill them, for it is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all these statutes and who shall say, ‘Surely a wise and understanding people is this great nation!’ ” (Deuteronomy 4:5,6)
May we be blessed with a Shabbos of wisdom and understanding.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen
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