To be Jewish means to wrestle with God. Israel is the one who wrestles with God and prevails because it is through the willingness to struggle that we discover our true selves. Jacob wrestles with this strange man or angel and comes away marked and changed. Had he failed to wrestle, however, he would have faded out of history. We would never have known the story of Jacob.
For 2000 years Jews lived outside of history. The moral dilemmas associated with administering a state were the challenges of other nations. We dwelt among them and sometimes even became of them, but we left the problems of government, of war, of kings, to those in whose midst we dwelt.
It is this exit from history that prompted Rav Kook, the first chief Rabbi of Israel, to say, “Divine Providence has kept Israel out of history because sovereignty required wars to uphold that sovereignty. Wars require slaying the righteous along with the wicked. Now that the League of Nations has made warfare obsolete, the time has arrived for a redeemed Israel.”
Leaving aside Rav Kook’s mistaken optimism about the League of Nations, he demonstrates how political redemption means a return to the problems of history. The Hebrew word Geulah, redemption, means to be lifted away from a place of persecution and poverty and brought out to freedom. It is in this sense that God redeemed the Jewish people from Egypt. This same meaning underpins the Rabbinic prayer for God’s geulah that we have recited over 2000 years.
What Rav Kook forgot about, however, is the Hebrew word yishuah, meaning salvation. David prays to God for yishuah while living in a free Israel. He has enemies and problems – he must struggle with the challenges of a dangerous and frightening world. At the same time he is in control of his own destiny. As Soloveitchik would say, he has the ability to speak.
We have finally, after 2000 years, gained the ability to speak. We are a redeemed people back again in history, struggling with the challenges of the world. Shoftim, the Torah portion for this week, also struggles with politics and warfare. It warns us of the avarice of kings and suggests a morality of war. We are instructed to respect property boundaries and how to establish just courts.
Torah is hopeful because it offers instructions on how to pursue justice as a people are ready to enter a promised land. Justice shall you pursue – because through justice geulah, redemption, becomes yishuah, salvation.
I am afraid for Israel. Israel is strong, with the mightiest military in the Middle East. Israeli F-16s can fly anywhere in the Middle East with relative impunity. Israel could probably send ground troops to Damascus, Beirut, or even Tehran and hold territory there. Our struggles are far from over.
Like King David, I pray to the God of my salvation. The God who helps in the world of history, in the challenges we face from Hezbollah and Hamas and the new type of warfare they have innovated. I know too that this God of salvation listens only when my prayer is focused on justice and not vengeance, mercy and not hatred.
Israel is in a struggle for survival. We wrestle in the world of history to find a path of survival that includes justice and mercy because only then can we be brought from geulah to yishuah, only then can we have a victory in which we remain a people who wrestle with God and pursue Justice.
May God protect the land of ancestors, and may God protect also the soul of my people.
Rabbi David Booth