The Mission of Israel: People, Torah, Land.
1 א

Program for Ramah Summer 5779

Link to this Text: www.sefaria.org/sheets/175149

Part One: The Mission of Israel in the Chumash

In this class, we will explore the idea that Israel (understood here to consist of the People, Torah and Land of Israel) has a divine mission in history. We'll begin with the Chumash.

Reflect on the story of the Chumash as you remember it, from the creation of the world to the election of Avraham and the covenant at Sinai. Why did God create the world? For what did God choose Avraham? What was the point of the covenant at Sinai?

It goes without saying that there are many possible interpretations leading to many different answers to these questions. It also makes perfect sense to say that the idea that Israel has a divine mission in history is dangerous, false or both. The point of this exercise is for you to explore what the Chumash seems to say about the mission of Israel, and also what you think/believe about it. Later on, we'll explore how thinkers such as Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, Martin Buber and and Rabbi Avraham Kook thought about these questions.

Below you'll find some key verses that might help you zero in on how the Chumash thinks about the mission of Israel. You need to think about the context of each verse. The verses I included are not objectively the most important ones but rather those that are involved with my conception of the mission of Israel. Feel free to consider different verses. Please write out your thinking in a few paragraphs (to keep for yourself).

2 ב

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹקִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃ וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹקִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃ וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹקִ֖ים יְהִ֣י א֑וֹר וַֽיְהִי־אֽוֹר׃

When God began to create heaven and earth— the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water— God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
3 ג
(כו) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹקִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ וְיִרְדּוּ֩ בִדְגַ֨ת הַיָּ֜ם וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֗יִם וּבַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּבְכָל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וּבְכָל־הָרֶ֖מֶשׂ הָֽרֹמֵ֥שׂ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃
(26) And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.”
4 ד

וַיַּ֣רְא ה' כִּ֥י רַבָּ֛ה רָעַ֥ת הָאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וְכָל־יֵ֙צֶר֙ מַחְשְׁבֹ֣ת לִבּ֔וֹ רַ֥ק רַ֖ע כָּל־הַיּֽוֹם׃ וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם ה' כִּֽי־עָשָׂ֥ה אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב אֶל־לִבּֽוֹ׃

The LORD saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And the LORD regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened.

5 ה

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה' אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃ וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃ וַאֲבָֽרֲכָה֙ מְבָ֣רְכֶ֔יךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ֖ אָאֹ֑ר וְנִבְרְכ֣וּ בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָאֲדָמָֽה׃

The LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you And curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth Shall bless themselves by you.”
6 ו

וְעַתָּ֗ה אִם־שָׁמ֤וֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ בְּקֹלִ֔י וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֑י וִהְיִ֨יתֶם לִ֤י סְגֻלָּה֙ מִכָּל־הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים כִּי־לִ֖י כָּל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ וְאַתֶּ֧ם תִּהְיוּ־לִ֛י מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תְּדַבֵּ֖ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.”

7 ז

8 ח
(יד) וַיְמָרְר֨וּ אֶת־חַיֵּיהֶ֜ם בַּעֲבֹדָ֣ה קָשָׁ֗ה בְּחֹ֙מֶר֙ וּבִלְבֵנִ֔ים וּבְכָל־עֲבֹדָ֖ה בַּשָּׂדֶ֑ה אֵ֚ת כָּל־עֲבֹ֣דָתָ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־עָבְד֥וּ בָהֶ֖ם בְּפָֽרֶךְ׃
(14) the various labors that they made them perform. Ruthlessly they made life bitter for them with harsh labor at mortar and bricks and with all sorts of tasks in the field.
9 ט

R. Shimshon Rafael Hirsch on Exodus 1:14

שורשה של התעללות מזעזעת זו היה נעוץ במצב ה"גירות", בתפישה המוטעית, שלגר, מכוח מעמדו, אין זכויות. משום כך מראה משפט הגר שבחוק היהודי ניגוד מוחלט לכל חקיקה לאומית אחרת עד היום הזה. עשרים וארבע פעמים, כל מקום בו קבעה התורה את משפט האיש ומשפט החפץ, מועמד ה"גר" תחת חסותו המיוחדת של החוק. רמת המשפט במדינה נמדדת - לא לפי זכותו של האזרח, העשיר, ושל מי שקשריו עומדים לו, ומייצגים אותו בשעת הצורך -, אלא לפי קב הצדק המגיע לגר מחוסר ההגנה. והשוואה גמורה של הגר לאזרח היא תכונת יסוד במשפט העברי. במשפט העברי - לא המולדת מעניקה זכויות - אדם, אלא זכויות - האדם מעניקות מולדת! המשפט העברי אינו מבדיל בין זכויות האדם ובין זכויות האזרח. כל מי שקיבל על עצמו את חוקי המוסר של האנושות - את שבע מצוות בני נח - היתה לו יהודה למולדת. עיקרון זה מנתק את כבוד האדם ממקריות הלידה והגורל, וכל מקום שהתורה מכריזה על עיקרון זה, שם היא מזכירה את חיי העבדות של אבותינו במצרים. כי במצרים תחילת עצתם היתה - צמצום זכויות הזרים העבריים, ובעקבותיו, כמאליהם, באו עבדות קשה ועינויים אכזריים. וכן הדבר בכל מקום: עיוות הדין הוא ראשית לכל חטאת.

10 י

The root of the horrific brutalization [of the Israelites in Egypt] was the status of "stranger", according to the false idea that the stranger, due to his status, has no rights. For this reason, the law of the stranger in Jewish law stands in absolute opposition to all other national legislations until this very day. Twenty four times, every place that the Torah promulgates the laws of personal status and property, the "stranger" is established as especially protected by the law. The quality of the law in the state is measured not by the right of the citizen, one who is rich, or one who is well connected…rather by the justice that is meted out to the defenseless stranger. Total equality between the stranger and the citizen is a foundational element of Jewish law. In Jewish law, it is not the state that bestows human rights, but rather human rights that bestow the state! [במשפט העברי - לא המולדת מעניקה זכויות אדם, אלא זכויות האדם מעניקות מולדת!]. Jewish law does not distinguish between human rights and citizen rights. Anyone who accepts upon himself the moral laws of humanity – the seven commandments of the children of Noach – Judah is their homeland. This principle separates human dignity from the accidents of birth and fate, and in every place that the Torah proclaims this principle, there it also reminds us of the lives of slavery of our ancestors in Egypt.

11 יא

Part Two: Martin Buber on Nationalism, Zionism and "Zionism"

Martin Buber (Austria 1878-Israel 1965) was a Jewish philosopher, educator and Zionist thinker. Buber was part of a stream of Zionist thinkers who opposed the establishment of a "Jewish State". In this sense, he is diametrically opposed to the thinker we will encounter in Part III below, Rabbi Avraham Kook (although its also true that these two thinkers shared a a lot). Buber believed that true Zionism could only mean the establishment of a bi-national Jewish-Arab state.

The picture below was published during the 1948 war by the Ichud (a movement of which Buber was a leader) calling on Arabs and Jews to stop fighting and instead cooperate in building the country together.

As you read Buber, consider how his words impact on your thinking about the mission of Israel as you thought about it in the previous class (on the Chumash).

12 יב
13 יג

Nationalism (Sept. 1921) from A Land of Two Peoples: Martin Buber on Jews and Arabs (Edited with commentary by Paul Mendes-Flohr). This is the source for Buber's essay below also.

In the life of human beings, both as individuals and in groups, self-assertion can be genuine as well as false, legitimate as well as illegitimate. A genuine person too likes to affirm himself in the face of the world, but in doing so he also affirms the power with which the world confronts him. This requires constant demarcation of one's own right from the rights of others...This applies both to the attitude of the individual toward his own life, and to the nation he is a member of. [...]

Every reflective member of a people is in duty bound to distinguish between legitimate and arbitrary nationalism and - in the sequence of situations and decisions - to refresh this distinction day after day. This is, above all, an obligation imposed on the leaders of a nation and of national movements. Whether or not they probe deeply into their conscience and do this unremittingly, will determine not only the fate of a movement - which must inevitably disintegrate if it becomes an end in itself - but often that of the nation, its recovery or decline. [...]

14 יד
15 טו
16 טז

Study Questions:

1) What is the difference between legitimate and illegitimate nationalism? How does this play out on the level of the individual person? (Source 13)

2) Why would illegitimate nationalism lead to the decline of a nationalist movement or even the nation itself? How does this play out on the level of the individual person?

3) What does it mean that the Jewish people has become an "idol"? (Source 14)

4) What does Buber mean by "formal" Jewish nationalism?

5) What is a "supernational purpose"? What is the supernational purpose of Israel according to Buber? (Source 15)

5) Buber launches an attack on "reforming" Judaism. What is his criticism?

17 יז
18 יח
19 יט
20 כ
21 כא

Study Questions:

1) What are the two "tendencies" in regard to the meaning of the national rebirth? Which one does Buber identify with? What is his problem with the other one?

2) Buber says that these two tendencies also played out in ancient Israel. How? He says that the Hebrews failed at becoming a normal nation. What failure do you think that he is referring to?

3) Buber is opposed to the idea of a "Jewish state" and he argues such a state is a denial of authentic Zionism. Why? What do you think?

4) Buber is in favor of a bi-national state which will be part of a "Near Eastern Union". He says this is the true meaning of Zionism. Why? What are you thoughts about his idea?

22 כב

Part Three: Rav Avraham Kook on אורות ישראל - The Lights of Israel

In a nutshell, I understand Rav Kook like this: If we balance our lives correctly, we naturally aspire to love, truth, compassion, creativity and all other good things. Rav Kook calls these good things אורות / lights. These "lights" are also "divinity", that is to say, they are a revelation of God. Rav Kook calls them האלוהות המתגלה בעולם / the divinity that is revealed in the world. It follows that for Rav Kook, when we balance our lives correctly, we naturally seek God.

Rav Kook is a mystical thinker. When he says "Knesset Yisrael" in the below sections, which literally means "the assembly of Israel", he is referring to a Kabbalistic symbol. For Rav Kook, "Knesset Yisrael" symbolizes the natural human desire to cleave to the divine lights (love, justice, beauty, creativity, etc.) explained in the previous paragraph. But more than that, Knesset Yisrael symbolizes the divine lights themselves when they are embodied in us - in our bodies and minds. So Knesset Yisrael symbolizes the presence of God in the world, and the way that we can embody that presence. It also symbolizes for Rav Kook the People, Land and Torah of Israel as they are in the real world (you and me, our Judaism, the land of Israel, etc.).

For Rav Kook, Israel X 3 (People, Torah, Land) are an organic living whole that manifests the divine light in a particular way. Our natural love and desire for God is the inner logic of all Jewish rituals, prayers and stories, even our very identities: All of these serve to cultivate our ability to come into contact with the divine light and become vessels through which that light flows into the world. When Israel is able to fully express herself through her collective spiritual and material life - when the People live in the Land according to the Torah - Rav Kook believes that she will fill humanity and the cosmos with divine light, and thus accomplish God's purpose in creation (and the mission of Avraham and Israel).

See if you can identify the ideas described above in Rav Kook's philosophical/theological poetry in sources 23-27 below.

23 כג

אין להגדיר את מהותה של כנסת ישראל בגבולים מיוחדים ובתוארים מוגבלים. כוללת הוא את הכל, והכל מיוסד על כלות נפשה לאלקים...והתשוקה להאלהות בהתלהבות נפש אמתית, מתגלה היא בכל פינותיה, מתגלה בתורה ומצות, מתגלה במוסר ומדות, מתגלה בהתעלות נפשית, בשירה פנימית, בקדושת החיים, בצמאון אין חקר...

It is impossible to define the essence of Knesset Yisrael in special limitations and limited descriptions. It contains everything, and everything is based on its love of God...The love for God and the true excitement of the soul is revealed in all its aspects, it is revealed in Torah and Mitsvot, it is revealed in morality and virtues, it is revealed in spiritual transcendence, in inner song, in the holiness of life, in the unfathomable thirst for God...

24 כד

עצמות החפץ של היות טוב לכל, בלא שום הגבלה בעולם כלל, בין בכמות הניטבים ובין באיכותו של הטוב, זהו הגרעין הפנימי של מהות נשמתה של כנסת ישראל...

The essence of the will for good for all, without any limitation in the world of any kind in regard to the number of those who receive the good or the quality of the good, this is the internal core of the essence of the soul of Knesset Yisrael...

25 כה

אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֵינֶנָּהּ דָּבָר חִיצוֹנִי, קִנְיָן חִיצוֹנִי לָאֻמָּה, רַק בְּתוֹר אֶמְצָעִי לַמַּטָּרָה שֶׁל הַהִתְאַגְּדוּת הַכְּלָלִית וְהַחְזָקָת קִיוּמָהּ הֶחָמְרִי אוֹ אֲפִלּוּ הָרוּחָנִי. אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל הִיא חֲטִיבָה עַצְמוּתִית קְשׁוּרָה בְּקֶשֶׁר חַיִּים עִם הָאֻמָּה, חֲבוּקָה בִּסְגֻלוֹת פְּנִימִיּוֹת עִם מְצִיאוּתָהּ.

Trans. based on Ben Zion Bokser:

Eretz Yisrael is not something apart from the soul of the nation of Israel; it is no mere national possession, serving as a means of unifying our people and buttressing her material, or even her spiritual, survival. Eretz Yisrael is part of the very essence of the nation; it is bound organically to her very life and inner being.

26 כו

Pirush: The relationship between the Land of Israel and the People of Israel is a little bit like the relationship between your body and your mind.

27 כז

אור השכינה הוא כנסת ישראל, האידיאל הישראלי השורה באומה כולה, העושה אותה לחטיבה אחת בכל דורותיה. כשהאורה הגדולה הזאת מתגלה בארץ, מתגלם בחיים המעשיים והשכליים, הכל מתברך...מפני שכנסת ישראל נחתת לאשראה בארעא...

The light of the Shechinah (=presence of God in the world) is Knesset Yisrael, the Israelite ideal which rests in the whole nation, which makes it one unit in all of its generations. And when this great light is revealed in the Land, it becomes embodied in practical and intellectual life, and all is blessed...because Knesset Yisrael has descended to become manifest in the Land...

28 כח

Study Question:

In source 23 above, Rav Kook says that the divine lights of Knesset Yisrael are visible in Torah and Mitsvot. Do you see the divine lights in your practice of Torah and Mitsvot? Do you seem them in other parts of your identity as part of Israel (if you think of yourself in this way)?

29 כט

From Orot, The Process of Ideas in Israel, pg. 104.

In the foundational root of this people, who knew to call on the name of the clear and pure divine idea even during the mighty rule of idolatry in its wild impurity, is revealed the aspiration to create a great human collective that “shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment” (Genesis 18:19). This is the aspiration – built upon a clear and mighty consciousness and the highest and most inclusive moral imperative – to redeem humanity from the horrific burdens of spiritual and material sorrow, and to achieve for her a life of freedom filled with dignified glory and refined pleasure, in the light of the Divine Ideal, in order to achieve success for the human project in its totality.

In order that this goal be accomplished, this human collective must be in possession of a socio-political state, a sovereign state at the peak of human civilization: “A wise and discerning people is this great nation.” (Devarim 4:6) In this state, the divine idea will reign supreme and vitalize people and land with its energy...Once the light of the divine idea has been purified in such a people, and has put its stamp upon its national life, it then goes to work on the entire world, incorporating the specific talents of each people wherever they may be, seeing that all are illumined by this light...

Israel was predisposed to the divine idea by its psychology, its heredity, and its geography...K’nesset Israel (Ecclesia Israel) in days of yore, at the zenith of her flourishing, in the days of her romance with God, soared with her spirit to the source of the supernal light. With all the fire of her love, with all the thunder of her might, and the lightning flashes of her intellect, she rooted her national identity in the depths of the light of the divine idea. In the treasury of her national idea was hidden the divine idea. Israel possessed the talent to light up the entire world.


First paragraph is my translation. The following paragraphs were translated by Bezalel Naor in his When God becomes History – The Historical Essays of Rabbi Avraham Kook – Orot.com

Study Questions:

In source 28 above, Rav Kook applies the more abstract theological thinking we saw in the first sources (23-27) to the concrete circumstances of the Zionist movement in his time. Notice his emphasis on the importance of establishing a sovereign Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael.

Consider how Rav Kook is similar and different from Buber. For example, does Rav Kook think that Israel has a "supernational task" like Buber does? Is it the same task?

Finally, how does all this impact on your thinking about the "Mission of Israel"?