Rediscovering Our People’s Identity: Part One

One does not have to be a sociologist to realize that a major cause of our internal disputes in Zion is the lack of agreement concerning the definition and meaning of our people’s identity. During the next stage of our series, we will examine classical Torah sources which offer a radical definition of our identity; moreover, these sources will help us to understand the connection between our identity and our radical role in Zion.
Our discussion will begin with a review of the liberating Divine message to our people that appears in the Torah portion of this week:
Dear Friends,
When we were still enslaved in Egypt, Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One, told Moshe to convey to us the following message regarding the initial four stages of the approaching redemption:
1. “I am Hashem, and I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt” (Exodus 6:6).
2. “I shall rescue you from their bondage” (ibid).
3. “I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments” (ibid).
4. “I shall take you to Me for a people” (Exodus 6:7).
In his commentary on the Divine promise regarding the fourth stage of redemption, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes:
“When Hashem says, ‘I shall take you to Me for a people,’ it means: Your social lives are to be guided by My wisdom; your social lives are to be a revelation of My spirit.”
When did we become Hashem’s people? After the Exodus from Egypt, we received the Torah – the Divine Teaching – at Mount Sinai. According to a number of biblical commentators, the Divine promise, “I shall take you to Me for a people,” is referring to our receiving the Torah. (Ramban, Ibn Ezra, Sforno, Rabbeinu Bachya, and Ohr HaChaim)
We therefore became Hashem’s people through receiving the Torah. In addition, we are to fulfill the precepts of the Torah in the Promised Land, as Moshe later proclaimed to our people: “See, I have taught you statutes and social laws which Hashem, my God, has commanded me, so that you may act accordingly in the midst of the Land” (Deuteronomy 4:5). This is why the Divine promise, “I shall take you to Me for a people,” is followed by the following Divine promise:
“I will bring you to the land about which I have raised My hand to give it to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and I shall give it to you as a heritage – I am Hashem.” (Exodus 6:8)
“After” we become the people of Hashem through receiving the Torah, we receive the Land which Hashem promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Our becoming the people of Hashem is therefore a prerequisite for receiving the Promised Land as a heritage to be passed on to all the future generations.
Our emergence as the people of Hashem will also enable us to become “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). Our becoming the people of Hashem is therefore the beginning of an historical process which will lead to the spiritual elevation of all peoples. This universal goal is described in the following Divine message to our people in Zion, whom Hashem addresses as “the daughter of Zion”:
“Sing and be glad, O daughter of Zion! For behold, I am coming, and I will dwell in your midst – spoke Hashem. Many nations will join themselves to Hashem on that day, and they will become a people unto Me, and I will dwell in your midst” (Zechariah 2:14, 15).
Before we can attain the universal goal described in the above prophecy, we ourselves have to become Hashem’s people through fulfilling the Torah. As Rabbi Hirsch writes:
“The Torah, the entire Jewish heritage, is one great elaboration upon these words, to Me for a people.” (The Hirsch Haggdah – Essay on the 4th Cup)
Regarding Hashem’s redeemed people, Rabbi Hirsch adds:
“In the fulfillment of God’s will, they will find their spiritual bond and their national unity…Here will they find their sole duty, individual happiness, national honor, and lasting peace.” (Ibid)
Rabbi Hirsch reminds us that the attainment of this ideal is an ongoing process, and he writes:
“Jewish history serves as the educational process leading to this ideal. Through it one thing becomes certain: whether they remain faithful or they backslide on their way towards this ideal, whether they draw near or pull away, hesitate or persevere, ‘Hashem will never cast off His people nor will He forsake His inheritance’ (Psalm 94:14). Hashem will be with them through the centuries of trials and darkness, through pain and deprivation, until they reach their pinnacle of perfection, the goal set before them by the Torah, and the fullness of joy that it promises.” (Ibid)
As an example of “backsliding” on the way to this ideal, Rabbi Hirsch writes:
“We have shown, over and over again, that to be Hashem’s people does not quite satisfy us. We are still eying other nations, and their shimmering glamour has not yet lost its temptations for our hearts.” (Ibid)
During the late 19th century and early 20th century, there arose secular movements among our people, including the secular Zionist movement, which were drawn to the “shimmering glamour” of other nations, and they therefore rejected the idea that we have a spiritual identity as the people of Hashem. As we discussed in this series, the secular Zionist movement sought to emulate the nationalism of other peoples and thereby have nationalism replace the Torah as the guiding spirit of our people. An example of the secular Zionist approach can be found in the following statement of Jacob Klatzkin, a leading Zionist thinker and editor:
“Let us be like all the nations!” (Cited in the introduction to “The Zionist Idea” by Arthur Hertzberg)
In its chapter on Jacob Klatzkin, “The Zionist Idea” cites statements of this Zionist thinker which indicate that Zionism is opposed to those who believe that we have a spiritual identity, and these statements are followed by the following statement of Klatzkin:
“Zionism is opposed to all this. Its real beginning is the Jewish State and its basic intention, consciously and unconsciously, is to deny any conception of Jewish identity based on spiritual criteria.”
As a result of the influence of these secular Jewish movements, combined with the trend towards assimilation, many of our brethren lost the awareness that we are a spiritual people. For example, when I connected with spiritually-searching Jews of my generation from both the Diaspora and the Land of Israel, many were not even aware that they could search for spirituality within their own Jewish heritage, for they were under the impression that being Jewish was primarily an ethnic or nationalistic experience. (Although many had a bar-mitzvah or bas-mitzvah celebration, they found the celebration to be a lavish ethnic event which lacked spirituality.)
We therefore need to do a tikun – fixing – for this rejection of our spiritual identity, and the tikun begins by remembering that we are the people of Hashem that are to serve as a model for all the peoples. We can then renew our relationship with the Compassionate and Life-Giving One through becoming a social model of the Divine teachings in the Land of Zion. In this way, we will experience the full fulfillment of the following Divine promise to the People of Zion:
“And I have placed My words in your mouth, and with the shade of My hand I have covered you, to implant the heavens and to set a base for the earth and to say unto Zion, ‘You are My people!’ ” (Isaiah 51:16)
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)
Related Teachings and Comments:
1. In the messianic age, when all peoples will become Hashem’s people, we will still have a special role as “Kohanim” – ministers – who will serve as teachers to the peoples, as the Prophet Isaiah proclaimed to us regarding our role in this new age:
“You shall be called ‘Kohanim of Hashem’; ‘ministers of our God’ will be said of you.” (Isaiah 61:6)
The commentator, Sforno, elaborates on this idea in his commentary on the following Divine call to our people at Mount Sinai: “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of Kohanim” (Exodus 19:6).
Sforno writes: “For you are to become a kingdom of Kohanim, to understand and to teach the entire human species that all shall proclaim the Name of Hashem and serve Him with a united resolve. This shall be the role of Israel in the future, as it says, ‘You shall be called Kohanim of Hashem’ (Isaiah 61:6), and as it says, ‘For from Zion will go forth Torah’ (Isaiah 2:3).”
2.  As we know, there are kibbutzim and moshavim in Israel that have defined themselves as “secular” communities. In previous letters, I mentioned the unifying outreach work of Ayelet HaShachar – a chareidi organization which helps the members of these communities to rediscover our collective identity as the people of the Torah. The following new development is another step in this process of renewal:

Kibbutz Geva, a “secular” kibbutz, has experienced signs of spiritual renewal. There was therefore a joyous celebration when Ayelet HaShachar placed a Torah scroll in a new Aron Kodesh – holy ark for the Torah – that Ayelet HaShachar had brought to the kibbutz. As Arutz Sheva reported:
“The members of Kibbutz Geva responded with great excitement to the placing of the Torah scroll in their kibbutz. Some were talking about the victory they felt they being descendants of Holocaust victims and some wished to thank the organizers for bringing ‘unique joy and a sense of transcendence spirit’ to the Kibbutz.”
A few years, ago, Ayelet HaShachar helped the members of Kibbutz Geva to experience their first Yom Kippur service. A member of the kibbutz wrote a thank you letter to the director of Ayelet HaShachar expressing appreciation “for having created for us a Mikdash Me’at (Miniature Sanctuary) in the midst of our everyday lives and secular existence, and for having made it possible for us to touch the holiness, the elevation, of this unique day – Yom Hakippurim.” The kibbutz member added:
“The emotions during the prayers broke down all barriers, and enabled us to touch every link in the chain of our common tradition, reaching back to the roots of our common existence.”
May these new developments lead to the fulfillment of the following Divine promise to our people regarding our renewal in the messianic age:
“I will seal a covenant of shalom with them; it will be an eternal covenant with them; and I will emplace them and increase them, and I will place My Sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be among them; I will be God to them, and they will be a people unto Me. Then the nations will know that I am Hashem Who sanctifies Israel, when My Sanctuary will be among them forever.” (Ezekiel 37:26-28)
“My dwelling place will be among them” – I will place My Shechinah among them (Targum).
3. The Hirsch Haggadah is published by Feldheim:  

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