Before Chanukah, we mentioned that the hottest selling book at the Central Bus station in Yerushalayim is “Binyan Emunah,” by Rabbi Moshe Bleicher, the book which I am presently translating into English. The book is based on the approach to Torah fostered by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, the Gaon of Vilna, and Rabbi Kook, who all warned that the understanding of Judaism and Torah that was being learned in the exile wasn’t the true understanding of Torah, and consequently, the Jewish People were losing their true understanding of God.
These great Rabbis, giants of their generations, taught that the Torah was much more than a list of the ritual commandments we could still practice in galut; and that Judaism, and that Emunah, the faith in G-d, were much more than keeping kashrut and Shabbat, and learning Gemara and Halacha.
True Judaism, they taught, was building a Torah NATION in the Land of Israel, the Holy Land unique to Torah, and not just the practice of ritual commandments by individuals or scattered Jewish communities in foreign impure lands. The complete service of God by the Jewish People was the NATIONAL service of God of the Israelite NATION in its own Jewish Land. This is what leads the way to the establishment of the Kingdom of God in the world, when all nations will come to serve the God of Israel, as the Prophet declares: “For from ZION shall go forth the Torah, and the word of the Lord from YERUSHALYIM.”
The book, “Binyan Emunah,” which means, “The Building of Faith,” is a detailed explanation of this central foundation of Torah – something which is totally lacking in exile where the Jewish People don’t have their own Jewish NATIONHOOD and sovereign Jewish LAND. Jewish NATIONHOOD in the Land of Israel is the heart and soul of the Torah. Without them, we are like a body without a soul, or, in the words of the Prophet, Yehezkel, like dry lifeless bones.
Here is a condensed segment of the book explaining this crucial point, based on the words of our Prophets and some of our greatest Torah giants.
The Valley of the Bones
The Prophet Yehezkel declares:
“The hand of the Lord was upon me, and the Lord carried me out in a spirit, and set me down in the midst of a valley, and it was full of bones; and He caused me to pass by them round about, and, behold, there were many in the open valley, and, lo, there were very dry.
“Then He said unto me: ‘Son of man, the bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say: Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost; we are completely cut off. Therefore prophesy and say unto them: Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, O, My People; and I will bring you into the Land of Israel; and you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, and caused you to come up out of your graves, O, My People. And I will put My spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own Land; and you shall know that I the Lord have spoken and performed it, sys the Lord” (Yehezkel, Ch.37).
The Prophet Yehezkel describes the situation of Am Yisrael in exile as being similar to the dead in a graveyard. In contrast, the Geula, Redemption, comes when the revitalized bones leave the cemetery of exile and come to Eretz Yisrael.
There are those who will say that this only a metaphor, and that the Prophet doesn’t really mean to say that we are like dead people when we are in exile, for, as anyone can see, we are living, breathing, and learning Torah. The Prophet, they claim, exaggerates in order to highlight a particular aspect of Galut, but he doesn’t mean to teach that there is an essential, absolute, difference between the time of Galut and Geula, like the difference between the dead and the living. However, as we shall learn, the words of the Prophet are meant to be taken literally, at face value.
In Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi’s classic treatise of Jewish Faith, “HaKuzari,” in explaining the tenets of Judaism, the Rabbi tells the king of the Kuzars about the Land of Israel, the Beit HaMikdash, and the bringing of sacrifices, as opposed to the situation of Am Yisrael in the exile, when all of these are missing:
The Rabbi says: “It is true that the source of all wisdom was deposited in the Ark, which represents the level of the heart, via the Ten Commandments and the Torah which was placed at its side, as it says: “Place it by the side of the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord.” From there went forth two wisdoms: the Torah wisdom whose bearers were the Kohanim, and the prophetic wisdom which was transmitted by the Prophets. Both of these classes were the People’s watchful advisors, who compiled the Writings and Chronicles of Tanach . They were, therefore, like the head of the Nation.”
The King of Kuzar says: “Thus today, you are like a body without a head or heart.”
The Rabbi says: “You say rightly, but more than this – we are not even a body, but only scattered limbs, like the dry bones which Yehezkel saw in his vision. But even so, O king of the Kuzar, these bones which have retained a natural trace of vital power, having once been the vessels which housed the heart, brain, breath, soul, and intellect, are superior to bodies formed of marble and plaster, sculptured with heads, eyes, ears, and all the limbs, in which never dwelt the spirit of life, nor ever can dwell in them, since they are but imitations of man, and not man in reality.”
The Rabbi agrees with the king of Kuzar that Am Yisrael in exile is like a body without a heart and brain. However, the truth is even worse, since we don’t have even a body, but merely dry bones, as the Prophet Yehezkel declares. Nevertheless, buried in these dry bones is great hidden life, the “genetic” remnants of the full life we had when we were in Eretz Yisrael, and these dormant “chromosomes” are destined to return to new life at the time of the Redemption. In contrast to this, Christianity and Islam outwardly seem full of life and splendor, like a body with a heart and brain, but in truth, they are like a golem which resembles a man, and like statues that possess no life.
Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi lived in Spain when he wrote “HaKuzari.” During this era, Torah learning flourished, but he described his personal situation, and the state of Am Yisrael, like death and mere dry bones. Thus we see that the description of the Prophet Yehezkel is real. The time of exile is death.
The Gaon of Vilna
In a straightforward fashion which leaves no room for doubt, the Gaon of Vilna states the following:
“Since the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed, our spirit and our crown departed, and only we remained, the body without the soul. And exile to outside of the Land is a grave. Worms surround us there, and we do not have the power to save ourselves from the idol worshippers who devour our flesh. In every place, there were great Jewish communities and yeshivot, until the body decayed, and the bones scattered, again and again. Yet, always, some bones still existed, the Talmidei Chachamin of the Israelite Nation, the pillars of the body – until even these bones rotted, and there only remained a rancid waste which disintegrated into dust – our life turned into dust. And now we hope for the resurrection of the dead, the awakening and rising up from the dust with the pouring of a Divine spirit upon us” (Likutei HaGra).
These matters need extensive clarification. The difference between life and death isn’t a difference of quantity, but rather the difference between two extreme opposites, with an absolute cavern between them. The Gaon of Vilna describes in graphic detail how we are in a graveyard in Galut, how worms devour our flesh, and how we decompose and become rancid.
It sounds like we are missing the most essential thing to our lives, to the point where everything we have, whether it be thriving religious, communities, great yeshivot, or acceptance and equality amongst the goyim, is not considered as life at all – but rather, death. It must be remember that the Gaon lived in the city of Vilna, which was nicknamed “the Jerusalem of Lithuania” because of the grandeur of Torah which flourished there. The Gaon himself learned Torah with incomparable holiness and purity, teaching scores of students, while being actively involved in many fields, but, with all this, he still declares that this is a state of death. This is wondrous indeed!
If the Prophet Yehezkel, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, and the Gaon of Vilna define the exile as death, even if the Galut seems in our eyes to be filled with flourishing life, one must recognize that it is the Torah which determines the definition of a situation, and that the Galut is indeed a graveyard, and that we are dead there. Now, we have to explain why this is so – how can it be that a situation which appears to be thriving and prospering, materially and even spiritually, with an abundance of Torah learning and observance, is nevertheless defined by the Torah, and our Prophets and Sages, as death?
Want to know the answer? Stay tuned to our upcoming blogs!
About the Author: Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Creativity and Jewish Culture for his novel "Tevye in the Promised Land." A wide selection of his books are available at Amazon.The author's opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Jewish Press.
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