Rashi, in his first commentary on the Torah, asks why the Bible starts with the Book of Genesis. Judaism, after all, is really about the commandments, so why not skip directly to Exodus where the commandments are listed?
Seventy years ago, two events occurred that every Jew should always remember. In May 1943, when Franklin Roosevelt met with Winston Churchill at the White House, one of the questions FDR brought up was how to settle the Jewish question.
His vice president, Henry Wallace, noted the conversation in his diary. Roosevelt, Wallace wrote, spoke approvingly of a plan developed by the president of Johns Hopkins University, Isaiah Bowman, “to spread the Jews thin all over the world.”
In other words, not too many of them living in one place lest they infect us…. I think we all can fill in the rest of the thought.
The second event took place a month later. In the midst of the Holocaust, as trains packed with Jews from all over Eastern Europe were making their way to the death camps, the Vatican’s apostolic delegate in Washington, Archbishop A.G. Cicognani, wrote to Myron Taylor, the U.S. envoy to the Vatican, to explain why the Roman Catholic church opposed a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
The letter stated,
Catholics the world over are piously devoted to this country, hallowed as it was by the presence of the Redeemer and esteemed as it is as the cradle of Christianity. If the greater part of Palestine is given to the Jewish people, this would be a severe blow to the religious attachment of Catholics to this land.
To have the Jewish people in the majority would be to interfere with the peaceful exercise of these rights in the Holy Land already vested in Catholics.
It is true that at one time Palestine was inhabited by the Hebrew Race, but there is no axiom in history to substantiate the necessity of a people returning to a country they left nineteen centuries before.
If a “Hebrew Home” is desired, it would not be too difficult to find a more fitting territory than Palestine. With an increase in the Jewish population there, grave new, international problems would arise. Catholics the world over would be aroused. The Holy See would be saddened, and justly, so, by such a move, for it would not be in keeping with the charitable assistance non-arians [sic] have received and will continue to receive at the hands of the Vatican.
Notice that the pope’s representative wasn’t seeking to prevent Jews from building day schools or synagogues – he just didn’t want them to do so in Eretz Yisrael.
That’s precisely why Rashi’s answer to his question about why the Torah starts with Genesis rather than Exodus is so relevant: It was in order to establish our national identity as a nation before the entire world.
What the Vatican wanted to do to us in the 1940s is the same thing the United Nations attempted to do thirty years later. On November 10, 1975, the UN General Assembly, by a vote of 72-35 (with 32 abstentions), singled out Zionism as a form of racism.
It was a major turning point in the relationship between the Jewish people and the international community. On that day huge numbers of Jews, ranging from chassidic to Reform, took to the streets in a massive show of unity. They understood that the community of nations was attacking the very foundation of our heritage and seeking to erase our 3,500-year relationship with Eretz Yisrael.
Perhaps our sages insisted that the Torah reading on both days of Rosh Hashanah should be about the covenant Avraham sealed with the Almighty on Mount Moriah in the land of Israel because they knew that, in the eyes of the world, you are a nobody unless you have a national identity.
The fact is, the astonishing renaissance of Jewish life we have experienced – the explosive growth of Orthodox neighborhoods, the packed yeshivas and kollels, the unprecedented number of seforim and other Jewish books being published, the open and proud display of Torah observance – is due not only to the great rabbinical leaders who inspired us but also because those sages had a partner in a strong and dynamic Jewish state with an army and a flag and a determination to defend the rights of Jews anywhere in the world.
The presence of a strong Israel gives credence to the Torah’s message that God is not finished with the people of the Covenant; that despite the millennia of homelessness and wandering and expulsion and persecution and murder, “netzach Yisrael lo yishkar” – the destiny of Israel will never be forsaken.
Far from being an enemy of Torah – as a not insignificant number of Orthodox Jews insist on proclaiming – Israel has made it possible for Torah to flourish, with the state now home to more yeshivas and religious institutions and organizations than ever existed in all of Europe.
And let us not overlook the fact that pride in Israel and its accomplishments was a major spark of the ba’al teshuvah movement that since the late 1960s has brought so many Jews back to Yiddishkeit.
Here in the U.S., it wasn’t so long ago that governors, mayors and senators were reluctant to speak at yeshiva banquets or to otherwise identify themselves too closely with Jewish causes. Today, even officials in cities and states with a negligible Jewish presence regularly attend Jewish and Israel-related functions. They do so because they know firsthand what the Jewish state has contributed to mankind and what a full-fledged partner with America Israel has become in science and technology, in economics, in the war on terrorism.
In praising his son Yehudah, our forefather Yaakov declared: “All your brothers know what you have done.” Likewise, we need to know – and acknowledge – what Israel has done for Jews around the world.