Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett planned on traveling to America for two days to meet with President Biden and other American leaders. The short trip was extended when American troops were killed in Afghanistan by an ISIS terror attack and Biden needed to address the troubling situation. After finally meeting Biden on Friday morning, Bennett found himself unexpectedly stuck in Washington for Shabbat – there wasn’t enough time to return to Israel before the start of Shabbat.
In addition to Israeli leaders’ long-standing policy of not traveling or conducting non-essential business on Shabbat, Bennett is himself observant of Shabbat and its laws, and therefore won’t travel on Shabbat (unless national security is at risk). The Israeli Embassy went into action and built a temporary synagogue and ordered Shabbat meals for the prime minister’s staff and the press pool accompanying the prime minister. Washington and Rockville’s Jewish community delivered food and a Torah scroll, and the group was all set for an untraditional traditional Shabbat in their hotel.
A few minutes before Shabbat began, Bennett addressed the press pool but didn’t discuss his meetings with Biden. As Israeli reporter Lahav Harkov wrote, “Bennett delivered a Dvar Torah ‘like a Bnei Akiva madrich.’ ” Bennett spoke about one of the most well-known verses in Psalms.
“Before the evening service,” Bennet began, “We recite the verse written by King David, ‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for You are with me.’ The simple understanding and the widespread interpretation of the verse is that it refers to [faith] – when you walk through Lebanon, in the shadow of death. The foundation of faith for me is that we’re not promised that everything will be okay, there’s no deal like that promises all will be okay. We’re not exempt from working as hard as we can. My foundation of faith says we must do all we can in this world; to be proactive, and in the end, there is One (G-d) who closes the event. We aren’t exempt from our obligation to put forth effort.”
“A few years ago,” Bennett continued, “I heard a very nice explanation to this verse. It doesn’t mean that as I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, no evil will come to me, but rather, I won’t become evil. In the political realm, it’s easy to forget what are the means and what are the ends. It’s easy to think the politics, honor and governing are the ends themselves. This verse doesn’t tell us to seek external protection, but rather to guard ourselves from within. We must remember that we’re not perfect, but our purpose is to improve on ourselves.”
Bennett’s trip to America brought an aspect of his leadership into focus. Wearing a kippah into the Oval Office and remaining in America for Shabbat highlighted his Torah observance for many who hadn’t paid attention to it before his trip. While many Jews in America are beginning to fear wearing signs of their Judaism in public or have long hesitated wearing a kippah into their places of business, the Israeli prime minister walked into the most important office in America proudly displaying his Judaism and his Torah observance.
There are some Israelis concerned about Bennett’s personal observance of the Torah. It’s unknown if this trip changed or reinforced their opinion, but it was inspiring for many to see his observance on display in the halls of American power. An Israeli prime minister who teaches Torah is a beautiful and wonderful addition to Israel. Prime Minister Bennett is Israel’s first Torah observant leader. Other prime ministers like Menachem Begin have regularly studied Torah, but none have observed its mitzvot consistently.
As a Torah observant Jew, Bennett isn’t asking rabbis to decide how to govern. Like other Torah observant Jews, he’ll look to the Torah’s values as a guiding light. The Jewish people, and Zionism, have always been led by Torah and no one should fear a Torah observant leader. Many religious Zionists were excited to see a Torah observant prime minister. When the prime minister walked into the Oval Office wearing a kippah it sent a strong message about Israel’s values and morals. It is these values and morals that religious Zionists have been trying to inspire Israel to follow.
Israel is a Jewish state. The meaning of a Jewish state has long been a source of great debate. Only a small minority of Zionists maintained Israel should become a theocracy, ruled by Torah law. At the same time, many Zionists don’t want an Israel as a Jewish state built only on cultural Judaism and made up of Jewish people. For most Zionists, a Jewish state should stand for Jewish values. Those values originally come from the Torah. An Israeli prime minister who strives to observe the Torah and identifies as a Torah observant Jew goes a long way to ensuring Israel stays true to Jewish values.