January 16, 2019

A Bittersweet Blessing

The great Israeli author, Shai Agnon, related a fable about a little boy and his old father, who together tended a goat. Each day the goat wandered off and returned at evening, its udders filled with the sweetest of milk. The boy wished to know where the goat went, and on what grass it grazed to give such extraordinarily sweet milk. So he tied a string to the goat’s tail and followed.

Over hills and through forests they went, until they descended into a dark cave. Down a long, winding path the goat led the boy. Finally, they emerged into the light. The boy recognized that he had entered into a new world, a world of lush hillsides and warm sunshine. Stopping a passerby, he inquired, and was told, "This is the land of Israel!" Elated, the boy wrote a note to his father. "Follow the goat," he instructed, "and join me here in the Eretz Yisrael." Tucking the note into the ear of the goat, he sent goat back, back to the old country, back to his old father. Meanwhile, the father had grown worried at the boy’s disappearance. When the goat returned without the boy, he grew distraught. He took the goat to the butcher and had it slaughtered. Only then, did the note drop from the animal’s ear. From that day, concludes the tale, the mouth of the magical cave is hidden and no one knows the way to the marvelous Land of Israel.

The bittersweetness of the tale rings true. We celebrate a blessing this week. But only half a blessing. We have witnessed half a miracle: We have regained our land and our city. We have gathered the Jewish people from the four corners of the earth. We have made the desert bloom. But the blessings of peace, security, independence elude us. What Zionism promised — a renewed Jewish people living in a renewed land of Israel — seems far beyond our reach.

The irrationality of the situation, the hatred, touches an old Jewish nerve. It suggest that the situation is no longer political, but existential; no longer diplomatic, but metaphysical. It raises an old Jewish fear — that for Jews the world is an endless nightmare: irrational, intolerant, absurd and hateful. Once again, we find ourselves in galut, in exile, helpless inhabitants of a world beyond our powers to control. Once again, we find ourselves impotent — unable even to protect our children. This was precisely the condition that Zionism set about to cure. This irony is so bitter, it elicits waves of rage, fear, depression and despair.

Jews must not despair. In despair and in the moral cynicism and brutality it breeds, is our death as a people and a faith. Galut ha’nefesh, the exile of the soul, of our essence, is as lethal as political exile.

We are an old people, and we have wrestled long and hard with the God of history. We know that bitter ironies punctuate the story of history. But we don’t despair.

An hour before the opening of the First Zionist Congress in Basel, in 1897, Theodor Herzl ordered his aide, David Wolffsohn, to create a banner for the hall’s entrance. A stranger to Basel, Wolffsohn had no idea where to find such a thing. He scoured the shops of the city in search of a suitable emblem, but found nothing appropriate. Exhausted and frustrated, he entered a small synagogue to rest a moment. There he saw his emblem. He took a large blue and white tallit, removed the fringes, and with a fountain pen, inscribed a Magen David in the center. Thus, was Israel’s flag born. A country whose flag is a tallit, whose anthem is a prayer of hope and whose national vision is an ancient messianic dream, will yet find its way to peace. If not in our time, then in our children’s.