Beit Midrash

  • Family and Society
  • The Israeli State and Goverment
To dedicate this lesson
Translated by Hillel Fendel

The Value of Nationhood

In the Book of Shmot, we are no longer individuals, as in Breishit, but rather begin to appear in history as a Nation. Why is a national framework so critical?


Rabbi Haggai Lundin

Sivan 14 5781
Following the Book of Genesis (Breishit), dealing with the Forefathers of the Israelite People, comes the Book of Exodus (Shmot), which we began to read aloud in our synagogues this past Shabbat. In the Book of Shmot, we are no longer individuals, as in Breishit, but rather begin to appear in history as a Nation. As Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook put it, "From the value of the individual, we move to the value of the communal." 

In order to fulfill the aspirations of the Patriarchs to walk in the paths of G-d, to "do righteousness and justice" (Gen. 18:19), and to implement them most completely, there must be a nation. There must be a large public in the form of a political entity – a state – living a full national life. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook writes in his classic work Orot (p. 104) that this public must have a political state with "a seat of a national kingdom," and that it must be at the "apex of human culture," as the Torah states: "a wise and prudent people, and a great nation" (Deut. 4:6). 

Why is a national framework so critical? 

For starters, it is clear that the influence that a broad public can wield is immeasurably greater than what individuals can effect. To say that world history is the story of individuals is a distortion – for history is written by peoples. Just as we do not relate to individual cells of our body [unless they present a danger], but rather to the body as a whole, so too the human race takes the broad view and relates to nations and not to individual people, however great they may be. History moves according to the actions of peoples, and it is they who compile its events and make their substantial imprint upon it. 

Secondly, the human individual, even if he represents an exalted and holy theological philosophy, cannot represent the fullness of the forces of life. A private person is limited in life expectancy, in the capacity of the talents that he can contain, and therefore in his influence on society and history. The effect of abstract ideas without all-encompassing and genuine life is always "outside of life." It is not that great of a challenge for individual people to live a holy life, but when their noble ideas and concepts are unable to take form in a social framework, and when they do not have the necessary might and bold spirit to run a society, this attests to an essential defect. This is not true, however, in the way a nation experiences its life. Given that the movement of sanctity is directed at embodying "G-dliness on Earth" in the very nature of life, it must therefore appear in the form of "a kingdom of priests and holy nation" (Shmot 19:6) – a nation in which life bubbles with vibrancy at the height of its power.

With this understanding, it becomes clear that the complete manifestation of the Israelite ideal will occur specifically in the Land, which is the principle expression of genuine life – and not outside the Land with its Torah abstraction. As opposed to the generally accepted religious conception, the Nation of Israel is not just a group of people who happen to sport a religious-moral ethic known as "Torah." Israel is qualitatively more than that. To depict the ultimate Israel idea we use the term Knesset Yisrael - roughly translated as Community of Israel – to refer to the "point of life." It is the "soul of the Israelite Nation," expressed in three dimensions: The human-spiritual dimension known as "Am Yisrael (the Nation);" the material-political dimension known as "Eretz Yisrael (the Land);" and the intellectual-abstract dimension termed "Torat Yisrael" (the Torah).

This is also the guiding principle of the well-known discourse of Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, in which he explains the Talmudic teaching that the Blessings of the Torah are the "most exalted of blessings"(Tractate B'rachot 11b). Their exaltedness, he says, is that they emphasize and underscore the importance of the concept of the Jewish Nation – for the first of these blessings states, "Blessed… is He Who chose us from all the nations and gave us His Torah." Rav Tzvi Yehuda explains as follows: 

"The Gemara explains in two places why the Land was lost [and Israel was exiled]. In one instance, R. Yehuda taught in the name of Rav: 

"This question was asked of the Sages" – the wise men of holiness and of Torah – "and they could not explain it." Similarly were the Prophets and the ministering angels unable to explain this. "Finally, the Holy One, Blessed be He, Himself answered this question" - for He is the source of all the wisdom of the Sages, the Prophets, and the angels – and said that it was "because they [Israel] abandoned My Torah" (Yirmiyahu 9,12), in not reciting the blessing over the Torah before they studied it [as Jewish Law demands]. 

That is, they studied Torah and engaged in Torah – but not from amidst our nationhood, not with true pride of our Jewish nation; they did not recite, "He Who chose us from among all the nations" before learning Torah. And for this grave lack, Israel was exiled from its Land.

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