Friday, September 19, 2014

Rav Kook, Israel and the Hebrew letter vav

On Shabbat, September 20, 2014, Jews around the world will read the weekly Torah Portion, Parshat Netzavim (D’varim 29:9-30:20). In that reading, we find three p’sukim (sentences) that affect how we think today about the phenomena called, ‘modern Israel’.
These p’sukim begin with our leader Moshe telling us that “(30:1) It will be that when all these things come upon you—the blessing and the curse that I have presented before you—then you will take it to your heart among the nations where HaShem, your G-d, has dispersed you; (30:2) And you will return unto HaShem your G-d…” (The ArtScroll Chumash, The Stone Edition).
These two p’sukim seem to tell us four things: first, at some time after Moshe spoke these words, the Jewish nation would rebel against HaShem their G-d; second, G-d will exile the Jewish nation because of the (specific) sins they will commit against Him; third, Jews in exile will be scattered among the nations; and fourth, at some point during that exile, the Jewish people will once again seek to ‘return’ to G-d.
It’s the next posuk (sentence) that affects how Jews around the world think of modern Israel. How we read that posuk determines whether or not you see modern Israel as the first flowering of G-d’s Promised Redemption.
That posuk (D’varim 30:3) begins with the Hebrew letter, vav. Typically, the letter vav at the beginning of a word is normally translated as ‘and’. It can also be translated as ‘then’. How this letter is translated depends upon what semantic or grammatical context the reader assigns to the text.
Readers traditionally translate this vav in this posuk (D’varim 30:3) as ‘then’. Therefore, the posuk reads, “Then HaShem, your G-d, will…have mercy upon you and He will gather you in from all the peoples to which HaShem, your G-d, has scattered you.”
This translation (‘then’) assigns a chronology to the meaning of these three p’sukim: you will be exiled and then you will return (through repentance) to G-d; and then, after your repentance, G-d will gather you into Israel once again. The chronology implied by the word, ‘then’ means that before G-d will formally bring you back to Israel, you will have first ‘returned to G-d’ (t’shuva).
This is an important point. It has influenced literally hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of religious Jews, across more than a hundred generations, to believe with a very firm belief that they cannot return to Israel until the Jewish nation as a whole has repented (‘t’shuva’).
For these G-d-fearing Jews, we as a nation must be meticulous about keeping the sequence we derive from this vav: t’shuva, then aliyah: a religious return before our physical return.
But what happens if the translation of that vav isn’t ‘then’? What happens if the translation should be ‘and’?
The posuk would read, ‘And HaShem your G-d will… have mercy on you and He will gather you in…”
There is no suggested sequence.
The Torah often uses the letter vav. It doesn’t always suggest a chronology. Sometimes, it’s just a connector between two sentences. Sometimes, the ‘and’ suggests two things happening simultaneously.
For example, in this same Parsha (D’varim 29:23-24), we read that the Jewish nation (during the future exile) will describe Israel as a devastated place. At that same time, we read, “(29:23) And the nations will say…(29:24) And they [the nations] will say…”
This is not a chronological reference. It’s a reference to statements that will all occur at the same time.
If ‘and’ is not chronological in the three p’sukim we are discussing here, then we have a question: can we argue that the t’shuva (repentance) and aliyah referenced within these three p’sukim are simultaneous occurrences?
Such a reading suggests that HaShem doesn’t wait for the Jewish people to repent fully before He starts the ingathering, which is the beginning of our Redemption. It suggests instead a parallel process. It suggests that, once HaShem sees the Jewish people ‘returning’, he will start the Redemption.
Is that possible?
Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook (1865-1935) is considered by many to be the founder of modern Religious Zionism. He has written that Redemption is an “ever-active historical process” (The Art of T’shuva, The teachings of HaRav Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook, commentary by Rabbi David Samson and Tzvi Fishman, Jerusalem, 5759 [1999], p57). He sees Redemption unfolding visibly through history.
He also sees t’shuva occurring on an individual and national basis among the Jewish people—and in the non-Jewish world as well (ibid). He describes individual repentance as a process of perfecting oneself in preparation for Redemption (ibid, p56). But he also believes that all “cultural reforms which lift the world out of moral decay, along with social and economic advancements…all of them comprise a single entity, and are not detached one from the other” (ibid, p56-7).
That ‘single entity’ is the process of ‘perfection’—what he calls ‘one giant unified t’shuva’ (ibid, p57).
He also suggests that t’shuva and Redemption are not sequential. One does not precede the other. T’shuva and Redemption, he says, are parallel processes (p 58). They lead to the same destination (ibid). They are, he argues, intertwined (ibid).
History validates Rav Kook. Since the end of World War Two, t’shuva and aliyah (which is, after all, the process of in-gathering) have indeed unfolded on parallel tracks. Since 1945, the world has seen a resurgence of Torah and aliyah to Israel on a scale never seen before. The rise of modern Israel is truly intertwined with the rise of Torah, t’shuva and aliyah.
That’s not a coincidence.
When Rav Kook suggests that t’shuva and Redemption unfold on a parallel course, perhaps he had these three p’sukim in mind. Perhaps he realized how t’shuva, Israel and aliyah would unfold hand-in-hand.
Perhaps he understood more clearly then we how to read the simple letter vav.

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