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[KE CyberTorah] Israel and Hope


Israel and Hope

Rabbi Akiva lived in the generation after the destruction of the Temple. For him, the catastrophe was both spiritual and human. Over 30% of the Jewish people were slaughtered at that time with no hope of a sovereign future. God created something from nothing; Rabbi Akiva’s generation created hope from the deepest despair.

Among his teachings was a brilliant reinterpretation of Isaiah. Isaiah, speaking at a time of violence and threat, said that God is the hope of Israel. The Hebrew word for hope is a homonym with mikveh, the ritual bath for purification.  With the destruction of the Temple, the Jewish people had lost their spiritual home which included the process of ritual cleansing. Part of the despair was a sense that the gap between Israel and God could never again be bridged.

Rabbi Akiva heard hope in the verse itself. He saw a secret in Isaiah’s words. For centuries, everyone had assumed the verse had a plain meaning- trust in God. It is God in whom we hope. Yet Akiva saw a coded message. Isaiah’s prophetic message was a lesson of hope in their own era. It meant not only that God was the hope of the Jewish people, but also that God was the mikveh, the cleansing bath, of the Jewish people.

Even though the Temple was destroyed, even though the Biblical rituals of cleansing could no longer be practiced, God could and would cleanse Israel. Those rituals of the Temple were there for us to bridge the gap with the divine; God can bridge that gap anytime God wants. And Akiva’s greatest words of hope were that God wants to bridge that at all times.

In other words, however distant we may feel from God, God wants to draw us close. When the world creates in us a sense of impurity, God wants to cleanse us. We are never alone, even when it feels as though we are. 

The hope of Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues sustained us for 2000 years so that we could rebuild the land of Israel. The early Zionists had just as radical a rereading of the Bible as Rabbi Akiva when they said: who can retell the great deeds not just of God, but of the people Israel! Once we sang only of God’s power; now we sing of our own, as well. We rediscovered our strength and have built something marvelous and miraculous. We discovered in the slaughter of the Holocaust a new strength and a new beginning.

Israel is a young nation. In our time, we ask questions of power. We think of who we are in America as an established and powerful minority and what responsibilities that creates for us. For Israel, a regional superpower, what are the challenges today, the ways of using Israel’s power for the safety and security of its citizens in the most ethical fashion possible?

God is still our hope and our guiding light. Rabbi Akiva’s teaching remains as important to us today as it was years ago. When we turn towards God, when we strive to find the ways to do right, God is there, waiting to cleanse us, to meet us, and to love us. Yom HaAtzmaut celebrates one moment of hope fulfilled; Rabbi Akiva’s teaching reminds us of how much more is possible.

May God strengthen the work of our hands, establishing it firmly for the good of all the Earth.

Shabbat Shalom- 

Mon, May 16 2022 15 Iyyar 5782