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Making History by Recognizing History: Reflections on Witnessing My Generation’s Israel Moment

on Tuesday, May 15 2018. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg
Image may contain: Daniella Hellerstein, smiling

Attending the Embassy opening with my sister Daniella, who made aliyah with her family 17 years ago

If you would have told a Jew in Auschwitz in 1945 that just three years later, the United Nations would vote to award the Jewish people sovereignty over their ancient homeland, and that they would build a strong army and develop a robust economy, he or she would never believe you. If in May of 1967 you would predict that Israel’s enemies would collaboratively wage war against her and rather than be decimated or sustain catastrophic losses, Israel would preemptively wipe out her enemies and eliminate the threat in just six days, you would be dismissed as delusional.  And if in 1973, in the shadow of Israel’s monumental and sweeping victory just six years earlier, you would say Israel is ill-prepared and vulnerable to another attack, you would be dismissed as ignorant.

If Jewish history has taught us anything, it is that our people’s story is unpredictable and capricious.  And yet somehow, rather than learn to be cautious and humble when interpreting our unfolding destiny, we continue to fall into the trap of overconfidence when analyzing current events and staking political positions with certitude and conviction.

The unpredictability of the Jewish story struck me profoundly this week as I sat with hundreds of others at the new United States Embassy in Jerusalem, celebrating its historic and monumental inauguration. If you would have told me just a year ago that the greatest superpower in the world would be recognizing Yerushalayim as the historic and eternal capital of Israel, I would have found it highly unlikely.  If you would have then told me that the same month the US would pull out of the Iran deal, the Mossad would pull off a risky operation to take 300,000 files out of Iran, that in four hours Israel would eliminate Iranian positions throughout Syria, and that despite efforts to marginalize and boycott Israel, an Israeli would win the Eurovision contest, I would have suspected you of indulging in a hallucinogen.

And yet, all of those things happened in a span of a few days of each other, each one less likely than the next.  The culmination took place exactly 70 years after the declaration of the State of Israel, almost to the minute, when the United States moved its embassy to Jerusalem and with it announced to the world unequivocally and unapologetically that the Holy City of Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel.

I was not alive to experience the miraculous founding of the State in 1948 or the victory against all odds in 1967.  This is my generation’s Israel moment.  A day etched in our memory, when a truth we have known for over 3,000 years and that has been reestablished for the last seventy, was affirmed and put into policy by President Trump and now carries the weight of the United States of America, the strongest and most powerful country in the history of the world.  And so, when I was blessed to receive an invitation from Ambassador Friedman to attend the embassy opening (for which I am eternally grateful to his Chief of Staff, my friend Aryeh Lightstone), though it was scheduled right before Shavuos and I would only be able to stay in Israel for one night, I didn’t hesitate to book my ticket.

Since its inception, Israel’s government—including its prime minister, president, Parliament and Supreme Court—have all been housed in Jerusalem.  But the centrality of Yerushalayim for our people began long before 1948.

Yerushalayim is mentioned more than 650 times in Tanach.  It is described by our rabbis as the center of the universe (Yoma 54b).  Wherever we are in the world, Jews face Yerushalayim and it is there our prayers are collected and delivered to the Almighty. The sanctity of Yerushalayim is permanent (Rambam). Our rabbis tell us (Bereishis Rabbah 59:8) Yerushalayim oro shel olam, Jerusalem is the source of light of the world.  As our holy city shone that day, honored by the presence of dignitaries and celebrated as the city of unity, peace, justice and love, the world was a little brighter as result.

Transportation to the event was provided on special busses that traveled with a police escort.  Residents of the city lined the street waving flags and taking pictures.  The energy on the bus, filled with Jews and non-Jews, dignitaries and ordinary civilians, was electric.  As we turned up the hill to the embassy, passing the garden whose flowers formed the flag of the United States, it was the evangelical leaders on our bus who burst out in song – oseh shalom bimromav, praying for peace in the city and around the world.

Millions of evangelicals, members of Christians United for Israel and other such groups have worked tirelessly through lobbying, advocating and praying for this day. They see the moving of the embassy in a religious context, the very fulfillment of ancient prophecies and open evidence of God’s love for His children, the Jewish people.  At a reception earlier that morning, I heard Pastor Hagee declare the verse from Hallel, “zeh ha’yom asah Hashem, nagilah v’nismecha vo, this day was made by God, let us rejoice and take pleasure in it.”

As we waited for the program to begin, an impromptu Mincha was arranged.  To be honest, with all the activity, commotion and personalities around, it was hard to concentrate.  And then I arrived at the paragraph of “v’liyerushalayim ircha b’rachamim tashuv” in which we ask God to return Jerusalem to us and to return His presence to our holy city.  Earlier that morning, at a reception hosted by the OU, Ambassador Friedman said, we pray this day is a fulfillment of “v’sechezena eineinu b’shuvcha l’tziyon b’rachamim, let our eyes see Your return to Yerushalayim with compassion.”  When I arrived at those words, in that place, at that moment, I got chills and was overwhelmed with the feeling that we were living the very fulfillment of millennia of our ancestors dreaming of such a moment and recognition.

In the sheva berachos recited under the chuppa, we pray b’kibutz baneha l’socha b’simcha, may her sons be gathered into her with joy and end that blessing, mesamei’ach tziyon b’vaneha, may Zion rejoice in her children.  Former Chief Rabbi Rav Bakshi Doron (Binyan av 4:76:1) explains that Yerushalayim is the mother of the Jewish people.  Like a child has a deep, natural bond, connection and longing for his or her mother, so too the Jewish people are inextricably bound to our mother, Yerushalayim, from whom we receive nourishment, nurturing, and love.

For over 2,000 years, the world has said our mother is not our mother.  For the last 50, despite our being reunited, the world has continued to argue she is not in fact our mother.  But this week, the most powerful and influential voice declared unequivocally, finally, a truth that though obvious to us, was nevertheless, disputed in the world.  Other countries will no doubt follow and will move their embassies to Jerusalem, declare it the capital of Israel and further cement the special bond we have with our city, enabling it to further rejoice in the return of Her children.

The day was indeed worthy of the shehechiyanu blessing, and it was in fact recited three times at the event alone, by Israel’s President Ruvi Rivlin, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and by Ambassador Friedman.  I was moved to tears by the feeling of what a merit and blessing that Hashem has sustained us and guarded us and enabled us to arrive at this most propitious day.

Jared Kushner spoke of his grandparents who were forced to hide in a forest during the war, pursued for their lives.  They not only survived, they thrived and built a successful business and a family.  They would have never dreamt that their grandson would be the president’s special advisor, let alone son-in-law, credited in large part with getting the embassy moved and having Jerusalem recognized as Israel’s eternal capital.

Yes, the Jewish story is unpredictable, irrational and often defies logic or explanation.  This past month’s extraordinary events, anticipated by very few, are a strong reminder of why we must not be strident, vociferous and definitive when espousing our opinions on current events.  Reflecting on the circuitous and erratic path of our past should humble us when communicating our opinions of the present or offering predictions about the future.

The Jerusalem Embassy Act passed overwhelmingly in 1995. Despite no shortage of campaign promises, presidents since then failed to execute the law.  President Trump and his administration deserve great credit for not only making the promise but fulfilling it.  Children of Jerusalem should express our deepest appreciation and gratitude for his willingness to defy enormous pressure to keep the status quo.

But make no mistake, ultimately it is Hashem who brought this reality to happen.  “Harbei sheluchim la’makom, Hashem has lots of agents and messengers” (Bamidbar Rabba 18a) and we don’t know why He chooses to employ any in a given situation or time.  Long ago King Shlomo (Mishlei 21:1) taught us, “Palgei mayim lev melech b’yad Hashem, al kol asher yachpotz yatenu, the heart of a king is like a stream of water in the hand of Hashem, wherever He wishes, He will direct it.”

We say every single day in our davening, “Al tivtechu b’nedivim, don’t place your faith and trust in princes and diplomats.” As believing Jews, we recognize that it is the Master of the Universe who orchestrates domestic, foreign and all policies and their consequences.  To be a student of Torah and of Jewish history is to see the Almighty’s guiding hand.  His hand guided our history and ultimately, it is His hand that is guiding our destiny.

My oldest daughter Rachelli was born in Sha’arei Tzedek hospital in Yerushalayim.  Nine days later we flew back to America and so I went to the consulate to apply for her US passport. I was terribly disappointed then, and still remain disappointed today, that her passport lists the place of her birth as Jerusalem without identifying it as Israel.  I hope and pray that the momentous and courageous move this week will soon bring a change in policy at the State Department so that her passport, and those of countless others, can reflect the undeniable truth, that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.

While we were celebrating the embassy move, just a short distance away, corrupt Hamas leaders were using civilians to advance their agenda of violence, resulting in the tragic and utterly unnecessary loss of life. What will it mean for Israel, how will the international community react and what should Israel do going forward?  What does the future hold?  We cannot know with any sense of confidence.  What we do know, is that to be a son or daughter of Jerusalem is to follow the instruction of Dovid HaMelech, who taught (Tehillim 122:6), “Sha’alu Shlom Yerushalayim, pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”

Let us pray the embassy move is a step in the journey towards a lasting and true peace that will emanate forth from our Holy Capital of Yerushalayim.

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