Missed Opportunities

And I will remember the covenant with the first ones – whom I took forth from the Land of Egypt before the eyes of all the nations – to be to them the L-rd. I am Hashem. (Sefer VaYikra 26:45)

I. The State of Israel and redemption

On Shabbat and Yamim Tovim – festivals – many congregations recite the Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel. The prayer was added to the service in 1948 at the direction of the Chief Rabbis of the State of Israel – Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel and Rabbi Yitzchak HaLevi Herzog. The prayer describes the state as "the first manifestation of the approach of our redemption". The phrase describes the State of Israel as the initiation or harbinger of the Messianic era. This does not mean that with the establishment of the State, the era has arrived. It means that its establishment and existence is a concrete step toward the advent of the final redemption. 

In some congregations, the text of the prayer is altered. The above phrase, describing the State as the beginning of our redemption is replaced with a petition. The revised texts petitions Hashem to render the State of Israel into the beginning of our redemption. 

The reasoning behind this change is that it is not appropriate for us to assert that the creation of the State of Israel is a harbinger of redemption. We cannot know how Hashem’s plan will unfold. We can only pray that we are approaching the Messianic era.

In your suffering and when all these things occur to you, at the end of days, you will return to Hashem your L-rd. And you will hearken to His voice. (Sefer Devarim 4:30)

They will then confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers, their betrayal that they dealt Me, and that they also treated Me as happenstance. (Sefer VaYikra 26:40)

II. Two accounts of exile and redemption

Let us consider this issue more fully. Ramban – Nachmanides – explains that the Torah provides descriptions of two exiles. The first description is in our parasha. This is the Babylonian exile. The description ends with a promise of redemption. The second exile is in Sefer Devarim. It describes the exile that followed the destruction of the second Bait HaMikdash – Sacred Temple. 

In these two narratives, redemption is precipitated by different events. The above passage from Sefer Devarim explains that redemption will be brought about through sincere repentance and acceptance of Hashem’s commandments. 

In our parasha, the redemption is not preceded by thorough repentance.  Instead, the redemption is brought about through confession – the generation’s acknowledgment of its sins and the sins of its ancestors. This prophecy accurately describes the generation that returned to the Land of Israel from the Babylonian exile. That generation and its descendants did not engage in meaningful repentance. Confession of sin did not develop into a program of comprehensive tesheuvah – repentance. As a consequence, the nation's glory was not fully restored and the second Bait HaMikdash did not feature the manifest demonstrations of the Divine influence that existed in the first. In the first Bait HaMikdash, fire descended from heaven to consume the sacrifices. A cloud associated with the Divine influence hovered over the Ark. There was no fire or cloud in the second Temple. The Ark containing the Luchot – the Tablets of the Decalogue – and the Sefer Torah recorded by Moshe was hidden during the end of the first Temple period. It was not restored to the second Bait HaMikdash.[1] 

III. Achieving redemption – two models

Each of these types of redemption is described by Rambam – Maimonides. In the opening chapter of his Laws of Fasts, he explains that when we are threatened by disaster or are in distress we should cry out to Hashem. We must recognize that our troubles are punishment for our sins. Rambam describes this acknowledgment as the path of tesheuvah.[2] It is the beginning of the journey along the path of repentance, but it is not actual repentance. Rambam further explains that the Torah assures us that if we take this step, we will be delivered. The redemption from the Babylonian exile provides an example of this process. The people acknowledge their sins and their confession of sin brought about their redemption from exile. However, they did not complete their journey along the path to authentic repentance. The consequence was that their restoration was incomplete.

Rambam also describes our current exile and our eventual redemption. He explains that our final deliverance and the Messianic era will be brought about only through sincere repentance.[3]

Why are there different means of bringing about redemption? Why were we redeemed from the Babylonian exile without complete, sincere repentance? Why will our current exile only end when we repent? Why can we not end it by simply confessing our sins?

IV. Two types of exile

The answer is that the current exile and the Babylonian exile are very different phenomena. The Babylonian exile was not complete exile. It was a warning. It was not intended to extend over multiple generations. It was intended to awaken the nation from its complacency. It demonstrated to them that they could not take for granted their possession of the land or even the Bait HaMikdash.  Hashem would allow His abode to be destroyed.  When the nation hearkened to the warning, it was redeemed. It was given a second chance. The second exile – our current exile – is not a warning. It is a true exile. It does not have a determined duration and its termination will be brought about only through our repentance.  

V. The moment of redemption is not predetermined

This view has an important implication. Our Sages judged King Chizkiyahu worthy of being the Messiah. He did not achieve this role because his generation was not worthy.[4] In the view of the Sages, even before the destruction of the first Bait HaMikdash and the first exile, the opportunity arose for the advent of the Messianic era. We failed to avail ourselves of this moment and it passed. Instead, destruction and exile ensued. 

This dynamic is reflected in a comment attributed to Rav Yisroel Meir HaKohen – Chafetz Chaim. At the issuance of the Balfour Declaration, he remarked that this may be the onset of the final redemption. But he added that we have been at the beginning of redemption many times before but failed to seize the opportunity to bring about our deliverance.[5] His meaning is that the moment of redemption is not predetermined. Opportunities have arisen throughout our history. We have failed to cease them through our repentance.

VI. An opportunity and our challenge

Now, let us return to our initial question. Is it correct to refer to the State of Israel as the beginning of our redemption? The above discussion suggests that this is a completely appropriate statement. It is a beginning. However, this beginning can develop into a full redemption and the arrival of the Messianic era or it can be another false start. This depends upon us and whether we respond to this opportunity through repentance and renewal of our commitment to the Torah and devotion to Hashem. It is appropriate to also petition Hashem to help us repent and take full advantage of the opportunity we have been granted. 

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 26:16.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Ta’aniyot 1:1-2.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tesheuvah 7:5.

[4] Mesechet Sanhedrin 94a. 

[5] Rav Shmuel Greineman, ed., Chafetz Chaim al HaTorah, Ma’asai LaMelech notes p 101.