A momentous event recently took place: the largest gathering of rabbis in Warsaw since World War II.
The Conference of European Rabbis convened in this historic city, bringing together, among others, the chief rabbis of Israel, France and the Ukraine, Rome and Moscow, Austria and Poland; and dayanim (judges) from the Batei Din (rabbinical courts) of London, Paris, Strasbourg, Lyon and Amsterdam. The conference generously invited me from faraway South Africa to deliver a speech and participate in the discussions.
There was one moment in particular during the conference that captured the awe and miracle of Jewish destiny: the mincha prayers in the Nozyk Synagogue, the only synagogue not destroyed by Germans, because they had turned it into a stable. As we began mincha, I looked around the synagogue. Seeing 200 rabbis, representing almost two million Jews in communities across Europe, the words from the Book of Psalms came to mind: “Some come with chariots and some with horses but we call out in the name of Hashem our God. They are brought to their knees and fall, but we rise up and stand firm.”
Who would have thought that in Germany, of all places, a yeshiva to train a new cadre of young German rabbis would be established?
Who would have thought, at the height of Nazi power, when Jews were being murdered in gas chambers and when the Nozyk Synagogue was desecrated, that one day rabbis representing Jewish communities throughout Europe would return with strength and confidence to this very synagogue? Who would have thought that in Germany, of all places, a yeshiva to train a new cadre of young German rabbis would be established? The Third Reich brought horrific destruction; but in the end, it lost the war against the Jews. In defiance of any normal laws of history and human nature, through the awesome miracles of God, the Jewish people have survived.
These are indeed days of “miracle and wonder.” Some 250 years ago, long before these modern miracles, Rav Yaakov Emdin wrote that the miracles performed by God to ensure the survival of the Jewish people throughout the many years of exile are even greater than the awe-inspiring miracles of the Exodus from Egypt – the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea, the manna falling from heaven and the Clouds of Glory. Jewish destiny defies the normal laws of history.
After almost 2,000 years of exile, dispersion and persecution, by any logical and rational assessment, we should not exist as a separate, identifiable people. But God’s plan for us rises above the limitations of the physical world.
At the heart of His plan is His Torah.
The miracle of the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel, which we have been privileged to witness in our time, is a remarkable endorsement of the prescient words of Rav Yaakov Emdin.
Torah is flourishing once more, with the great yeshivas of Europe re-established in Israel, America and all over the world; Ponivezh, Mir and Gur are alive and thriving once again.
Before the conference started, my son and I went to see one of the last remaining walls of the Warsaw Ghetto. As we entered, a group of Israeli soldiers left.
On their lapels was proudly emblazoned the Magen David, now the emblem of the sovereign Jewish state. It struck me how decades ago, when Jews wore the Star of David on their clothing, it was a badge of dishonor, symbolizing their certain death. It has now become a badge of life, strength and pride.
Yet this kind of miraculous rebirth can be intoxicating. It is easy to forget that even now, when we have brave, strong soldiers who can defend the Jewish people, our destiny is in God's hands.
We learn this lesson from King David, one of our greatest military and political leaders, who bravely led and defended the Jewish State. King David was known not only for his political power and military genius but also as a great spiritual leader, learned in Torah and imbued with deep devotion to God, whose faith and connection to God he expressed so eloquently in his Book of Psalms, which contains the verse quoted above.
According to Rashi, these words were composed by King David as a prayer for his soldiers going out to battle under the command of his general, Yoav. Rashi quotes the Talmud (Sanhedrin 49a) which states that the military victory of Yoav and his troops was in the merit of King David’s prayers. Rashi interprets the verse “some come with chariots and some with horses” to mean that some of the nations of the world place their trust in chariots and horses but we rely on Hashem because ultimately all salvation and victory comes from Him. Our Sages teach us that we are not allowed to rely on miracles. Thus, in order to defend Jewish life and the Jewish state, it has been necessary for us to create a powerful army. But King David reminds us that the success of our modern-day chariots and horses – the tanks, fighter jets and missile defense systems – is completely in God’s hands.
King David also reminds us of our destiny.
He of all people knew the great necessity of a strong army, but he also knew that we cannot be defined by it.
We are defined by our moral vision, which God gave to us at Mount Sinai. It is through this Divine mission and destiny that God grants us the power to rise above the normal laws of history. The future of the Jewish people – and indeed of any society – does not depend on chariots and horses alone. Throughout history, many civilizations and empires with mighty armies have come and gone; yet the Jewish people have remained throughout.
Chariots and horses are of this earthly world and therefore transient; our Torah and our Divine destiny are eternal. Physical things, no matter how powerful, eventually, like the human body, turn to dust, whereas God, His Torah and spiritual world are immortal. In the end, those who believe in their chariots and horses “are brought to their knees and fall.”
But we, who believe in God, His Torah, and our eternal destiny, “rise up and stand firm.”