by Rabbi Naphtali Hoff
Ten years ago, in the final months of 2001, terrorist violence wrought tremendous havoc in both the United States and Israel. In this country, our serene realities were burst on a beautiful September morning, the day that would become known for all time as "9/11". On that day, Al-Qaeda operatives turned commercial airlines into tools of mass destruction. Enormous structures collapsed. Thousands lost their lives. Horror and shock gripped the country. The nation's economic and military centers in downtown Manhattan and Washington D.C., respectively, were viciously assaulted by a then- unknown enemy.
Soon thereafter, in Israel, Palestinian terrorist activity took on a different look. Continuous attacks by suicide bombers held the nation in a grip of fear. Hundreds of innocent Jewish civilians were murdered. Thousands of others were injured. Seemingly every newscast brought more tragic news. People hesitated to leave their homes, walk the streets or ride the bus.
I was struck at that time by the significant difference between the responses of these countries' respective leaders to their troubled situations. President George W. Bush, in addressing the nation on the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance on September 14th, three days after the 9/11 attacks, comforted his people by making constant reference to G-d and His ability to protect, heal and comfort.
"On this national day of prayer and remembrance, we ask almighty G-d to watch over our nation, and grant us patience and resolve in all that is to come. We pray that He will comfort and console those who now walk in sorrow. We thank Him for each life we now must mourn, and the promise of a life to come. As we have been assured, neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, can separate us from G-d's love. May He bless the souls of the departed, may He comfort our own, and may He always guide our country. G-d bless America."
In stark contrast, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, speaking to his people on December 3rd, made no reference to G-d as a means of comforting his nation or guaranteeing their survival. Rather, he pointed to a national strength based exclusively on such human traits as character, unity, fortitude, and perseverance.
"Citizens of Israel, we have fought many wars and we have won them all. We bested our enemies and we made peace. We held the sword and we made the wilderness and desert bloom. We built cities, we built industry and we developed agriculture. We turned the State of Israel into an example and a symbol to many countries in the world…There is no other people in the world that would have shown such maturity and resilience … (Our enemies) have already realized that they won't succeed. They have already realized that the people here are stronger and that our spirit of resistance is more steadfast than anything they ever imagined."
A similar attitude was demonstrated decades earlier, following the great Israeli victory during the Six Day War of 1967. All pre-war prognostications had predicted a quick Arab victory. Numerous Arab armies encircled the Jewish state, boasting 465,000 soldiers, 2,800 tanks, and 800 aircraft. So pessimistic was the national outlook that large parks were designated as gravesites for the many that were estimated to perish during the course of the war.
The very fact that Israel survived that war was clearly miraculous. That the Jewish people not merely survived, but won a decisive victory was infinitely more astounding. Indeed, a West Point general is reputed to have remarked that though the United States military academy studies past wars fought throughout the world, they do not study the Six Day War, because what concerns West Point is textbook military strategy and tactics, not miracles.
Yet Israeli leadership did not see it that way. Both then and now, military and political leaders have spoken of the war in terms of military might, courage, and determination, all obvious and central components of the successful campaign. They did not, however, choose to recognize the miracles wrought by G-d on behalf of His people.
"Our airmen struck the enemies' planes so accurately that no one in the world understands how it was done, and people seek technological explanations or secret weapons; our armored troops who beat the enemy even when their equipment was inferior to his; our soldiers in all other branches…who overcame our enemies everywhere, despite the latter's superior numbers and fortifications - all these revealed not only coolness and courage in battle but…an understanding that only their personal stand against the greatest dangers would achieve victory for their country and for their families, and that if victory was not theirs the alternative was annihilation." (Yitzchak Rabin, speaking at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem three weeks after the Six Day War. Quoted by Howard Sachar, A History of Israel, pp. 660, Knopf, 1996)
Yet, despite his nation's own history of military success, President George Bush Sr. openly sought divine protection for his men on January 16, 1991, the day that he declared war against the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
"Tonight, as our forces fight, they and their families are in our prayers. May G-d bless each and every one of them, and the coalition forces at our side in the Gulf, and may He continue to bless our nation, the United States of America."
Why is it that so many leaders in Israel - our Holy Land steeped in religious tradition - have resisted in openly recognizing G-d, while those of the United States have not? I suspect that the answer lies, at least in part, in the tremendous sense of obligation that such recognition places on the Jewish people.
It is relatively simple for a Christian country to evoke the name of G-d in times of tragedy or war. For the Christian, G-d is comforting, and not particularly demanding. Christian theology, as established by the Pauline Doctrine, states that faith is paramount, deeds secondary. Evoking the name of G-d carries minimal obligations and much solace. Salvation comes to those who believe.
For the Jew, G-d expects more, much more. Deeds, more so than faith, form the basis of our religion. For us, G-d is a ubiquitous reality, impacting every aspect of our lives. To evoke G-d's name is to acknowledge His demands for continuous effort and sacrifice, and often, a change in focus and lifestyle.
Since its earliest days, the United States has displayed its unwavering recognition of G-d and His people. In fact, many American colonies were settled by refugees who, in the face of great persecution in Europe, fled their homelands rather than compromise their religious convictions. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, for instance, were established as "plantations of religion". Puritans in New England linked their destiny with that of the Jewish people, identifying with biblical personalities, calling their land "Canaan", and showing great respect for those who were sufficiently erudite to converse in the Holy Tongue and discuss the Hebrew Scriptures.
Consider this, from the nation's first president, George Washington.
"May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants…May the Father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy." (Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, RI, 1790)
So strong would this religious sentiment become that in 1864 the U.S. Treasury began minting coins inscribed with the phrase, "In G-d we trust".
In stark contrast, the State of Israel and its leaders have followed in the path of the "enlightened" Jews of the 19th century. They have attempted to forge an identity as a Jewish state without actively incorporating the religious beliefs and values that have formed the essence of our people for four millennia. In its place they have focused on Hebrew language and Jewish culture, and an identity based on military prowess and perseverance. In secular Israel, a western style democracy, G-d is nowhere to be found, not in the educational system, nor in the political arena, neither in media outlets or even the national anthem.
Of course, this is not the governmental structure as envisioned by the Torah. Judaism presents a theocratic structure, not democratic freedoms. In the Holy Land there is no separation, as it were, of Church and State. Every aspect of Jewish governance involves G-d and His Torah. As such, the Jewish king is more than a political ruler. He is to serve as His Maker's representative in this world, and is charged to shoulder that responsibility continuously. The king was to project a religious value set that would inspire his constituents to behave in a like mannered fashion.
It thus comes as no surprise that both Tanach and Torah SheBaal Peh are replete with statements and judgments about the actions of Jewish kings. The summation that "he did good (or evil) in the eyes of G-d" or that he "has no portion in the world to come" suggests an expectation of our rulers that extends well beyond the political arena.
As long as we follow the Torah we are guaranteed survival. It is the quality of Jewish living that has carried us, not our numerical strength or military prowess. In the words of the Talmud, "The People that is tired out by intensive Torah study will not be delivered into the hands of her oppressor." (Sanhedrin 94b)
It is our responsibility to ensure that G-d not be overlooked, whether in periods of crisis, jubilation, or even our normative existence, so that we can merit the final victory, one in which His presence will reign openly, to be recognized by all. "And the L-rd shall be king over all the earth; on that day G-d shall be one and His name one." (Zechariah 14:9)
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is Head of School at Torah Day School of Atlanta. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.