In the days when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, on the first night of Pesach we ate the Pesach sacrifice together with matzah, the bread of affliction, and marror (bitter herbs). The conjunction of the Pesach sacrifice, symbol of G-d’s saving hand, with the symbols of our affliction reminded us that without G-d’s help we would still slaves.
On the second day of Pesach, the special barley offering (the Omer offering) was brought in the Temple to mark the beginning of the reaping of the new grain. With that celebration of the abundance of the Land commenced the counting of 49 days until the giving of the Torah on Shavuos.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the greatest figure of 19th century German Jewry describes the significance of that counting: "When Israel has already reached the goal of national endeavor, when it already has freedom and independence, land and soil, . . . at the stage where others cease to count, there Israel first begins to count. . . . And it goes on counting up to that day when it celebrates that gift for the sake of which it received freedom and independence."
The message to the Jewish people was clear: for the sake of the Torah do we possess Land and independence; without the Torah we will lose them. Throughout the millennia of Exile, as we continued to count by rabbinic decree the 49 days from when the sickle was first put to the crops, we were bitterly reminded of the Land we had lost. But we were also reminded why we had lost the land: Because we worshipped "the gods of the earth" – the Land and political independence – as ends in themselves and not as gifts for the sake of the Torah.
"Judah was sent into Galuth because it prized Land and soil as the bulwark of its freedom and belittled the Torah," writes Rabbi Hirsch. "The Exile cannot, therefore end with the same delusion."
Those words should send a shiver down the spine of all those concerned about the security of the Jews of Israel today. For Israel’s leaders have embarked on a course designed to de-Judaize the country, as well as cut off its connection with Diaspora Jewry.
Two weeks ago, Justice Minister Tommy Lapid proudly boasted of how his Shinui Party colleague, Interior Minister Avraham Poraz, refused to enforce the laws banning stores from selling bread this past Pesach. "Bread, not matzah, is the symbol of our freedom this year," Lapid proclaimed. Pesach in the Jewish state, according to Lapid, now celebrates freedom from G-d, not freedom to serve Him.
What attracts Jews to Israel is the feeling that somehow life in Israel is more Jewish. The fact that the Israeli public square is filled with Jewish symbols is part of that feeling. Even the most secularized American Jew will not draw one iota closer to an Israel in which the public sale of bread on Pesach is cause for rejoicing. If he wants to be surrounded on Pesach by people eating bread, he can have all the bread eaters that he wants right at home.
Even more disturbing that Lapid’s remark was Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s May 9 interview with the Jerusalem Post, in which he revealed that he excluded religious parties from his government because he did not want any questions asked about the religious identity of new immigrants.
The 600,000 non-Jews brought to Israel in the ‘90s, even with the chareidi parties in the government, did not satisfy him. He would like to bring one million more non-Jewish immigrants. Apparently the Prime Minister sees no contradiction between the proliferation of churches, soldiers demanding to be sworn in on the New Testament, neo-Nazi websites (in Russian), and classic anti-Semitic tracts being sold in the largest Russian-language bookstores and the interests of the "Jewish state."
As far as Sharon is concerned, anyone prepared to live in Israel and bear arms in her defense is a Jew. He would turn Israel into a mercenary state offering citizenship to all who will bear arms on her behalf.
Sharon views Judaism as synonymous with Israeliness, and Israeliness, in turn, as synonymous with army service. This definition excludes all Diaspora Jewry. On what basis can Israel call upon the support of Jews abroad if its citizens increasingly identify themselves as Israeli and not as Jews?
Were Sharon’s vision of a million new immigrants coming to Israel unhampered by interfering rabbis realized, Israel would become a land of strangers to Diaspora Jewry. What binds Jews, religious and non-religious, to one another is the awareness of a common history. Each one of us is the product of an unbroken chain of ancestors who in every period and every place made the same choice: to remain faithful to their G-d. That choice entailed eschewing all the carrots held out to them, as the most literate members of almost every society in which they dwelled, on the one hand, and ignoring the stick of pograms and forced expulsions constantly held over their head, on the other.
The million newcomers Sharon seeks are the bearers of no such history, and a land full of them would cease to exert any pull on Diaspora Jews.
As the counting of the Omer and our preparations for the receipt of Torah draw to a close, we would do to well to recall Hirsch’s warning that the Land itself cannot guarantee our security, indeed that without a connection to the Torah the Land itself will be lost.