May 2, 2022
Sondra Oster Baras
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22). When I recited this verse in my prayers, it suddenly hit me. That is what Israel is all about. The Jewish people were reviled, persecuted or at best ignored for centuries. We were just like that worthless piece of stone that even the builders could find no use for. And yet, somehow, we are not only useful, of value, but we have prime value — the chief cornerstone that the entire building depends on.
That is how I felt when I learned a few weeks ago that our prime minister, Naftali Bennett, was called upon to try and mediate a cease-fire between Russia and Ukraine. It was an impossible mission and I don’t believe anyone really believed he would succeed. But the very fact that the prime minister of one of the tiniest countries in the world was asked by the major superpowers to try, was an amazing miracle.
Last week, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, we dedicated an entire day to reading, watching, and listening to testimony about the Holocaust. The few survivors who are still with us, continue to tell their stories and taped testimony reminds us of the stories of those who are no longer alive to tell the tales themselves. And we each have stories of our own to tell, of parents, grandparents, neighbors, and teachers. We grew up knowing that Jews have been persecuted and reviled worldwide, not just during the Holocaust. For centuries, anti-Semitism flourished, especially in Europe but not only there. Nearly every country where Jews lived, persecuted the Jews in their midst at some point in history.
We were a downtrodden people who refused to submit to the role the nations tried to force upon us. We remained proud of our heritage and loyal to the word of God. We retained our identity but learned to survive in very hostile environments. This was Jewish life in most countries of the world for centuries.
When I was young, we understood the miracle that was Israel as the very existence of a Jewish state. Finally, there was a place where Jews could live and feel safe from persecution. We understood well why Jews would want to come to Israel. It was home. It was a place where we could be ourselves. But it never occurred to us that it would be a place that would be attractive to non-Jews. Where non-Jewish refugees from Africa or other troubled spots of the world would seek asylum.
Who would have believed that Israel would become a county that is one of the leading technology giants in the world, second only to the United States? Who would have believed that Israel would develop inventions in agriculture, medicine, and food technology that help poor countries and save lives all over the world? Who would have believed that Israel would become a world leader in defense equipment and intelligence gathering, whose military professionals would be sought out all over the world for advice and assistance?
Today Israel is a country of more than 9 million citizens. There are more than 7 million Jews in Israel, making Israel the home of the largest Jewish community in the world. The US is home to somewhere between five and six million Jews. Approximately half a million Israelis are related to Jews but are not themselves considered Jews. The remaining 2 million citizens are Arabs, mostly Muslim but including a Christian minority.
Jewish children study the Bible in Israeli public schools. The Festivals of the Lord, as listed in Leviticus 23, are celebrated as legal holidays in Israel. Hebrew is the official language, the same language of the Bible, the same language G-d used when He spoke to the Biblical prophets.
Israeli children dance and sing to Hebrew music. Young adults go to clubs that play Hebrew rock music. The Kotel, the original Western Wall of the Temple Mount, dating back to King Herod and the Second Temple period, is the most visited site in Israel. Millions flock to this holy place to pray each year.
Archaeologists are uncovering evidence of ancient Israel every day. A small bell that adorned the garments of the High Priest serving in the Second Temple was found along an ancient walkway that linked the Gihon Spring with the Temple 2,000 years ago. A stone tablet was recently uncovered on Mt. Ebal that includes an inscription in ancient Hebrew referring to the curses and blessings that took place in that area when the Children of Israel entered the Land under Joshua.
In 1867, Mark Twain traveled to the Holy Land and recorded his impressions in a book he entitled Innocents Abroad. He had this to say about the Land of Israel: “Palestine is desolate and unlovely. And why should it be otherwise? Can the curse of the Deity beautify a land? Palestine is no more of this work-day world. It is sacred to poetry and tradition – it is dream-land.” He found a land that was desolate, scarcely populated, ridden with poverty. The few Arab dwellers did nothing to develop the land. He noted the words of Zachariah describing the curse that would befall the land and understood that the curse had indeed come to be. What would Mark Twain have said if he could have visited Israel today?
When Theodore Herzl first conceived of modern political Zionism he encouraged his followers with these words: “If you will it, it is no dream.” Mark Twain dismissed the Land of Israel as a place that was “dream-land” a place that belonged in the Bible, not in real life. But Herzl understood and believed that the Jewish people could be restored as a free nation in the Land of Israel. That this idea was not a dream but something to work for and strive for in real life.
Today, more than 120 years after the Zionist movement began, more than 150 years after Mark Twain visited the Land, and some 4,000 years after Abraham was first promised the Land, the State of Israel is the home of the Jewish people. It is a tiny country that in just 74 years of independence has witnessed miracles beyond anything anyone could have imagined. We are living a miracle here in the Land of Israel. Happy Independence Day Israel!