“And the light of Israel shall be for a fire, and his Holy One for a flame; and it shall burn and devour his thorns and his briers in one day.”
“‘The Light of Israel’ — the Torah in which Hezekiah is engaged [in study] will be for a fire for Sennacherib.”
This chapter of Isaiah concerns the conquest of the Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrian Empire under King Sennacherib (Heb. ‘Sancheriv’). The prophet foretells that while the Tribes of Israel will be vanquished and carried away into exile, the Kingdom of Judah, comprised of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, under the leadership of King Hezekiah, are to survive, protected by a miracle.
What is that miracle? The fire and flame produced by “the light of Israel and his Holy One.” And what is that light? “The Torah in which Hezekiah is engaged [in study].”
According to the prophet Isaiah (as understood by Rashi), the merit by which Israel is protected during times of siege from its foes is the merit of Torah study.
Ironically, as Israel’s very existence once again stands threatened by its formidable rival to the east, Iran, with its development of nuclear weapons capability, the very issue of the stability of the core (or corps) of Torah learners has become threatened from within Israel’s own ranks. Much heated debate and division prevails now as forces within the Israeli legislature move to suspend the laws that since the founding of the state have protected the Jew’s right to defer military service in favor of full-time Torah study. This “status quo” has been attacked by left-wing elements for decades as promoting a system whereby the religious community “leeches” off the state while not paying for their privileges with military service. However, this view is not only one-sided, but shortsighted.
During my years of study in yeshiva in Israel, the Rosh Yeshiva (dean of the yeshiva) made a point of explaining that our responsibility to learn Torah is not merely to ourselves or our community, but to the entire nation of Israel. Our learning, he told us, granted the Jewish people the merit to continued Divine favor despite constant existential threat. His words were but an echo of Isaiah’s above sentiment.
Occasionally, the Israeli government would send “inspectors” to the yeshiva to meet and make an account of each individual student to make sure the yeshiva had not fabricated the names on their roster to garner larger financial benefits from the government. On these days we would usually be interrupted from our studies to wait on a long line outside the office until our turn to come in and present our IDs to the inspecting officer.
The Rosh Yeshiva related that on one of these occasions, the inspector asked him, “You religious folk choose not to serve in the Israeli army. You do not support your country. You are not true Zionists! Why then do you take money from our government?”
The Rosh Yeshiva replied, “On the contrary, we are the staunchest Zionists in all the land!”
“How so?” asked the inspector, puzzled.
“If we were to refuse this money from the government, we would be preventing the state from accruing the immeasurable merit of supporting Torah study. It is this merit that grants the State of Israel its strongest warrant for Divine protection. So you see, sir, by allowing ourselves to be the benefactors of government funds, we offer the state the strongest support possible. We are the true Zionists!”
If only these wise words would be heard and understood by the powers governing the modern Jewish State. If only our political leaders would be wise enough to learn the lessons of our glorious history, recorded by our prophets not for the purpose of textbook study but to be implemented as our ethical compass for all generations.
May the Jewish people become wise to these lessons, and embrace the community of Torah learners as “the light of Israel,” the greatest contributors to Jewish survival, and the true illuminators of Jewish destiny.
(Also see this post.)
(Check out this current news item on the topic.)