For me, these intermediate days between Yom Ha’atzmaut, celebrating Israel’s independence, and Yom Yerushalayim, celebrating the reunification of Jerusalem, is a time of great joy tempered with guilt. On a national level, I share in these momentous events, perhaps the greatest miracles to happen to our people in 2,000 years. On a personal level, I feel guilty that I am celebrating here in New Jersey and not with my brothers and sisters in the State of Israel.
I feel like Rav Yehuda Halevi; my heart is in the east although I am in the end of the west.
After a joyous Yom Ha’atzmaut Hallel in my yeshiva, one of my students asked me a question whose answer I believe sheds light on this dilemma. He asked why when we give thanks to God, singing “Hodu L’Hashem Ki Tov” in Tehillim Chapter 118, we call out to Israel, the House of Aaron and those who fear the Lord, but we don’t call out to the House of Levi. Israel, the House of Aaron and those who fear the Lord appear without a mention of the Levites not only here but twice previously in Hallel. The absence of the House of Levi becomes even more glaring in comparison to a parallel text in Tehillim Chapter 134, known as the “Great Hallel,” as opposed to the Hallel celebrating our redemption, which is called the “Egyptian Hallel.” In Tehillim Chapter 134, the House of Levi is included together with Israel, the house of Aaron and those who fear the Lord.
Rashi attempts to address this issue in Chapter 118, identifying those who fear the Lord as the Levites. However, Rashi earlier in Hallel interprets those who fear the Lord as a reference to righteous converts, and others identify this group as the righteous from the nations of the world. Even according to Rashi on Tehillim Chapter 118, the fundamental question remains. Why are only Israel and the House of Aaron mentioned by name when the House of Levi is at best alluded to, while in Tehillim Chapter 134 the House of Levi is mentioned together with the House of Aaron?
When I presented this question to my Tanach class, one student immediately answered that the House of Levi is not mentioned in Hallel because they didn’t return.
Let me explain…
In Tanach this year we are studying the time period known as the Shivat Tzion, the return to Zion during the time of Cyrus and later Persian kings in the beginning of the second Jewish commonwealth in Judea. We are learning the books of Ezra and Nechemiah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, and Megillat Esther so the students receive many different perspectives from the Prophets and Writings about these events.
In learning about the first aliyah in Ezra Chapter 2 and Nechemiah Chapter 7, we carefully numbered all those who returned from Babylonia to Judea. The total was a paltry 42,360 Jews who made the trek from Babylonia, with 4,289 of them being members of the priestly clan of Aaron, and only 341 Levites, an obscenely low number considering that the Levites should number at least 10-20 percent of the Jewish population.
Later, during the second aliyah in Ezra Chapter 8, Ezra cannot find any Levites in his encampment in Babylonia, requiring him to send messengers to Casaphia to enlist Levites to come and serve as attendants in the Temple.
Rashi on Kiddushin 69b asserts that the able-bodied Levites as a group did not make aliyah to Judea with Ezra because they were living in tranquility in Babylonia and did not want to suffer the economic deprivation and physical insecurity they would assuredly experience in the unsettled and dangerous Judea.
My student posited that since the overwhelming majority of the Levites did not return to establish the second commonwealth, they were stricken from any mention in the Hallel sung in the Temple in celebration of this second redemption.
The Kuzari similarly bemoans the Jews in Babylon who chose not to return to participate in the building of the Second Temple.
It [not returning] is the sin that kept the divine promise with regard to the second Temple, viz.: Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion’ (Zechariah 2:10), from being fulfilled. Divine Providence was ready to restore everything as it had been at first, if they had all willingly consented to return. But only a part was ready to do so, whilst the majority and the aristocracy remained in Babylon, preferring dependence and slavery, and unwilling to leave their houses and their affairs…
While some Jews returned with Ezra to Judea, these were mostly the poor and often the more assimilated. Intermarriage was rampant in Judea. The leadership and aristocracy represented most significantly by the Levites chose not to return, preferring to live in economic prosperity in Babylonia, with their strong shuls and schools, rather than build a new life in the holy land. Perhaps this is why the Levites are not mentioned in Hallel. Their absence is noted and glaring.
So what about us? I include myself because I, unlike many of my friends from yeshiva who made aliyah, continue to live outside Israel. Many of us have valid reasons for the life we have chosen, myself included, but as an American Jew I still feel like an outsider peering into the Jewish destiny, not an active participant.
I remember when I was learning after high school in Yeshivat Sha’alvim during the Gulf War. Before the fateful date on January 15, 1991, when President Bush announced the fighting would begin, my parents had come to visit me over Chanukah break. They told me that I was a mature adult now, all of 18 years old, free to make my own decision on whether to stay in Israel or go. Then the missiles started. After a night in a sealed room with a gas mask convinced that the terror was just outside my door, I called my parents to tell them that I was all right. My mother cried on the phone for me to come home. My response, with all the bravery of an 18-year-old who thinks he knows it all, “But, Mom, I am home!” I never did return to the U.S. during the war. During those formative weeks I was an active participant with the Jewish people in the Jewish destiny while my friends and family in America watched the war on CNN.
Now I am the one watching. Aren’t all of us American Jews?
I don’t want to end on a down note, so here is one practical suggestion based on one of my roles in my school. I am proud to serve as the faculty adviser for our livestreaming network.
In one unforgettable playoff game, our school’s team was playing a strong opponent in a hard-fought matchup that came down to a tie game with 0.7 seconds left. Our team inbounded the ball and one of our stars made the game winning shot at the buzzer.
This was not the most memorable part of this most notable finish for me. After the shot, dozens of fans from the opposing team crowded around my table as we watched the replay of the buzzer beater over and over and over again in super-slow motion, confirming that the clock started the moment our player touched the ball and the shot was already in the air with 0.3 seconds left. The play was perfect, my student camera crew had the perfect angle, the student announcers made the perfect call and the video featured the actual game clock in the lower left-hand corner.
I believe this can be a metaphor for the experience of American Jews devoted to our brethren in the Land of Israel but still (for the time being) living elsewhere. We will never be “players” living outside Israel, but we can be more than just casual fans; we can seek to become “broadcasters” actively participating in the experience taking place on the “court.” We can do this in a myriad of ways: by visiting Israel, sending our children to learn in Israel, encouraging others to move to Israel, supporting Israel with our time by advocating politically with our representatives in Washington. and financially by supporting Israel’s various institutions. These are all noble causes where perhaps we can “make a difference in the game.”
At the same time, we must never forget where our destiny and that of the entire Jewish people lies. Our future remains in Israel. My heart, and the heart of all Jews, remains forever in the east.
By Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky