Bayamim Hahem Bazman Hazeh: Teaching Nevi’im and the State of Israel
For almost two thousand years the words of the prophets served as messages of hope that we would one day return to our homeland. In modern times, having been blessed with a mass return to Zion, we must turn again to the words of the prophets as they instruct us as to the meaning of and practical realities surrounding the Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. We, as educators, must help our students view the prophets (Nevi’im) as a resource for understanding the modern State of Israel. As the only Biblical text dealing with the Jewish people living in their own land and with their own government, the books of the Nevi’im, and those from Joshua through Kings in particular, provide essential lessons related to the governance and maintenance of a successful Jewish presence in the Land of Israel.
The reasons for viewing the modern state through the prism of Nevi’im are twofold: our students, some of whom have trouble relating to Israel as the area identical to the land promised to our forefathers, must understand the intrinsic connection between Biblical events and the modern State of Israel. We have suffered extensively from an inability to articulate to the world and, perhaps, to ourselves the reasons behind and importance of our presence in the Land. In an age where Israel’s right to exist is brought into question, our students must view the modern state as a continuation of the story of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. Viewing the modern state through the Nevi’im also helps our students understand that Tanakh deals with the issues facing modern Israelis, and that in turning to the Biblical text we may formulate a distinctly Jewish approach to matters of state.
For the duration of our exile, the study of many sections of the Nevi’im had to be done in the theoretical. That is, Jews could not identify with the notion of Jewish self-governance, particularly in the Land of Israel. Throughout our long Diaspora, texts from Nevi’im relating to Judaism’s encounter with other nations may have seemed more relevant and engaging as they offered advice on dealing with oppression and methods of approaching the government. With the advent of the State of Israel, however, the lessons inherent in the Nevi’im gained a new level of meaning. The words of the prophets became a guidebook to the values and administration of the Jewish state.
One of the most common issues dealt with implicitly in the Nevi’im is that of Jewish unity, and specifically the role unity plays in the Jewish state. In Joshua and Judges we find two examples of moments where national unity is compromised, and in both the nation as a whole suffers. In Joshua 7, a previously unknown soldier causes the deaths of thirty-six soldiers by taking forbidden spoils from Jericho. Later, in Judges 20, we find an episode that stands in stark contrast. Following the horrific account of the concubine in Gebah, the Israelite tribes unite to punish and nearly annihilate the tribe of Benjamin. Looking at these two stories, our students should consider on the one hand, the power of the individual to sabotage the group and on the other, the consequences when a group unites to pursue a catastrophic goal.
One individual may be able to shake the foundations of a community, but unity for an evil purpose must also be condemned. How do our students deal with the tension between the individual and the community? Does the individual in a Jewish state have an obligation to support its leadership? What sorts of groups do we encounter in modern times that become radicalized and can ultimately lead to ruin? Our students may struggle with the questions, but we must push them to understand that a question may carry greater value than its answer.
Maintaining Jewish unity becomes one of the most pressing issues facing the kings, and indeed Saul’s first victory comes after unifying the nation, albeit through a threat (I Samuel 11). During the reign of David we see very few moments of internal strife, with the notable exceptions of the rebellions of Absalom (II Samuel 15-18) and Sheba ben Bichri (II Samuel 20). Then Solomon’s kingdom falls apart resulting in two separate kingdoms, one of which has been lost for thousands of years.
While the unity of any nation is important for its security, our students must be encouraged to identify specific and distinctly Jewish ideas. To what extent must we go to preserve unity? What sorts of conditions, individual and communal, result in unity or disunity? What methods were used by rulers to secure their positions and their futures? To what extent is Jewish unity forced upon citizens, and what role should they have in determining the direction of the government? Obviously, the modern State of Israel is not a perfect analogue to Biblical times; David ben Yishai and David Ben Gurion demand separate treatments. Still, the narrative of the Nevi’im will shed light on some core principles of a Jewish state.
A Jewish Army
Having a Jewish country necessitates a Jewish army. Our students can reflect on the role of a Jewish army by placing stories from Nevi’im in a modern context. We see several examples of the Israelite army in action, both in victory and defeat. I Samuel alone affords discussion of the role of a defensive army vs. an aggressive force (chapter 14), treatment of civilians (chapter 15), and leaving behind the dead (chapter 31).We can discuss overconfidence in the army’s strength when learning about the Ark being taken in the days of Eli and Samuel (chapter 4).
One of the best examples of such an exercise might be Saul’s ill-fated attack on the city of Nov (I Samuel 22). Saul screams at his soldiers to surround the inhabitants of Nov, a city of kohanim, and annihilate them. When none of his regular soldiers obey, Doeg the Edomite slaughters the kohanim by himself. In this dramatic scene, our students must discuss and think deeply about the role of an army and the obligation to take orders, especially when those orders contradict their conception of morals. It might even be beneficial for students to read articles about the disengagement from Gaza to frame the question.
Now, we must be careful not to push the connection too forcefully, lest our students mistakenly believe the Israel Defense Forces to be analogous to the murderer Doeg, but thinking about the soldiers that witness the massacre at Nov, our students should be challenged to define the role of a Jewish soldier. Learning the text with an IDF veteran could prove a potentially transformative moment for our students, especially if they can ask what the soldier would have done in a similar situation.
We should take this opportunity to point out that by shying away from difficult discussions about either the State of Israel or actions on the part of figures in Nevi’im we are not doing our students any favors. Students must, at all times, feel empowered to express their individual views free from reprimand or ridicule. Analysis of the Biblical text will inevitably lead to challenging differences of opinion between students or between students and their teacher. Our students must understand that the situations we are dealing with, like most situations in life, are not black and white. When discussing issues like the disengagement, we hope to encounter passionate emotions from our students and strongly held positions. Disengagement and similar situations have been painful episodes in Jewish history, and pretending that such situations do not exist does a disservice to our students and to the Jewish people.
Issues Facing Israel
In at least three other areas we must note the importance of learning Nevi’im in our students’ understanding of the State of Israel. Unfortunately, we occasionally deal with scandals on the part of Jewish leaders. The Prophets have no shortage of examples of Jewish leaders doing the wrong thing. Important discussions can be had by contrasting the sins of Saul (I Samuel 13 and 15) and David (II Samuel 11) with an accompanying discussion of why David is allowed to remain king and have a dynasty, while Saul is deposed. Adding to the question, Solomon also makes mistakes and pays the consequence (I Kings 11), but he continues the Davidic dynasty, albeit with only two tribes. Students must look at the text’s approach to different mistakes made by Jewish leaders. How are those mistakes dealt with? Are the consequences meted out by God or man? What fallout does a nation experience when its leader strays?
These questions will inevitably lead to a discussion of leadership and what makes a good Jewish leader in particular. The Prophets present us with several examples of both positive and negative leadership. Should a leader bend to the will of his or her constituents like Saul? Should a leader openly defy the population, challenging them to rebel (I Kings 12)? In contrasting Ahab (I Kings 16-22) and Josiah (II Kings 22-23), we may ask whether leaders are responsible solely for ensuring social stability, or do they have a role to play in the moral sphere? Our students must grapple with these challenging issues, particularly as they relate to the State of Israel. As the only Biblical example, and one of the few examples overall, of Jewish leaders attempting to navigate the complexities of governmental administration while simultaneously providing vision and direction, the characters in Nevi’im are uniquely capable of guiding us as we reflect upon our expectations for Israeli leaders.
Viewing the current state of Israeli affairs, the seemingly constant conflict with Israel’s neighbors claims the bulk of our attention. In this area as well the Nevi’im can inform our opinions. As an example, an interesting story in I Kings 20 recounts the seemingly high odds stacked against King Ahab in his war with Ben Haddad and the nation of Aram. When Ahab defeats Ben Haddad and rather than treating him as a captive almost grovels that they be “brothers” again, Ahab is taken to task by a prophet and punished for his mercy. A compelling discussion must take place about the role of a conquering nation and the balance between dominance and benevolence. Even more tantalizing is the fact that territorial negotiations are a key part to the dispute that brings about war. The process of our students distilling the messages about dealing with those that would attack us will necessarily bring about a greater understanding of the current political climate in Israel, but should also be helping our students build a political viewpoint based on our classic sources.
One caveat: many of these issues raise understandably passionate emotions on the part of teachers. As educators, we must focus on our students developing their own passionate feelings regarding the important issues facing the State of Israel. As a result, the teacher must avoid, as much as possible, inserting their opinions into the discussion. Our students must understand that we should not approach the Nevi’im simply as a prooftext for our individual political philosophies, but rather as a guide in developing those philosophies. Different schools will, of course, have different “party lines,” but the only way we can effectively educate our students to be the possessors of strongly held and well informed opinions is to force them to formulate and defend their positions. This very difficult road must be navigated by educators if we are to succeed in our great task. ♦
Here are examples of ways to bring texts from Nevi’im into discussion with contemporary events in Israel.
Text: I Samuel 3
Contemporary situation: The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. Read articles from the time in order to convey the full perspective to students.
Discussion: How do Joab’s actions affect the kingdom? What would Joab argue gave him the right to kill Abner, and how does that reasoning compare to the rationale given by Yigal Amir? Abner and PM Rabin were both involved in peace processes. What effect do both assassinations have on their respective peace processes? David clearly takes some of the responsibility for Abner’s murder on himself. To what extent were contemporary Israelis responsible for Rabin’s assassination? As a closing, the teacher should consider reading Rabbi Yehuda Amital’s speech following the assassination, available at http://www.vbm-torah.org/alei/4-02rabin1.rtf.
Text: I Samuel 13, 15; II Samuel 15-16
Contemporary situation: The disgrace and downfall of President Moshe Katzav
Discussion: What happens when a leader makes a mistake? Is there a difference between personal mistakes and national errors? What traits should be viewed as a fatal leadership flaw versus a personal flaw? How has the prevalence of international media changed the way we view leadership? What was the fallout from individual leaders’ mistakes?
Text: I Samuel 31, David’s response in II Samuel 2
Contemporary situation: The Israeli MIA movement and Gilad Shalit’s captivity
Discussion: What is the Jewish position on redeeming captives or recovering their remains? Why specifically did the people of Jabesh Gilad recover the bodies of Saul and his sons (see I Sam 11)? Is there an analogue in their reasons that may apply to the State of Israel? What does David’s response to the people of Jabesh Gilad show about the importance of retrieving the dead? We may couple our learning with acts of kindness to Israeli soldiers and/or support for the families of the missing.
Text: Joshua 6-9; Judges 3-7; I Samuel 4, 8, 13-15, 17; II Samuel 5, 8-10; I Kings 3, 10-11, 20-21
Contemporary situation: Israel’s complex relationship with its neighbors
Discussion: Was the Israelite army one of aggression or defense? Was that position a constant or did it change over time? What conditions were necessary for the Israelites to be at peace? Were internal conditions more important than external? We can focus on issues like regime change in Egypt or other countries and compare them to II Sam 10 where David initiates peaceful overtures.
Rabbi Jeffrey Schrager teaches middle school Judaic studies at the Akiba Academy of Dallas. He can be contacted at email@example.com.