Blast From the Past
In this “Fragments” column from the April 4, 1920 edition of HaMizrachi, Rav Yitzchak Nissenbaum calls upon the Jewish people to “know their own souls” – to reject the humanistic ideals of Western civilization and proudly embrace the uniqueness of the Torah and the Jewish people, G-d’s chosen nation.
Over 100 years later, Rav Nissenbaum’s call for Jewish particularism and pride remains as powerful and compelling as ever, evoking the spirit of Mattityahu and the Chashmonaim. We are not, ultimately, “Greeks”, “Americans” or “Argentinians”, no matter how badly we hope to fit into our host societies. We are Jews, and whether we live in Israel or in the Diaspora, our primary responsibility is to strengthen and support the Jewish people. We are G-d’s holy princes – and we must not be ashamed to say it!
“If in the hearts of our people there flows the warm blood of the Chashmonaim… all of our strength will be sanctified in order to fulfill the great goal of our people – the goal of Zionism!” (Rav Yitzchak Nissenbaum, Derushim v’chomer L’Drush, Derush Rishon, 1902).
לֹא יָדַעְתִּי נַפְשִׁי שָׂמַתְנִי מַרְכְּבוֹת עַמִּי נָדִיב
“I did not know my own soul; I have placed foreign chariots over the princes of my people.”
(Shir HaShirim 6:12)
The greatest disaster that exile has brought upon the people of Israel is this: that we have become a people that does not know its own soul…
The people of Israel are compared to a walnut: “Even though it is filthy and covered with dirt and excrement, that which is inside the nut remains unsoiled” (Chagigah 15b). But the nation has forgotten what lies within it and believes that it is only a shell that has fallen into the filth of exile, and so it has become disgusting in its own eyes.
The people of Israel are compared to a walnut: “If you cover its roots at the moment of planting, it will not thrive.” And “just as a walnut cannot be stolen by customs thieves, for the matter will be heard and known, so too the people of Israel: wherever a Jew goes, he cannot say that he is not Jewish, for he is recognized, as it is written, ‘all that see them shall recognize them, that they are the seed which Hashem has blessed’” (Yishayahu 61:9, Shir HaShirim Rabbah 6:11). But the people of Israel in their exile have begun to “cover” their young children, concealing from these tender seedlings their ancient roots in order to obscure the unique spirit of Israel, so that their unique Hebrew voice should not be heard and others should not recognize them as the blessed seed of Hashem.
The people of Israel are compared to a walnut: “Just as with walnuts, if you take one walnut from a heap, all of the other walnuts fall down and roll after one another, so too if one Jew is stricken, all of them feel pain” (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 6:11). But today, [many Jews] make great efforts to suppress and hide their national feeling from the eyes of the nations. Not only our “tough walnut Jews”, whom even if you break them into small pieces you will find little that is edible inside (and “do not give charity to their brothers even if they are asked”); and not only our “average walnuts”, whom if you break them open you will find edible food inside (and “give charity when they are asked”); but even the “soft walnuts” among us, those who “give charity on their own initiative”, wear a disguise of humanism upon their faces, so nobody should suspect them of harboring any special feelings for their Jewish brothers and their Jewish roots.
They do not “support the poor gentiles together with the poor of Israel because of the ways of peace (דַּרְכֵי שָׁלוֹם)” (Gittin 61a), according to the laws of the Jewish nation, but rather support the poor of Israel together with the poor gentiles because of their “humanistic” ideals.
All this is because “I did not know my own soul” in exile, and have made the “princes of my people” into chariots for strangers.
The first step of redemption is this: a nation that knows its own soul, that recognizes what is within it and appreciates its abilities and uniqueness. The shell that fell into the filth of exile must be scrubbed clean until it is once again made beautiful. It must reveal its ancient roots to its children, its tender seedlings, so that they will grow strong and become “the seed which Hashem has blessed” (Yishayahu 61:9).
However, before anything else, the nation must recognize and admit that it does not know its own soul. Only then will it begin to learn and to know itself!
“When the people of Israel were in Egypt, enslaved in mud and bricks, they were abominable in the eyes of the Egyptians. But when they became free men and were redeemed, they became leaders of all mankind, and all the nations were astonished. And the people of Israel said to them: just as you are amazed by us, so are we astonished by ourselves – ‘I did not know my own soul!’” (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 4:12).
In future times, “the congregation of Israel will say to the nations of the world: ‘Rejoice not against me, my enemy; though I have fallen, I shall arise’” (Micha 7:8). “I was sitting in darkness” – and so I fell, but “when G-d brought me out to light” – I arose! When I sat in darkness, “I did not know my own soul” and so I fell, but when I leave the darkness for the light, the knowledge of my soul will return – and I will arise!
• Translated by Rabbi Elie Mischel.