Israel's Underlying Problem

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

Zoom gali, gali, gali, zoom gali gali -, hechalutz l’maan avodah, avodah l’maan hechalutz. Remember this simple joyful song of the early pioneers of Israel sung as they marched out to the fields to begin a new day of working the earth? What did it really mean?

I believe this song embodies the very essence of the founders of the State of Israel – individuals who were on a “sacred” mission although I'm sure they would never have used this term. It is important for us to consider the three words of this song to truly understand them.

Hachalutz- the pioneer, l’maan- is for, avodah- work and vice versa. The key to understanding this phrase is the word avodah. Hebrew provides two words to describe work – m’lachah and avodah. M’lachah describes a work that is external, separate and distinct from the worker. Avodah describes a work that is internal, an actual component of the worker.

The most obvious individual whose work constituted avodah was Moses whom we are told, while having many names, his most prized name was, eved (sharing the same three letter root avd with avodah) the servant of G‑d. Just as a servant, he was an instrument for G‑d’s message to humankind. Avodah, his work in delivering that message was the essence of his very being. He had no other desires, no other interests, but to serve as a conduit for G‑d.

Malacha on the other hand, describes work that is external to the worker. Coming from the same Hebrew three letter root as Malach, angel, lach, it denotes work that is not the essence of the person. For as we know angeIs, while serving as messengers of G‑d, appear to have had their own will. The famous Midrash recounted at Shavuos, in which the angels complained when learning of G‑d’s decision to give the Torah, G‑d’s precious gift, to mankind rather than the angelic host, demonstrates this reality. M’lachah then expresses the concept of working as something separate and distinct from the worker himself.

The Chalutzim in their use of the word avodah as opposed to M’lacahah were expressing their sense that their very being was to serve as the workers who brought new life to the land of Israel and that very work done by them was essential to the land itself. This was their “calling” in life.

It is no wonder then that the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Kook, had a special affection for these otherwise nonreligious or in some instances,anti-religious folk. They shared a sense that the relationship of the people of Israel with the land of Israel was much more than developing an ancient homeland. The land was the essence of the people and the people was the essence of the land. Although Rabbi Kook understood this bond as representing the Kedushat HaAretz, the holiness of the land as a gift from G‑d to the Jewish people and the Chalutzim understood it as a nationalism bordering on the metaphysical, avodah as opposed to m’lachah, there was a sense that both the Rabbi and the pioneers shared something unique in their attachment to that rather small territory in the Middle East we call Israel.

That pioneering spirit, that sense that the land and the individual had an inextricable bond that represented the fulfillment of both, is no longer present in Israel. Many movies have already been made “eulogizing” the traditional kibbutz as part of the history of Israel. The work of the average Israeli today is no longer avodah, it is m’lachah. And while Israelis are quite patriotic and noble in their readiness to lay down their lives on behalf of their nation, the connection between the Jew and the land, is far different than it was for the Chalutz. The notable exception is of course as former prime minister of Israel, General Sharon noted, is the settler, who he termed the latter-day Chalutz.

Lacking the idealistic spirit of the Kibbutznik of old, the certainty that every grain of soil in Israel is unquestionably part and parcel of the collective soul of the Jewish people puts today's Israeli in a rather weak position in dealing with the absolute religious conviction of the Arab community he must confront which believes, without question that their unrelenting war on the Jewish State is ordained by G‑d.

This is the most difficult problem facing our brothers and sisters in Israel as they contemplate their future. In a world that is hostile toward them, recently demonstrated by the absurd vote in the United Nations recognizing the State of Palestine, lacking the religious certainty of Rabbi Kook or the unique nationalism of the Kibbutznik, leaves the Israeli with an absence of absolute conviction in the righteousness of his cause when facing the difficult reality of life in the Middle East.