Entebbe

Next month will mark the 43rd anniversary of Israel’s finest hour: the hostage rescue at Entebbe. When the crisis began inHistory was repeating itself June of 1976, Israel firmly believed that the fate of the Jewish hostages was the legal responsibility of France, under whose flag the airplane had flown when it was hijacked. But, on the fifth day of the crisis, when all but the Jewish hostages were released, the Israeli government realized that Jews were once again alone in the world.

History was repeating itself. Only nine years earlier, when Egypt crossed the Suez Canal and threatened to invade, the world powers refused to help and Israel was left to defend itself alone. Thirty years earlier, when five Arab states attacked, no one came to its aid, and Israel was left alone in the world. Thirty-five years earlier when Jews were being gassed in Europe, the Jew was alone in the world.

But the time for dying had come to an end. Jews now had the means to fight back, and with trust in the Creator they set out to the rescue. It was Israel’s finest hour.

Alone in The World

The Torah tell us that if an impoverished Jew is forced to sell his ancestral home, his closest relative should come to his rescue and repurchase it. And if a man has no rescuer—if he is alone in the world—he is entitled to buy back his own home when he finds the money.1

Our sages were shocked by this verse. How could it be that a Jew would have no rescuer? How can a Jew be alone in the world? So long as the Jewish people have one another, a Jew is never alone. The sages then explained that every Jew has many potential rescuers, but since they are not obligated to come to his rescue, it is possible that a Jew could be left alone in the world.

Rashi, the foremost biblical commentator, offered a different answer. Rashi explained that the Torah is referring to a situation in which a Jew does not have sufficient funds to rescue his fellow. The other commentators wondered why Rashi offered an explanation that is different from the one in the Talmud.

According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rashi addressed his commentary to the five-year-old student who is reading the Torah for the first time. Rashi, the seasoned teacher, knew that no Jewish child could fathom the possibility that a Jew with means would refuse to help a fellow Jew in need. Because a Jew is never alone in the world. Thus Rashi concludes that the Torah speaks of a scenario in which a Jew wants to help, but sadly cannot.

During the Holocaust, Jews wanted to rescue their brethren, but lacked the means. But in 1976, Jews had the means, and if they had the means, they had an obligation. They would never leave a fellow Jew to suffer.

Begin’s Bible Group

Less than a year after Operation Entebbe, Israel elected a new government and Menachem Begin was the new prime minister. Once again, Israel faced pressure from the nations. This time it was American president Jimmy Carter who wanted Israel to negotiate peace with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), a body committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.

Just before departing for Washington, Prime Minister Begin invited 20 biblical scholars to his home for what was to become a weekly Saturday night Bible-study group.

Prime Minister Begin opened the discussion with the verse, “Israel shall dwell alone; it shall not be reckoned among the nations.”2 He applied the verse to the contemporary age, pointing out that Israel sits alone at the United Nations. Each nation belongs to a regional group bound by geography, religion, history, culture and language. But Israel sits alone in the world. No nation shares our unique narrative.

The scholars began to chime in, pointing out that Israel dwells alone of its own volition. It wants to remain apart from the nations because its mandate is not merely nationhood, but also faith. Israel has two birth moments, the Exodus and Sinai. At the Exodus we became a nation, and at Sinai we became a faith. As a faith-based nation, our relations with the community of nations will never normalize.

Then a dignified woman in her fifties asked for the floor. It was the revered scholar, Nechama Leibowitz, whose commentaries and classes were immensely popular. She pointed out that the word “yitchashav, translated as “reckoned”—as in “shall not be reckoned among the nations”—is rendered in the reflexive form, which gives the meaning, “This is a people that does not reckon itself among the nations.”3

We are not reckoned among the nations. When weWe have learned not to expect help from others are in trouble, they don’t come to our aid. We rescue ourselves and have learned not to expect help from others. But do we lament this lack of reckoning, or do we welcome it? Do we reckon ourselves among the nations?

This is a hard-hitting question. The principle aim of Zionism was normalization. It was hoped that when Jews had a land, they would be a nation among nations. But acceptance isn’t the Jew’s mandate. We were charged at Sinai to be G‑d’s people on earth, not the people’s people. When we confront the lack of acceptance among the nations, we should not feel that we have lost our place in the world.

We are a nation that dwells alone and does not reckon itself among nations. They badger us, they remonstrate with us, and they fail to come to our aid. That is our lot. But our role is lofty. Our mandate is noble. Our goals are higher. We are G‑d’s people on earth.

Finding Respect

The lasting question is, why don’t the nations see us that way? Why don’t they respect us?

The answer can be summed up in the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks: “Non-Jews respect Jews that respect Judaism. Non-Jews don’t respect Jews that don’t respect Judaism.”

If our goal is to be reckoned among the nations, the nations will not reckon with us. If our goal is to be a light among the nations, they will respect us. Not as their member, but as their light. They will not be our friends. They will not be our rescuers. And in that sense, we will be alone in the world. But, begrudgingly, they will learn from us. And in the end, they will respect us.

I close with the momentous words that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, told my wife’s grandmother when she complained that she felt alone in the world. He replied, “Remember that a Jew is never alone. A Jew is always with G‑d.”