I’d like to share with you a story of one of our greatest teachers, Nachmanides, also known as Ramban (an acronym of Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, and not be confused with Rambam, Moshe ben Maimon). Ramban was born in Spain in 1195, a physician by trade, but was best-known for authoring brilliant commentaries on the Chumash and the Talmud, and for his philosophical works.

This was still centuries before the Inquisition, but anti-Jewish sentiment was growing in Spain. One technique used by the church was to “prove Judaism wrong” by holding religious debates — a disputation — between a rabbi and a priest. Such undertakings were fraught with danger. If the rabbi lost, Jews would be forced to convert. If the rabbi won, things weren’t necessarily any better. In one disputation, the rabbi won the dispute, nonetheless, copies of the Talmud were burned by the cartload.

In 1263, King James of Spain authorized a disputation between Nachmanides and a Jewish convert to Christianity, Pablo Christiani. Nachmanides reluctantly agreed to take part, only after being assured by the king that he would have full freedom of expression. King James, who had a complicated relationship with the church, agreed.

According to our sources, Nachmanides won the battle, but lost the war. His arguments earned the king’s respect and a prize of 300 gold coins, but the Church ordered Nachmanides to be tried on the charge of blasphemy. A friend tipped him off and so, in the middle of the night, Nachmanides, who was 72 at the time, fled his homeland never to return.

Five years later, in 1267, after a long and perilous journey, Nachmanides arrived at the port city of Acco. He had decided to make Aliyah. After a brief stay, he traveled to Jerusalem where he was struck by its desolation. Buildings were dilapidated and abandoned. There were so few Jews that he could not even find 10 men for a minyan! In a letter to his son, he wrote as follows:

“What can I tell you about the land? There are so many forsaken places, and the desecration is great. The more sacred the place, the greater the devastation it has suffered. Yerushalayim is the most desolate place of all!”

I imagine Nachmanides standing there in Israel, thousands of miles away from his homeland, knowing that he would never see his family again. I’m sure he realized that the golden era of Spain was slowly coming to an end; the Jewish future looked bleak. And he comes to the Promised Land, a place described in the Torah as overflowing with milk and honey, but instead, what meets his eyes is utter desolation. 

And yet, amazingly, Nachmanides was hopeful. He recalled a passage in the Torah, in what is known as the tochacha, in which God describes the terrible suffering the Jewish People would go through. The land of Israel during this period of exile is described as follows:

“So devastated will I leave the land, that your enemies who live there will be astonished… Your land will remain desolate, and your cities in ruins.”

In his commentary to the Chumash – something he started writing upon arriving in Yerushalayim, he explains that those words “Your land will remain desolate,” words that are in the middle of a string of curses, are actually a blessing to the Jewish People. That verse, he argued in a fantastically creative leap from the simple text, was actually a reassurance from G-d. And I quote: “That which God states here, “Your land will remain desolate” constitutes a good tiding, proclaiming that during all our exiles, our land will not accept our enemies! This is a great proof and assurance to us, for in the entire inhabited world one cannot find such a good and large land which was always lived in, and yet is as ruined as it is [today]. For since the time that we left it, it has not accepted any nation or people, and they all try to settle it, but to no avail.” 

As creative of a read as it was, he had a good point. Throughout the many centuries since the Jewish People were exiled from their land, no conqueror ever succeeded in permanently settling the land, Israel for two thousand years remained a wasteland. As Mark Twain wrote in the late 19th century, “A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action.”

Somehow, in the ruins of Yerushalayim, Nachmanides saw a fulfillment of G-d’s promise that the land was waiting for the Jews to return. He understood that the destruction of the land was an incredible testimony to the bond between G-d and His people. He saw in the barren wasteland a living proof that G-d had not forsaken us. G-d made a promise to us, and He would keep it. G-d seemed so distant and removed from the world. The dark clouds of the Inquisition were descending over his native land. The temptation to convert was stronger than ever. And yet, Nachmanides saw through the land of Israel that G-d was sending him and all the Jewish People a message – “I am not that far away.” If one listened closely enough, with a sensitive ear like of Ramban, one could hear G-d whisper, ever so softly – “Look at this land! It makes no sense! How can a land that was at one point so fruitful become such a wasteland? It’s because I’m holding on to the land for you” said G-d. “I’m waiting for your return.” 

The Ramban’s tenacity and optimism are part of a long tradition. He was quite literally walking in the footsteps of another great sage who lived in Yerushalayim about a thousand years before him. The Talmud relates how Rabbi Akiva was once walking through the ruins of Yerushalayim with his colleagues. They had witnessed the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, they had lived through fierce and bloody battles, and on this one morning, they found themselves walking near the Temple Mount, or should I say, the former Temple Mount. There was nothing there. It was a razed field – a deliberate slap in the face by their Roman oppressors. And to add insult to injury, just as they walked by, a fox ran right over the space on which the Holy of Holies stood. The rabbis could not contain themselves, and they burst out into mournful crying. But Rabbi Akiva began to laugh. Shocked, they stopped crying, and asked him to explain himself. “Why are you laughing?”

“There is a verse in the book of Zechariah,” he told them, “Which speaks of foxes running through a desolate Jerusalem.” They nodded their heads. “But there’s another verse, this one in Isaiah, in which Zechariah and another prophet by the name of Uriah are mentioned. Uriah’s most famous prophecy is one we sing at weddings – “Od yishama, we will yet hear in the cities of Judah… the song of joy and happiness.” Now clearly, there is meant to be a connection between the two. It would seem that when the prophecy of Zechariah, of foxes running through a desolate Yerushalayim will be fulfilled, then the uplifting prophecies of Uriyah will be fulfilled as well!  When we see foxes running through the temple mount, it is G-d’s way of telling us that the prophecy of Uriah, that song and joy will fill the street of Yerushalayim, will also be fulfilled.”

Did you follow that? A little convoluted, right? That’s exactly my point. You see, for two thousand years, our greatest thinkers had to come up with the most creative leaps of faith, difficult, maybe even stretched explanations to find hope in the desperate darkness. But today? In 2023? Who needs creativity? Who needs Talmudic reasoning?  

If Nachmanides were to travel to Israel today, he wouldn’t write home about destruction. He would probably write a letter to his son describing Tel Aviv. 100 years ago, it was a patch of sand dunes, and it now boasts a population of just under half a million residents. He would describe Petach Tikvah, at one point a swamp infected by malaria, now a flourishing city that doesn’t stop growing. He would write about the economy that boasts the second-largest number of startup companies in the world, after the United States, and the largest number of NASDAQ-listed companies outside North America. He would describe a land overflowing with life and trees. Did you know that Israel exports tulips to Holland?! That Israeli wine makers export to France?!

At this point in history, you wouldn’t need to be a Rabbi Akiva or a Ramban to interpret verses creatively. Anyone who owns a Chumash can open it up and see for themselves. Any one of us can open Yechezkel to read a crystal-clear prophecy from over two thousand years ago: “Mountains of Israel shall give forth your branch and bear fruit for My people Israel.” Fulfilled in our days!  

Any one of us can recall the prophecies of Isaiah who described how G-d will one day gather Jews from all across the world, vikabeitz nidacheinu mei’arbah kanfos ha’aretz, G-d will ingather the Jewish People from all corners of the earth. Every plane-load of olim is a fulfilment of this promise!

G-d is no longer whispering to us that He has held on to His promise. He is shouting, loud and clear. That same land that was for so long forsaken, is now overflowing with milk and honey. I don’t typically share miracle stories. They’re not for me. I find my inspiration elsewhere. But the State of Israel is a miracle we cannot ignore.

I wish I could go back in time, to visit my great-grandparents right before they were gassed by the Nazis. I wish I could whisper to them what would happen in just a few years – the State of Israel would be born! Yerushalayim would be ours! Ha Habyit b’yadeinu! There would be a Jewish army – and they would be powerful! “How could it be?” they would ask. It’s a miracle, they would shout. And they would be right.

For most of us, our great-grandparents and grandparents are no longer here. For some, it is parents who we are missing. How jealous would they be of us to be living at this time? And how would they respond?

For all the political instability, for all the truly unspeakable terror that we witnessed these past few days, we are living in miraculous times. Hodu laShem ki tov! For the State of Israel to have been born, dayeinu. For the State of Israel to have reached 75, there are no words to express the emotion for a miracle of such magnitude. So, let’s take a moment today, on this holiday of redemption, to appreciate the gift that our ancestors yearned for two thousand years. Let’s take a moment today, on this holiday of thanksgiving, to thank G-d for what our ancestors had to imagine, and we can see with our own eyes. Let’s take a moment today, on this holiday of hope, to be inspired by the hope of those who came before us, so that we merit to see not only reishit tz’michat Ge’uloteinu, the messy beginnings of redemption, but the complete redemption speedily in our days. Amen!