The little nation that could

During a recent visit to Israel, I took advantage of the new high-speed train connecting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Above all, the railway offered a cheaper and faster journey than road. Yet my practical decision led to an experience unexpectedly filled with wonder as I traveled through tunnels in the holy land of the Holy Land and over bridges spanning mountains.

Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, burst onto the scene with his 1896 pamphlet, “The Jewish State.” He argued that Jews all over the world could unite and create a commonwealth. Herzl followed this with “The Old-New Country.” The novel describes a restored Jewish state: its cities connected by wondrous electric trains high in the air, with smaller towns offering transportation around Jerusalem. Today, as many have noted, this vision has been fulfilled and the novel’s famous epigraph – usually translated as “If you want it, it’s no dream” – has been confirmed.

Returning to New York, I cleaned out my pockets and found the train ticket from my trip. I was struck by the words stamped on it in Hebrew: rakevet yisrael, Israel’s train. Herzl had assumed that Hebrew, which had survived only in Jewish learning and liturgy, could never be resurrected as a spoken language. “Which of us has a sufficient knowledge of Hebrew to ask for a railway ticket in that language?” he wrote in his seminal pamphlet. “Such a thing cannot be done.” The small ticket embodied the exceeding of Herzl’s already great expectations.

Shortly after returning home, I spoke at the Tikvah Fund’s Jewish Leadership Conference, where Tikvah’s former chairman, Roger Hertog, was honored with his Herzl Prize. Inevitably, my reverie – inspired by a piece of paper with Hebrew letters – gave rise to thoughts about the importance of political leadership, as well as the miraculous nature of Jewish history.

Today, it is common political parlance to declare others on the “wrong side of history.” But history is not a train track that brings us inevitably to stop after stop. It is a journey influenced by leaders who proclaim a vision and a strategy to achieve it. In Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln,” the 16th president reflects on a lesson he learned while working as a surveyor. A compass, says Lincoln, will “point you north from where you stand, but it has no counsel for the swamps and deserts and ravines which you will encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination you throw yourself forward, regardless of obstacles and achieve nothing but sinking in a swamp, what is the use of knowing the true north?”

Others had written about Zionism before Herzl. But as Mr. Hertog once explained to me, Herzl understood that it was not enough to see the “true north”—the goal, which was a Jewish state. Political institutions had to be built to achieve that. That is why a Zionist congress in Basel, Switzerland – whose 125th anniversary was just marked – quickly followed the publication of his pamphlet. “At Basel I founded the Jewish state,” he wrote in 1897. “If I were to say this today, I would be met with universal laughter. In five years, perhaps and certainly in 50, everyone will see it.”

If such a far-sighted man thought that a Hebrew train ticket was impossible, this is a reminder that the story of the Jews is a miraculous story, which therefore never ceases to amaze. “The number of Jews in the world is less than a small statistical error in the Chinese census. Yet we remain greater than our numbers,” reflected essayist Milton Himmelfarb after Israel’s Six Day War. “Great things seem to be happening around us and to us.”

The Jewish state’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, touched on a profound truth when he reportedly said that “in Israel, to be a realist, you have to believe in miracles.” And one can certainly see a miracle in the life of Herzl, who emerged from Jewish assimilation in Austria, established the Zionist Congress, and died soon after.

Sometimes all it takes is a piece of paper to remind you of the wonders of our time. As someone whose relatives were put on trains to concentration camps, never to return, I know that today it is no small thing to be able to buy a ticket with Hebrew printed on it, board a train and take my Jews on a journey to Jerusalem.

Rabbi Soloveichik is director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York. This piece is adapted from a speech he gave on June 12 at the Jewish Leadership Conference in New York.

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