We’re in the middle of Elul, the sixth month, which means we’re in the middle of a prayer focus on protection and restoration for the land and people of Israel. The two prayer themes of protection and restoration or return (teshuvah in Hebrew, which also means repentance), are linked in Scripture, as in our theme verse, “Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 3:7).
This prayer effort (co-sponsored by the UMJC and the MJAA) is something we’ve never done before, but lots of us are also following an ancient tradition, reading through the Psalms during Elul. A couple of days ago I came to Psalm 80, which makes the same protection-return linkage: “O Lord God of Hosts, turn us back, cause your face to shine upon us, and we shall be saved” (vss. 4, 8, 20). First, there must be return, turning back to God, then God’s favor shines upon us and we are rescued or saved. This sequence is repeated throughout Scripture. You have to be careful how you use apply it, though, because it has been used in some circles (like replacement theology) to declare that God’s promises to Israel are null and void, since Israel has never really turned back to God. When the Messiah came and Israel still didn’t turn, so the theory goes, that clinched it.
But, of course, there’s another theme throughout Scripture that counters this interpretation: Israel is irreplaceable.
The God of Israel will see to it that she returns to him and receives the fullness of salvation. So, in this week’s haftarah portion (traditional reading from the Prophets), God says to Zion: “Your people shall all be righteous; they shall possess the land forever. They are the shoot that I planted, the work of my hands, so that I might be glorified” (Is. 60:21). Your people shall all be righteous. Quite a promise! Is Hashem saying that someday all Israel will finally get their act together and start being righteous—or that God will make them righteous himself? Since the whole point of the verse is that Israel is the work of his hands, so that he gets the glory, it’s clear that the second interpretation is the right one.
Pirke Avot (or “Chapters of the Fathers” in the Mishnah) picks up on this verse, and concludes each chapter with this:
All Israel have a share in the World to Come, as it is said:
“Your people are all righteous; they shall inherit the land for ever;
they are a shoot of My own planting,
a work of My hands, that I may be glorified.” (Koren siddur)
Now we could quibble over “Your people are all righteous” vs. “shall be righteous,” but the Hebrew original can go either way. More important, this is a prophetic vision, not a statistical tally of the spiritual condition of every last Jew. Pirke Avot itself warns, “The world is judged with goodness, but all depends on the majority of one’s deeds” (3:19), and Rabbi Elazar of Modin lists the sort of transgressors who have “no share in the World to Come” (3:15). Isaiah isn’t thinking about individuals as much as about Israel as a whole people, and how God’s reputation is linked forever to Israel’s destiny.
As God directs the course of the nations, Israel, regardless of her condition, is irreplaceable.
So, how does the Lord bring things to the point that he can say to Zion, “all your people are righteous”? Remember that a few chapters back, the Lord said “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Is. 53:10). Isaiah 60 tells us that the day will come when the “many” here will be “all.” When we pray for Israel’s restoration, as we’re doing throughout this Elul, we’re praying for an irreplaceable part of God’s plan.
You can read more about the joint prayer effort and download a prayer guide at http://www.umjc.org.