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An Intellectual Light Unto the Nations

Today the Jewish world marks the third day of Sukkot. Sukkot is one of the three pilgrimage holidays, when in ancient times the entire Jewish people came to Jerusalem to worship God at the Holy Temple, which was the center of the Jewish world.


The Holy Temple no longer stands, but Israel is still the epicenter of the Jewish world. We pray three times a day for the rebuilding of the Temple, but there are wonderful reasons to celebrate Israel as it is, reasons that justify modern pilgrimages. Israel has accomplished so much, including outstanding breakthroughs in science and technology, and has made miraculous contributions to our world. 


Yesterday, the 17th of Tishrei, marked David Ben-Gurion’s 125th birthday. Born in 1886, Ben-Gurion was a Zionist leader and Israel’s first and longest-serving prime minister. Throughout these years, he set the course of Zionist history and molded the character of the Jewish state. Ben-Gurion was a real intellectual; during the most dramatic years of his leadership, he read philosophy books, commented on the Bible, flirted with Buddhism, even taught himself ancient Greek in order to read Plato in the original. Besides a great aptitude for learning languages (in addition to his native Yiddish-Hebrew, he also learned Turkish, English, Russian, French, German, and later in life Spanish and ancient Greek) he had a relentless curiosity about the natural sciences. His libraries held more than 20,000 different books in many different languages.


In both 1951 and 1971, Ben-Gurion was awarded the Bialik Prize for Jewish thought, and in 2005 he was voted the second-greatest Israeli of all time in a poll by the Israeli news website Ynet (Yitzhak Rabin was voted the greatest Israeli). Ben-Gurion was an example of an intellect that was able to quote from the Bible and from Plato in Greek at the same time. He appreciated and advocated for education and its importance as part of the Jewish State.


Significantly, on the same date, Tishrei 17, Aaron Ciechanover was born 61 years later. Ciechanover won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2004. Ciechanover is a member of a very distinguished group of ten Israelis who have won the Nobel Prize. The most recent is Daniel Shechtman, a professor at Israel’s Technion Institute, who won the 2011 Nobel Prize in chemistry. The Academy honored Shechtman for the discovery of “quasicrystals” – patterns in atoms that were thought impossible. Shechtman’s discovery in 1982 fundamentally changed the way chemists look at solid matter.


At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Israel holds first place in Nobel Prize laureates per capita. Ben-Gurion’s vision of an advanced, flourishing state recognized worldwide for its contributions is now a solid reality.


Sukkot is also known as the harvest holiday, as it is celebrated after the summer’s harvest and before the planting of winter crops. A central theme in the holiday prayers is rain: the farmers thank God for this year’s harvest and pray for rain for the coming year. I would like to add my own personal prayer: I pray that Israel will continue to be blessed with the rain of knowledge, of great achievements and world recognition, so that our prayer of “Ki mitzion tetze Torah, udvar Hashem mirushalayim- For from Zion shall come the Torah, and the word of God from Jerusalem” will be a reality that illuminates Israel’s name and wonders worldwide.


Sukkot is associated with happiness: “Vesamachta bechagecha vehayita ach same’ach– Thou shall rejoice in your festival and thou shall be only joyous.” This Sukkot brings a very special sense of happiness, as Gilad Shalit is on his way home to, after more than five long years, celebrate with his family. Happy Sukkot and welcome home Gilad!


Leah Garber, Israel office director

[email protected]


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