"When the Lord returned the exiles of Zion, we were like dreamers”
This opening line of Psalm 126 is well known to many of us because the psalm serves as a prelude to Birkat HaMazon on Shabbat and festive days. According to many scholars, the words were written shortly after the first community of returnees made their way back to Eretz Yisrael in the sixth century BCE under the auspices of Cyrus the Great of Persia. The psalm expresses the utter joy of those who felt that a long-held dream had suddenly been realized. Fantasy had now become reality. According to Ibn Ezra, those who returned to our ancestral homeland felt like they were now living in a beautiful dreamworld. Other commentators, however, suggest a different way of understanding the phrase “we were like dreamers.” For Radak (David Kimchi), the dream refers to all the prior years of suffering. After the return, the years of exile became like a nightmare that had suddenly come to an end.
Both interpretations of this ancient text resonate with us as contemporary Jews who are privileged to live at time when the modern State of Israel continues to serve as a home and spiritual center for our people. As we witness Israel’s amazing contributions to the world in terms of technology, medicine, and industry, we feel like the long-held dream of once again taking our rightful place in the vanguard of nations has come true. After the Shoah, however, Israel’s strength, and growth, also offer us some solace from the devastating nightmare of the Holocaust. Our dark period of victimhood has been replaced by an image of pride and fortitude. Jewish numbers are no longer tattooed on arms. Instead, they are etched into the military identification tags of courageous IDF soldiers.
As we celebrate Israel’s 73rd birthday year, our GOA students understand both the nightmare and the dream. Through the Names, Not Numbers project which enables them to add to the historical documentation of the Shoah, they are keenly aware of the nightmare, and through the Neshama semester in Israel program, they are also able to experience the beauty of the dream. Right now, having weathered the worst of the pandemic, our GOA seniors are once again in Israel. We pray that their unique talents will bring added blessings to the unending dreams of our people, and in the words of the psalm, may their mouths always be filled with laughter and their tongues with songs of joy.