As Israeli politicians tussle over who is more Zionist, it’s important to contemplate what being a Zionist means these days. How do the dreams of our forebears translate into the politics of the moment? Is the Zionist course the one that holds on to the most land, and builds the most settlements, or is it the one that struggles the hardest for peace, and continues to hold out hope for a more just society in the form of a Jewish democracy?
With Tu Bishvat taking place in the middle of the election season, I thought it might be appropriate to consider the Talmudic story of Honi the Circle Maker. Honi is perhaps best known for calling down the rain in a time of drought by drawing a circle on the ground and standing within it; but his preoccupation with dreams has relevance for the contemporary Zionist theme.
We’re told that Honi, a righteous man, spends all of his days worried about a verse in the Bible that he cannot understand. The verse says that when the people of Israel returned from 70 years of exile in Babylonia they realized they were like dreamers (Psalm 126:1). Honi seems to understand this as follows: When they returned to Israel, the exile itself and all of its trials and tribulations seemed merely like a bad dream; they had woken up, relieved that, somehow, it hadn’t been real.
Nevertheless, Honi finds this passage troubling: Since when can a dream last 70 years?
Then, we’re told that Honi takes a walk and meets a man planting a tree that wouldn’t yield fruit for 70 years. Honi asks him whether he expects to live long enough to eat the fruit, and the man tells him that it doesn’t matter, since he’s planting it for his children and his children’s children.
Honi then takes a nap, and sleeps for 70 years, hidden behind some rocks that mysteriously grow around him. Everyone thinks he has died. When he wakes up, he sees that the tree is fully grown, and that the man’s grandchildren are eating the fruit. He realizes that he had been asleep for 70 years. He goes home, and nobody recognizes him or believes that it’s him. The same thing happens at his place of learning. Distraught by all of this, he prays for mercy, and dies.
This is a strange and moving story. But there are some glaring issues with it. Most importantly, what is Honi meant to learn from his 70-year nap? I want to suggest an interpretation that resolves this issue.
The entire story is a dream that Honi has. He dreams that he meets a man who is planting a tree; afterwards, he goes to sleep. Magical rocks grow around him, because things like that can happen in dreams. And then, in his dream, he wakes up, to see that 70 years have passed. And then horrible things start happening to him: His family and peers refuse to believe him. And it’s such a relief, when he “dies,” or wakes up, to find out it was only a dream.
And because Honi’s reverie spans 70 years, he learns that the narrative of a single dream can really extend over that period of time, and thus his question is answered.
Believe it or not, the longevity of dreams is now a central electoral issue. Some may argue that the Zionist dream is dead because it’s too old. Can a dream really last so long? Will Israelis vote as pragmatists, convinced that the dreams of our fathers are dead, and our lot is to make the most of a bad situation? Or will they vote as dreamers? Do we know, any longer, what we’re dreaming of?
Dr. Samuel Lebens, an Orthodox Rabbi, is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Rutgers University.