By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 4, 2008

In the days of the chalutzim" is an expression one often hears in Israel. It evokes images of young people in shorts draining swamps, planting oranges and dancing the hora after a day's work in the fields.

Chalutzim are pioneers, those who lead the way. After the Russian pogroms of 1881, a movement arose encouraging young people to move to what was then Palestine to cultivate the land and prepare the way for the less robust populations to make aliyah later on. This movement was called Hechalutz, the pioneer.

One of the first appearances of the word chalutz in the Bible is when the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of Menasseh offer to lead the conquest of Canaan as chalutzim (Numbers 32:17).

In the battle of Jericho, Joshua ordered chalutzim to march before the priests (Joshua 6:7). In this case, chalutzim denotes not only vanguard but also armed soldiers. Chalutz has other meanings as well, including to rescue. The Psalmist thanks God "Ki chilatzta nafshi mimavet," "You have delivered me from death" (Psalms 116:8).

The young Russian Zionists post-1881 perhaps had all these meanings in mind, a vanguard ready to defend itself if necessary and seeking to rescue European Jewry from violent antisemitism.

Although Israel is no longer a malaria-ridden backwater, Israel and world Jewry still need their chalutzim to face today's challenges.

Last updated: 4:44pm, November 4 2008