Approaching Yom HaZikaron and Yom Haatzmaut, I now mark the second cycle of these Iyyar holidays living in New York. Last year went by with the curiosity of what happens in the Diaspora – events, celebrations, cocktail parties and lectures. All nice and impressive, but still lacking. There is no comparison to being in Israel on these days as the entire country kneels down in mourning only to then rise up out of the depths in celebration of what many still do not take for granted – that the dream of an independent sovereign Jewish state is indeed a reality. During this varying 48-hour experience it is impossible to avoid the mood that sets in throughout the country. It is impossible to not be enveloped into the national discussion of what it is that those many thousands gave their lives and what we wish for Israel’s future on her birthday.
Peering from abroad as we commemorate and celebrate, we are engaged in two existential debates on the future of the Jewish state both testing the strength of Israel as both Jewish and Democratic. 67 years later there are too many in Israel for whom democracy is increasingly interpreted as being antithetical to Judaism. Let me be clear, this is both wrong and potentially disastrous for the future of Israel. It is Israel’s democratic nature that allows it to continue as Jewish. And this will require a certain sense of maturity and willingness to compromise in order to maintain. The Jewish state can only remain as such if it remains committed to the principles of democracy (those clearly outlined in the Declaration of Independence.)
On December 21, 1947, Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog then Chief Rabbi of the Yishuv (Jewish community living in mandated Palestine, and grandfather of contemporary Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog) wrote to the Zionist leader Shlomo Zalman Shragai “Blessed be He that we have reached this stage, even though it is still only the beginning of the beginning.” If we perceive the establishment of the State of Israel to be “Reishit Tzmihat Geulateinu – the first flowering of our redemption” it is upon us to be the pruners and harvesters of the early blossoms that were opened on that fateful day in the month of Iyyar 67 years ago.
Often times nurturing a blossom requires food, water and sunlight and other times pruning requires the necessary awareness to remove a side-ward growing branch – doing so in full knowledge that amputation will foster the survival and thriving of the body. It was this notion of compromise that led one of our greatest sages Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai to plead “Grant me Yavne and its sages,” as he recognized that the only way that both Am Yisrael and Judaism could survive would be to compromise and to focus on the future.
Today our situation is not dissimilar in which we must make a fateful decision to compromise. The fact is that most of Israeli society has done this already and has chosen the path of a Jewish and Democratic state over that of holding on to land that like the side-ward growing branch of a plant needs to be cut in order for us to survive.
The second challenge facing our Jewish democracy today that of working to determine which Jewish values we want our state to exemplify and which we don’t. This must be the imperative for the next seven decades and we have a lot to offer. Many Israelis are waking up to the reality that having a Jewish State does not necessarily mean that they automatically have a Jewish community. When I came on Aliyah to Israel, I thought that I had fulfilled my own personal Zionist quest. Shortly thereafter I realized that there was still a tremendous amount of work to be done. I realized that for so many the values that I learned growing up in the Reform movement, of welcoming the stranger, tolerance and accepting a multiplicity of observance and Jewish practice, ecology and egalitarianism could be perceived as a threat to the Jewishness of the State. These values are what makes the largest and most diverse Jewish society on the planet Jewish and we must not accept any dissention from that notion.
What I love about Israel is how intrinsically Jewish it is. How much thought and creativity come out of Israeli society. What I also love is that it is malleable, impressionable and very much growing. I love that Israeli Jews are constantly flocking to create new kehilot and that our movement is at the forefront of creating an Israeli nusah, an Israeli style of Judaism that is authentic, inclusive and is evolving what Judaism is when it comes to social justice, how we relate to the other, and what prayer should be just to name a few.
The story of Israel’s first 67 years is one for the movies. It is full of drama, successes, mishaps and experimentation. What we need now is to foster that flowering, to recognize and be fully aware that we as passionate and involved American Jews can be involved in this process. We can have a voice that will resonate. This year on Yom Haatzmaut I urge you to think about Israel not as a far off place, known often for its conflicts, but as an opportunity. An opportunity to join together in writing history and helping to set the direction for Judaism for the foreseeable future. As we the blossoms of that first flowering you can join too simply voting in the elections for the World Zionist Congress and ensuring that your voice is heard. (www.reformjews4Israel.org/vote)
חג עצמאות שמח!
Please see this “Al HaNissim” prayer for Yom Haatzmaut and feel free to share with your congregations.
עַל הַנִּסִּים וְעַל הַפֻּרְקָן וְעַל הַגְּבוּרוֹת וְעַל הַתְּשוּעוֹת וְעַל הַנֶּחָמוֹת וְעַל הַמִּלְחָמוֹת שֶׁעָשִׂיתָ לָנוּ בַּזְּמַן הַזֶּה.
ביום ה’ באייר חמשת אלפים תש”ח למניין שאנו מונים לבריאת העולם, בעת ההכרזה על הקמת מדינת ישראל, זכה עם ישראל לריבונות על אדמתם ולשליטה על גורלם. על נס הקמת מדינה יהודית באשר היא ראשית צמיחת גאולתינו. מדינה זו באה מתוך קשר היסטורי ומסורתי זה חתרו היהודים בכל דור לשוב ולהאחז במולדתם העתיקה. ובדורות האחרונים שבו לארצם בהמונים, וחלוצים, מעפילים ומגינים הפריחו נשמות, החיו שפתם העברית, בנו כפרים וערים, והקימו ישוב גדל והולך השליט על משקו ותרבותו, שוחר שלום ומגן על עצמו, מביא ברכת הקידמה לכל תושבי הארץ ונושא נפשו לעצמאות ממלכתית. זה יום עשה יהוה נגילה ונשמחה בו כשנאמר: “וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶתְכֶם מִן הַגּוֹיִם וְקִבַּצְתִּי אֶתְכֶם מִכָּל הָאֲרָצוֹת וְהֵבֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם אֶל אַדְמַתְכֶם” (יחזקאל לו, כד( וּלְעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל עָשִׂיתָ תְּשוּעָה גְּדוֹלָה וּפֻרְקָן כְּהַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, הִדְבַּרְתָּ עַמִּים תַּחְתֵּנוּ וּלְאֻמִּים תַּחַת רַגְלֵנוּ, וְנָתַתָּ לָנוּ אֶת נַחֲלָתֵנוּ אשר תיקרא “מדינת ישראל”. ולפי כך מדינה זו תהא פתוחה לעליה יהודית ולקיבוץ גלויות; תשקוד על פיתוח הארץ לטובת כל תושביה; תהא מושתתה על יסודות החירות, הצדק והשלום לאור חזונם של נביאי ישראל; תקיים שויון זכויות חברתי ומדיני גמור לכל אזרחיה בלי הבדל דת, גזע ומין; תבטיח חופש דת, מצפון, לשון, חינוך ותרבות; תשמור על המקומות הקדושים של כל הדתות. יְהִי-שָׁלוֹם בְּחֵילֵךְ שַׁלְוָה בְּאַרְמְנוֹתָיִךְ.