This week marks both Israel's Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and Israel's Independence Day so it's a great time to do an IQ test (Israel Quotient). How well do you know the ancient and modern history, language, politics, music, theater and literature of the country? When's the last time you visited? How often do you speak to someone from Israel? How knowledgeable are you about current events?
These questions make an underlying assumption about the Holy Land. It will always be here. It will always be a refuge, an in-gathering of global Jewry, a place of Jewish strength and identity, a mecca for those of different faiths. Yet there are still people who remember well the days before the State, when this assumption of Israel's existence was not even a dream, let alone a reality. And it's a good reminder to check in sporadically with our own feelings and commitments to the Zionist enterprise, which has so often come under biting criticism from without and within.
In the medieval period, Maimonides - who traveled to Israel with his family but settled in Fostat, the old city of Cairo - had this to say about the early relationship of scholars and the land: "Great sages would kiss the borders of the land, kiss its stones, and roll in its dust, as it states in Psalms 102:15: 'Behold, your servants hold her stones dear and cherish her dust.'" [Laws of Kings 5:10 ] If anyone has seen people get off a plane at Ben Gurion airport and kiss the ground, you can imagine the sages of old marveling at Israel's existence and never taking it for granted but treating it like the miracle ground it is.
And yet, when the country was founded, there were sharp attacks from some on the religious right who were not convinced that the timing was right. They believed (and some continue to believe) that Israel is a land and not a state and only when it's declared a state from heaven above, will they move there or, if they are there, respect and treat it as an independent political entity. Others believed that the Balfour Declaration and the UN decision were the actual signs from heaven above that it was indeed time.
In Kol Dodi Dofek (Listen, My Beloved Knocks), Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik famously challenged the right wing religious position using chapter five of Song of Songs. The beloved knocks on the door of his lover. She takes so much time answering that she misses him and then goes into a frenzy at the possibility that he may not come back for fear of rejection. "God who conceals Himself in His dazzling hiddenness" during our great suffering "suddenly manifested Himself and began to knock." This knocking was a way of awakening us to the possibility of an immense collective transformation, "...as a result of the knocks on the door of the maiden wrapped in mourning, the State of Israel was both Fate and Destiny." In 1948, God knocked on our door, as if to say that this is the miracle we waited for and needed after a war-decimated Europe almost put an end to us.
No one believes Israel is problem-free. Today, we are more divided about Israel politically than ever. Many don't rely on Israel to shape their own Jewish identities anymore nor do they support the country unequivocally. Rabbi Haim Sabato was in conversation with Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein (1933-2015) before his death and recorded this ongoing dialogue between these two great scholars in a new book Seeking His Presence. There, Rabbi Lichtenstein takes a sober view of the matter:
"I wish I could tell you that all we dreamt of in returning to Zion has come true. I wish I could tell you that all the problems and concerns have been resolved and that all is just as it should be. I wish I could feel that we have arrived "to the rest and inheritance" (Deut. 12:9), diplomatically, politically, societally, spiritually - in terms of sanctity, Torah and fear of Heaven. But I don't want to deceive you. Even if I wanted to, I would not be able to. You would see through it."
Even so, he observed that what we have is truly worth celebrating. Israel, he writes, is "not a perfect alternative" but "the best chance to safeguard the identity of the Jewish people, in quantity, in strength and in ideas." Israel is the global Jewish project, the place of our inspiration and hope. "The Zionist position," Rabbi Lichtenstein states, "adopted by the rabbis and other religious adherents of the movement as well, believed not only that man is capable and authorized to take up this mantle but that man is obligated to do so. He is obligated to fashion an optimal world, both spiritually and physically."
Perhaps one of the reasons we don't celebrate Israel enough is that we set our aspirations for this optimal world so high that we and others judge ourselves much more severely when we fail than we would other countries. Let's all take a step back and a deep breath in, especially this week, and list our small and great victories, not on the battlefield but as Golda Meir declared, when "a new kind of cotton is grown and when strawberries bloom in Israel."
Happy Birthday Israel. Shabbat Shalom.