by Erica Brown
“Great sages would kiss the borders of the land of Israel, kiss its stones and roll in its dust, as it says in Psalms: ‘Behold, your servants hold her stones dear and cherish her dust’ [102:15].”
Maimonides, Laws of Kings, Mishne Torah 5:10
The past few weeks have been our season of Jewish peoplehood. We move from Passover to Shavuot - exodus to Sinai - and in between we observe Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers and Israel’s Independence Day. These are the days we became a nation, celebrate our collective shared history and values and mourn those who made it happen who did not survive. It’s a good time, in the thick of so many mixed emotions, to take a moment to think about the role Israel plays in our own lives. Maimonides, in a collection of law, felt it important to inject a note of deep emotion. Great scholars kissed the stones of Israel and rolled in its dust.
“For most Jews, Israel is Zion. Zion has a special meaning for our people everywhere. Ultimately, it is the meaning of home. Israel is the Jewish home. As such it is a haven. But it is also a functioning enterprise with a future to fulfill and to look forward to.” These are the words of David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, in his memoirs. He did not want Israel to be an ephemeral idea but a reality that required constant work and effort. And he felt that Israel was not only a haven for Jews in need. “We are a busy, forward-looking nation with much more work to accomplish. Israel cannot just be a refuge. If it is to survive as a valid nation, it has to be much, much more.”
And it is. Because there is an Israel, Jews under distress in today’s Ukraine have somewhere to go, as do Jews world over. Israel is not just a refuge. It is a place where Jews express their national identity, creativity, scientific accomplishments and are active in international trade and politics. Torah emerges out of Zion, as the expression goes, in many different ways, as a locus of Jewish educational institutions that prepare rabbis and educators to share Jewish values across the globe and as a place that thousands of young adults visit to strengthen their commitments.
Can there be a Zionism without aliyah? This question has long been the subject of controversy among early and later Zionist thinkers. In Ben Gurion’s memoirs, Israel is both a geographic location and a metaphor for collective Jewish contributions on the world stage. It is about a particular type of character informed by years of history, destiny and sacred literature. Anyone who has been in Ben Gurion’s home in Tel Aviv and seen his library can appreciate that as a secular Jew, he was highly literate in Jewish life and believed that this should be the national standard.
“Outside Israel, the growth of secularism brings the Jewish communities of the world ever closer to assimilation. Secularism is a fact of our time and since I am not religious I have no reason to deplore it. But if I’m for secularism, I’m certainly not for the ignorance that comes in its wake. In areas where Jews are not persecuted, an increasingly high number vanish, not dramatically but passively, passing into an anonymity born of lack of conviction.”
Ben Gurion spoke like a true prophet. Our distinctiveness may vanish passively because of our lack of conviction. Zionism gave us a renewed sense of passion embedded in possibility. But we cannot let go of the knowledge that creates our distinctiveness.
For Ben Gurion, Israel represented the center of Jewish idealism: “You cannot reach for the higher virtue without being an idealist. The Jews are chronic idealists which makes me humbly glad to belong to this people and to have shared in their noble epic.”
How have you shared in this noble epic?