Who could have imagined 64 years ago that Israel would become as economically viable, politically and militarily strong, technologically advanced, and creatively cutting-edge as it is today?
Who would have dreamed that Israel’s Jewish population would grow from 600,000 souls in 1948 to 5.5 million today?
Who would have thought that after having had to fight seven wars, endure two Intifadas and bear-up against ongoing terrorist attack that the Jewish state would remain democratic and free despite little peace with its neighbors and no resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
All told, even with her imperfections and challenges, Israel is a remarkable nation, testimony to the spirit, will, ingenuity, aspiration, creativity, and sacrifice of generations. Today Israel is like none other in the world, more culturally, linguistically, and religiously diverse, more intellectually and academically productive. The depth and breadth of her accomplishments are nothing shy of breath-taking.
On the occasion of Israel’s 64th Independence Day, Jews the world over are well to take stock, celebrate her accomplishments, mourn and honor her dead, and ask what unique place the Jewish state holds in the innermost heart, mind and soul of the Jewish people.
This is no easy task. Permit me to offer some thoughts as I reflect on Israel’s meaning:
Israel is far more than a political refuge as envisioned by political Zionists. It is more than the flowering of the Jewish spirit as dreamed about by cultural Zionists. It is more than the fulfillment of Jewish memory and religious longing.
Israel starts with the land, with Jerusalem at its heart, for the land has been a key focus of Jewish consciousness for three millennia. The land of Israel is at the center of our history and is an essential element of our Jewish faith. But Israel is far more than land.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it this way in his moving volume Israel – An Echo of Eternity: “Israel reborn is an answer to the Lord of history who demands hope as well as action, who expects tenacity as well as imagination.” (p. 118) “The inspiration that goes out of Zion today is the repudiation of despair and the example of renewal.” (p. 134)
In this spirit the Zionists sought to create a new kind of a Jew, at home in the land, self-activated, self-realized, independent, creative, and free. They understood, however, the limitations of their state-building endeavor. Heschel said it this way: “The State of Israel is not the fulfillment of the Messianic promise, but it makes the Messianic promise plausible.” (Ibid. p. 223) In other words, the political state is not and cannot be regarded as an end in itself. Rather, the Jewish state represents a challenge and a promise that will rise or fall based on how our people and Israel’s government uses or misuses the power that comes with national sovereignty. With this in mind a Jewish state worthy of its mission must challenge our individual and communal ethics, our nationalism, our humanity, and our faith.
May Israel be an or lagoyim, a light to the nations, and may her citizens and all the inhabitants of the land know justice and peace.
[Yom Haatzmaut is celebrated on the 5th of Iyar which falls this year on Friday, April 27. We will celebrate at Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles during Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday evening beginning at 6:30 PM in song and poetry, led by our clergy, volunteer choir, quartet and instrumentalists. All are welcome.]