Tradition Today: The wonder of Israel

On Yom Ha’atzmaut we need to once again openly proclaim what should be a self-evident truth: that the country has the right to exist.

April 16, 2010 16:52
4 minute read.

yom haatzmaut 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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Aside from an opportunity to perform the “mitzva of mangal,” Yom Ha’atzmaut has two other important functions. First, it is a time for us to reaffirm our belief in the importance and the wonder of the existence of the State of Israel, a place where Jews form the majority and where Jewish tradition and culture can flourish freely. Second, it is an opportunity to dedicate ourselves to achieving true peace, thus bringing to an end the troubled situation in which we find ourselves. It is important for us to do this now perhaps more than ever since Israel is in such a difficult position today.

Our right to exist is being questioned. Some of our best friends are less enthusiastic about us than before. The justice of our cause is under fire by the United Nations and other institutions throughout the world. It is becoming harder and harder for representatives of Israel to speak overseas at public events, and government officials fear to travel abroad lest they be arrested. I know of no other nation that has another state openly calling for its destruction, for “a Middle East free of Zionists.” One would think that Israel is the worst nation on earth, the world’s greatest denier of human rights.

On Yom Ha’atzmaut, therefore, we need to once again openly proclaim what should be a self-evident truth: that Israel has the right to exist. Are we always right in everything we do? Are all of our actions justified? Even if the answer to those questions is no, that does not impinge upon the justification of our existence. There is no nation that is always right. Nations like individuals make mistakes and can be criticized for their mistakes without calling into question their right to exist.

The situation in which we find ourselves today, ruling over millions of Palestinians in territories whose status has not been settled, does not improve the anti-Israel atmosphere. Regardless of who is to blame for the fact that peace has not been achieved, this remains a problem that will not simply disappear, and that is not good for us. As Jews and as Israelis who want Israel to become a beacon of light in the world, a model of democracy and of Jewish morality, we should do everything in our power to end this situation and to bring calm and, if possible, peace to our area. If this is not attainable, let it not be because we did not do our best to achieve it.

We must also do everything we can to recapture the excitement and the wonder of the return to Zion. The existence of Israel has often been likened to a miracle, and indeed there is good reason for this. For a people to return to its homeland after an exile of some 1,900 years, which is what we have done, is unheard-of in the annals of humankind.

After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, when the Jewish people was demoralized, the great Rabbi Akiva and his fellow sages were going to see the remains of the Temple that still stood. They reached Mount Scopus from which they could see the ruins and tore their clothing in mourning. They descended and as they approached the Temple Mount they saw the remains of the Holy of Holies with animals roaming about in it. The sages again tore their clothing and began to weep. Akiva, however, laughed.

“How can you laugh when the holiest place has become a refuge for foxes?” they asked.

“How can you weep?” he replied.

He then explained, “There is a prophecy that the Temple would be destroyed and foxes would roam in it. There is another prophecy that it would be rebuilt and that old people would yet sit and enjoy the rebuilt Jerusalem. Until I saw that the first had been fulfilled, I was not certain that the second would come to be. Now I am certain it will happen.”

“Akiva,” they said, “you have comforted us, you have comforted us” (Sifre Deuteronomy 43).

I thought of this story not long ago when I stood at the section of the Western Wall where the massive stones hurled down by the Romans when they destroyed the Temple are heaped up exactly where they have been ever since that dreadful day. And yet we are able to stand there and pray as a free people in our own land. It may be difficult for those who never knew a time when Israel did not exist – and that is the vast majority of Jews today – to appreciate the wonder of this event. It is important to keep that feeling alive and not become despondent because of the problems that Israel faces today, internally and externally.

The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.

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