Keep Dreaming: The case for a greater Israel

With Passover just ended and Independence Day fast approaching, it is the season to contemplate the meaning of freedom and the values that unite us.

April 9, 2010 18:19

israel flag draped 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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‘It would have been enough.’ Really? I don’t know about you, but I’m not particularly keen about the idea of having been taken out of Egypt only to be left to starve to death in the desert. And since I’m commanded to see myself as being among the 600,000 or so of my brethren who participated in the Exodus, I feel I should also have the right to weigh in on the matter.

So each year at the Seder table, when I get to Dayenu, I’m confronted by the same question: Would it really have been enough had we been released from bondage without ever arriving in the Promised Land?

Truth be told, I can’t comfortably answer that in the affirmative. Honestly, I don’t think Moses could either. No, I believe he had a far grander purpose in mind when he told old Pharaoh, let my people go. Sociologists say that behind every migration there’s both a push and a pull, and I’d venture to say that in our case, too, the flight from slavery is only part of the story.

Yes, I think there’s a good argument to be made for Passover being not only about liberty, but also sovereignty. Throughout the biblical narrative, every mention of the release from bondage is coupled with a declaration about a land flowing with milk and honey. Which brings us to Independence Day.

Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that the two holidays are in such close proximity to one another, but as we begin counting the omer we find a calendar jam-packed with days dedicated to the Holocaust and heroism, remembrance of Israel’s fallen, the life and deeds of Theodor Herzl, the Bar Kochba revolt, the liberation of Jerusalem and the giving of the Torah. Clearly a season requiring some thought about the meaning of freedom and the values that unite us.

I don’t know how many there might be, but this year in particular I’d like to propose one that we all agree to subscribe to: the belief in a greater Israel.

BEFORE IRATELY rejecting this proposition or eagerly embracing it, let me explain. The government has declared that the 62nd anniversary of Jewish statehood will also be a celebration of Theodor Herzl’s 150th birthday – and I believe that striving for a greater Israel is the best present we could give him. That might sound odd considering that at one stage or another the visionary of the Jewish state actually contemplated establishing it in Argentina, Uganda or El-Arish. But that’s exactly the point. The greater Israel Herzl envisioned had nothing to do with borders; it had everything to do with morals, ideals and behavior. Things that were also important to Moses. And now we’ve come full circle.

The parallels between these two great personalities who figured so prominently in the chronicles of our national liberation are remarkable: their privileged upbringing far removed from the suffering of the Jewish masses; their transformation from a course of assimilation to self-determination after witnessing the affliction of one Jew who was every Jew; the understanding they came to that despite the comfortable station in life they enjoyed, that they were indeed strangers in a foreign land; their audacity in demanding of the most powerful leaders of their day that they take up the cause of Jewish freedom; their initial rejection by those whom they most sought to serve; their loneliness and sense of dejection following one setback after another; and finally, their disappointment at not being able to lead their people into the Promised Land.

But more important than all of these similarities is one other: the vision with which they sought to inspire. Listen to Moses as he prepares us for crossing the Jordan, the last stage of a 40-year journey that began when the waters of the sea first parted: “See, I have imparted to you laws and rules... to abide by in the land that you are about to enter and possess. Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who... will say, ‘Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people’” (Deuteronomy 4:5-6).

Whether we take the Torah as the word of God or as the expression of Jewish sensibilities, it is instructive to recognize that as our ancestors were about to embark upon this conquest, Moses sought to teach them that it was not their might with which they needed to impress the international community, but rather the nature of the society they would establish – one that looked out for those less able to look out for themselves: the widow and the orphan, the naked and poor, and the stranger within our gates. The home we were about to build is where we would become a nation of priests and a blessing to all nations, the framework from within which to pursue our ethical and spiritual destiny.

ENTER HERZL. From the very beginning of his Zionist journey, which began as a preoccupation with establishing a refuge from the ravages of anti-Semitism, he challenged his followers to remain ever aware of the loftier aspirations of their undertaking as well: “Even after we possess our land, Zionism shall not cease to be an ideal. For Zionism includes not only the yearning for a plot of Promised Land legally acquired for our weary people, but also the yearning for ethical and spiritual fulfillment.”

So, having just sat around the Seder table recounting for our children the festival of freedom more than 60 years after reestablishing the Jewish commonwealth, we would be well advised to add as a postscript Herzl’s counsel to the assembled delegates at one of the Zionist congresses: “Those of us who are today prepared to hazard our lives for the cause would regret having raised a finger if we were able to organize only a new social system and not a more righteous one.”

And to the settlers of Altneuland, the imaginary state he willed into being in his utopian novel, he cautioned, “All that you have cultivated will be worthless and your fields will again be barren, unless you also cultivate freedom of thought and expression, generosity of spirit and love for humanity. These are the things you must cherish and nurture.”

As we prepare to mark a century and a half since Herzl was born, we can pay him no greater homage than to embrace this legacy. Passover and Independence Day may mark events separated by 3,500 years, but the moral compass held by the two personalities who dominate the stories is the same and leads us on a straight line from one to the other – and to the sobering reality that we have fallen short of their expectations.

Dayenu? Can it indeed be said of what has been achieved that it is enough? An unqualified “yes” in terms of appreciating what others have already done for us. A resounding “no” in terms of the greater Israel that is yet to be built and that it is now the collective responsibility of all who left Egypt to fulfill our promise in the Promised Land.

The writer represents worldwide Masorti/Conservative Judaism on the executives of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization, where he also serves as head of the Department for Zionist Activities.

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