The necessity of hope

Jewish tradition demands we remember that with freedom comes the responsibility to fight for a redeemed world.

A beggar in Jerusalem 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
A beggar in Jerusalem 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Passover and Israel’s Independence Day are deeply connected. Not just the proximity of their calendar dates but because for centuries Passover, and particularly the Seder, remains the Jewish ritual celebrating our people’s freedom and independence. We turn our Seder tables into the most festive “altar,” we offer prayers of hope and thanksgiving. We lift our glass to Elijah, reaching for redeemed world. Passover is our great national holiday shared by all Jews everywhere.
Another connection between Passover Independence Day can be found on the Shabbat of Passover, usually in the interim days known as Hol Hamoed. On this Shabbat we recite the Song of Songs, that luscious biblical love poem filled with imagery of the Land of Israel. The image of these landscapes, flora and fauna helps ground us in the hills and valleys of this land.
And a wonderful connection between the two days can be found in the words of the biblical prophet Ezekiel, that we chant on the Shabbat of Passover recited as the Haftara (additional prophetic portion).
In what is commonly known as the vision of the Dry Bones, Ezekiel offers a powerful and urgent message for the future: “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost (v’avda tikvateinu), we are cut off [from life]” (37:11). But then after this desolation comes the promise of renewal and restoration: “I will put My breath into you and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land” (37:14).
Writing a great epic poem in 1886, Naftali Herz Imber literally willed the revival of the Jewish people in their homeland, in defiance and deference to the words of Ezekiel. “Our Hope is not lost (od lo avda tikvateinu),” wrote Imber.
This poem became “Hatikva” the words of Israel’s national anthem.
Imber was a romantic poet in every sense of the word, and his great love was of Jewish texts. His original “Hatikva” consists of many verses, all with great pathos, yearning for the return of the Jewish People to their homeland, drenched with biblical references. He was inspired by our classic sources. In fact, that the essence of Hatikva can be found in the words of Ezekiel is testimony to the story of the revival of Hebrew language and poetry, as well as the rebirth of a nation.
The rebirth of the Hebrew language, poetry and prose represent what is probably the most powerful cultural resurrection of the 20th century. Ezekiel was right. These words, written sometime in the sixth century BCE, resonated in the hearts, minds, and pens of our early Zionist dreamers. Recited century after century, this haftara has changed from a wistful prayer to a clarion call to action.
Our Passover Haggada, liturgy and biblical readings, stop short of our entrance into the Land of Israel. Yet, we have indeed entered, and as we prepare for this 64th year, dare we ask, are we still that beacon of hope, freedom and justice envisioned by our prophetic tradition? We were slaves, we were strangers, we were marginalized, we were despised, it is therefore incumbent upon us to build a society that spreads compassion, promotes justice, and protects the weak.
Israel’s powerful Declaration of Independence set us on course to do just this for the Jewish people, for the minorities within Israel, and even reach out to our hostile neighbors. “To be free people in our land,” claims “Hatikva.”
Sadly, even our anthem has recently stirred controversy, when the Arab Supreme Court Justice was “caught” not singing along when the anthem was played. What other country could boast a woman chief justice and an Arab citizen on the same bench?
“To be a free people” proposes equality. This year, the women of the Court might have demurred as well, as women voices were silenced at other public ceremonies. This past year, women fought against bus segregation, and fought for simple public displays of just being female.
Our Haggada demands that we remember that with freedom comes the responsibility to fight for a redeemed world. We can be free and secure here if we uphold our most precious values of hope and liberation. Our shared destiny needs moderation, compromise and cooperation among the varied sectors of Israeli society. These impulses draw Jews outside of Israel closer to us.
Our young people held up the torch this past summer to remind us that we are here, walking in the footsteps of our prophets. This beacon can serve as inspiration to young Jews worldwide. We have gone from being “upstarts” to “start-ups,” and this economic miracle coupled with a fair distribution of resources continues our great biblical traditions. On this birthday, may we continue to sow the seeds of “tikva” throughout Israeli society.
Imber died destitute in America in 1909. Yet his words resurrect his spirit every time our anthem is sung. Ezekiel was revived and made popular in a famous rock ’n’ roll song in the late 1960s, “Yeah Yeah Yehezkel [Ezekiel].” Only in Israel – where tikva, hope, is never lost.
The writer is the dean of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem.
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