Tradition today: The dream of Zion

When the exiles returned from Babylon to Judea after the Babylonian exile, Psalm 126 was composed, which is appropriate for Independence Day.

Parsha (photo credit: Israel Weiss)
(photo credit: Israel Weiss)
When the exiles returned from Babylonia to Judea after the Babylonian exile, Psalm 126 was composed, a psalm which is appropriate for Independence Day, as we celebrate the founding of the State of Israel and the end of the second exile. The first line reads, “When the Lord restored our exiles to Zion we were as dreamers.” The Hebrew for “dreamers” is holmim. It has been suggested that this word might come from the root meaning “to heal” rather than “to dream.” In that case, it would mean “we were as those who are healed.”
Indeed, the return to Zion brought a measure of healing to the Jewish People after the terrible tragedy of the Holocaust. Let me be clear: that does not mean that the founding of the state was the result of the Holocaust, or that it was the reward for that suffering.
There is no such thing, but it helped the Jewish People to recover, not only physically, but spiritually and mentally, allowing us to resume life and to become a vital and creative entity once again.
Nevertheless, the other meaning, “dreamers,” is also of great importance. Those of us who lived through those days felt as if it was a dream come true. Furthermore, we need to have a dream, an ideal of what the Jewish state should be. Of course, the reality seldom matches the dream because there are so many difficulties and problems to overcome. It is easy to dream. It is difficult to bring the dream to actuality.
Our dream of Zion certainly did not envision a situation of perpetual war and struggle against our enemies. It did not foresee the difficulties there would be in creating a permanent peace and recognized border. Nor did we envision the many social problems that a real state encounters – be it violent gangs or corrupt politicians.
Would anyone have envisioned that a president, a prime minister, a finance minister, a chief rabbi, a mayor of Jerusalem and others could be indicted and imprisoned? None of that was part of the original ideal of what Israel should be.
One of the early supporters of Zionism in the United States, at a time when it was not popular, was Israel Friedlander, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He wrote and spoke about Zionism often, and in one of his speeches, given in 1918, he concluded with the following remarks spelling out his dream of what the Jewish state would become: “Palestine is the land of promise not only to the Jew but to the entire world – the promise of a higher and better social order. Upon the gates of the third Jewish commonwealth will be the same prophetic words which greeted the establishment of the second Jewish commonwealth: ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts’ [Zechariah 4:6]”
After more than six decades, have we lost the ability to dream? Has the reality of dealing with the everyday problems of a modern state caused us to forget what we wanted to accomplish by establishing Israel? Have we become so accustomed to crime, to corruption, to poverty, racism, the gap between rich and poor, the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, that we have ceased to dream of the better society, of that “higher and better social order”?
Have we given up on the dream of peace because it is so difficult to achieve? Have we substituted indifference and cynicism for the dream of the Psalmist? I hope not, for that would be a betrayal of all that the Jewish people has striven for during its long history. The revolutionary ideals of the Torah, the magnificent words of the Prophets and the ethical teachings of our Sages deserve better than that. They deserve to be translated into a just and caring society. It is time for us to dream again about what we want this nation to be and to work toward making it a reality.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).