Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, April 29, 2017
Rabbi Michael Friedland
This week’s Torah portion is Tazria Metzora and deals mostly with a skin disease whose description is very gross. So let’s not talk about that. But it begins with rules regarding sacrificial offerings given by a childbearing woman after the birth of the child. And since this coming week we celebrate the birth of Israel in 1948, let’s talk about that. How’s that for a segue.
69 years ago this week, enthusiastic yet anxious crowds lined up along Rothschild Boulevard in the relatively young city of Tel Aviv to watch the leadership of the Peoples’ Council in Palestine hastily make their way up the steps of the city’s art museum just before 4 PM. Rumor had it that David Ben Gurion and the leadership would declare the establishment of a Jewish state. Dr. Isadore Shalit who was Theodor Herzl’s personal secretary and had been at the very first meeting of the Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland in 1897 hobbled into the building. Children climbed the trees that lined the street, planted in honor of Baron DeRothschild “twittered and tweeted just like birds” not the kind of tweeting we do today, but a human throated tweeting in anticipation of the historic announcement. David Ben Gurion read the declaration which read in part:
“In the year 1897 the first Zionist Congressinspired by Theodor Herzl’s vision of the Jewish State, proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national revival in their own country…This right was acknowledged in the Balfour declaration of November 2 1917 and reaffirmed by the Mandate of the League of Nations…On November 29 , 1947 the general Assembly of the United Nations adopted a Resolution requiring the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz Yisrael…It is the natural right of the Jewish people to lead as do all other nations an independent existence in its sovereign state. Accordingly we the members of the National council, representing the Jewish people in Eretz Yisraeland the World Zionist Movement…by virtue of the natural and historic right of the Jewish people…we hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael to be called Medinat Yisrael, The State of Israel.”
Moshe Shertok who would become the second prime minister of Israel after Ben Gurion and Hebraized his name to Sharett, left the museum and walked to his mother’s apartment down the street. When people recognized him a great shout went out and followed him all the way to his mother’s home, screaming and demanding that he come out and make a statement. He eventually did come out on the porch and proclaimed, “We have begun to perform a mitzvah and we will continue”.
At about midnight amidst dancing and celebrating a loudspeaker announced that the British mandate of Palestine was now over. The crowd broke into a spontaneous singing of HaTikvah. Immediately after another announcement reminded the crowds that there was a curfew due to the threat of attack by Egyptian and other Arab forces. Ben Gurion the great leader of Independence later wrote in his diary watching the crowds celebrate this new beginning, “I was again a mourner among celebrants.”
The Zionist movement and the birth of the state of Israel is the greatest extended moment in the history of the Jewish people since Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai asked the Romans bent on destroying the last Jewish sovereign state, Give me Yavneh. In the year 67, in the midst of destruction, Rabbi Yohanan’s vision of exile and reestablishing the Jewish people as a landless Diasporan nation bound by Torah and halakha saved the remnant of Israel and gave us a language which held our people together for 2000 years. In 1897, visionaries such as Moses Hess, Herzl, and A D Gordon could see that future danger awaited a Jewish people who had no control over their national fate, a stateless landless cosmopolitan people who were at the mercy of the anti Semitic and often violent nativist majorities. And then the great tragedy did occur destroying one third of our people. But the seeds and roots and shoots sprouting from the early Zionist enterprise merging with Jewish communities that had long lived in Eretz Yisrael offered a future for our decimated people.
We all know that the history of Israel is complex and filled with highs and lows, some of the tragic events caused by the continuing hatred against our people by neighboring states and peoples and some caused by decisions made by we Jews ourselves. But it has been one of the great periods of redemption in our people’s history.
One of my favorite podcasts, one which should be a new mitzvah, is to listen to the Promised Podcast from TLV1. Three American born Israeli academic/educator/journalists, Noah Efron, Alison Kaplan Sommer and Don Futterman, coming from the left side of the political spectrum debate issues of the day in the State of Israel. Even though they are all liberal Zionists because they are Jews there are at least 4 opinions to every issue amongst the three of them. But unlike so many American shows that deal with our politics, they are thoughtful, passionate well reasoned and make you think.
This last week they did a thought experiment. They posited two woman refugees coming to Israel in 1948, one from Czechoslovakia, a survivor from Theresienstadt, the other coming from Morocco. If you could transport them 69 years into the future, as the Midrash does with Moses, bringing him into a classroom with Rabbi Akiva, in order to see how the Israel they arrived at as refugees in 1948 had transformed to today, what would make them proud, what would amaze them, what would sadden and disturb them.
Alison Sommer chose the bounty of food and lifestyle opportunities that their offspring would enjoy. For refugees being able to look into the future and see the wealth and relative safety that the Jewish state had achieved would be remarkable. I think for those of us in America to hear an Israeli acknowledge the safety of living in Israel is so important. We get snippets of news about Israel that only focus on wars and attacks and it is so easy to assume that Israelis live on the edge and have an “eat drink for tomorrow we die” philosophy when in fact, in daily life terms, Israel is far more comforting place to live than many American cities.
Don Futterman expressed that he believed that they would be amazed that Israel still existed. In 1948 it was not a guarantee that Israel would survive the coordinated attacks of established armies and the still great anti-Semitism of much of the world. They would be shocked and pleased at the technological advancements. A country that barely 70 years old had brought so many important positive changes to the world through its technological innovations. Futterman who is the most critical of the Israeli political establishment of the three also felt that our two visitors from the past would find it remarkable that 20% of the population of the Jewish state was Arab and at least under the law, if not in most cases reality, had equal rights in Israeli society. Noah Efron seconded this, saying he did not know if they would be impressed or fearful that the head of surgery at a major hospital is a Palestinian Israeli; amazed that there is a peace treaty that has held between Israel and Egypt and with Jordan; that Germany is Israel’s best friend in Europe; that Israelis are so open and aware of the world around them that young Israelis take months long journeys to India and the like after army service; that the kibbutz movement and agriculture which was the core economic activity in 1948 was now marginal to the country’s welfare. Seeing over 100,000 Ethiopian Jews and the rise of ultra Orthodoxy after the Shoah would be a shock. And the reality that in 69 years, it is Arab countries that are dissolving into chaos while Israel is the cohesive stable nation in the Middle East could not have been predicted. There would be disappointments as well – the advancement in the role of women and how they are treated in society is not that much improved, the huge disparity of wealth in the country, a country in which everyone in 1948 from the Prime Minister to the newest refugee were not so far apart in economic expectations but today has as severe an income inequality gap as the United States. There would be a sadness that Israel is so riven by tribal divisions – ethnic, religious, that is intra religious and inter religious, economic.
Don Futterman concluded the discussion by stating that these two woman brought to modern Israel would be impressed and grateful that a new nation birthed into a fight for its very survival had persevered and achieved beyond what would might expect. The frustration for those of our generation is that we see how much better Israel could be, how much discrimination, exploitation, craven power politics and moral blindness the nation suffers from. But why shouldn’t it? Our country is no better and arguably much farther from the goals we set for this nation. But both America and Israel are great nations because both have the power to redeem – not only those who have suffered and come to their shores as oppressed refugees and have the opportunity to grow into free proud self-differentiated individuals, but also the nations themselves, recognizing their deficiencies and self-correcting.
Let me conclude by quoting one of my favorite modern Zionists, President Barak Obama: “the story of Israel, is ... the story of a people who, over so many centuries in the wilderness, never gave up on that basic human longing to return home. It’s the story of a people who suffered the boot of oppression and the shutting of the gas chamber’s door, and yet never gave up on a belief in goodness.”
“[J]ustice and hope are at the heart of the Zionist idea. Israel’s exceptionalism is rooted not only in fidelity to the Jewish people, but to the moral and ethical vision of the Jewish faith.”
Ken Yhi Ratzon.