As life slows down in this area – with the departure of snow birds and preparations for graduations, summer plans and travel – we cannot forget that this period, after Pesach and before Shavuot, is particularly important on the Jewish calendar. On these days, there are three observances that were created by and for the Jewish people in our own times.
Last week, we joined together in commemoration of the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah. It was a time of reflection and memory. Our program here at B’nai Torah was particularly beautiful.
Today we remember again on Yom HaZikaron. On this day, we recall the lives of the men, women, boys and girls who died as heroes defending the establishment and ongoing existence and safety of the State of Israel. Every single life is recalled. Those who have been in Israel during this time understand the seriousness and sanctity of this day. But the tears of Yom HaZikaron quickly turn to joy on Yom Ha’atzmaut, when we celebrate the 68th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel tonight and tomorrow.
There is a connection between last week’s observance of Yom HaShoah and this week’s observance and celebration of Israel. The loss of six million was in no small way a function of our people being stateless. There was no sovereign Jewish State, and there were no nations that came to our rescue. In the shadow of the Shoah, we all understand the importance of a Jewish state. The celebration is enhanced with the realization that we aspired for a homeland and independence for over two thousand years.
I have a memory to share from June of 1967. I was at Camp Ramah. We had been there a few days when we found out that the mishlachat, the group of young Israeli adults who helped staff the camp, would be at camp that summer after all. They had all just come off the battlefields after a remarkable victory during the Six Day War. Late one afternoon, we were all gathered on the field when the bus bringing them into camp arrived. Our Israeli coworkers got off the bus and we joined together singing, dancing, hearing stories and celebrating life. We knew what that war meant. We knew how Israel’s very existence was at stake. And those of us there felt very connected to the soldiers who had returned. They brought a resounding spirit to the camp. It was beautiful.
Now it is thirty nine years later. The conditions of the state are profoundly different, and our understanding of Jewsih sovereignty has deepened. And we realize, gratefully, that although there are constant threats to Israel’s security and the safety of our citizens, Israel is now very strong.
But we must be concerned for more than just survival of the state. We need to look at the purpose of survival and the meaning of the Jewish state.
I’d like you to look at the following words from Israel’s Declaration of Independence:
[blockquote name=””]“THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”[/blockquote]
We tell ourselves that Israel, like the Jewish people, did not come into being to be another nation, or a people like all others. Our existence was – and still is – mission driven, rooted in the notions of tzedek and mishpat (righteousness and justice). Our history points to our uniqueness and our minority status, and our experience for centuries as a small oppressed people have shaped a value system that is reflected in the Declaration quoted above.
Today, Israel and the Jewish people are faced with challenges we have never known because we have never had power or autonomy. And so we ask questions. Are we building a fair and equitable economic system? How do we respond to immigrants? How do we treat others in our midst? How do we handle religious freedom and minority rights? And, perhaps most importantly: What are we doing about a people, yearning for their autonomy, whose current situation through an occupation is having deleterious effects on our nation and the Jewish people throughout the world?
These are serious questions and we must be partners in helping to find the solutions. What we have learned is that what happens to one Jew is felt by all, and what one Jew does impacts all of us. And, we know that all of Israel is responsible one for the other.
As we went from slavery to freedom, and learned lessons that we have shared with humankind, so too may we go from the pain of our past to celebrating our present and our future; internalizing and teaching others what it means to be responsible members of the Jewish people and of all humanity.
Today we mourn…tonight and tomorrow we celebrate. There is good reason to celebrate. But we must not stop there. We must also reflect on what needs to be done. Let us create deeper meaning in it all.
Rabbi David Steinhardt