For me, Israel is personal.
I was born as Israel’s War of Independence raged, just weeks after the state’s miraculous birth. As I lay in the hospital room with my mother, the windows shattered with the relentless attacks of those who sought, once again, to destroy us – this time not on their bloodstained soil but on our own sacred land. Once again, by God’s hand, we prevailed. The few against the many. The weak against the so-called strong.
My parents arrived in Palestine on the very last boat to sail from Romania. They were broken, demeaned and degraded but they were determined to find renewal in the holy land. For my family, galut and geulah are not chapters in a history book. They are real life experiences.
For us, Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’Atzmaut were not mere dates on the calendar but days filled with piercing memories that called for reflection, remembrance, and, ultimately, celebration.
For many years, my family was not alone in fervently claiming these dates, these searing modern commemorations, as our own. Growing up in Forest Hills, New York, I remember the crowds of Jews – all Jews, of every age and background – that came together in synagogues and sanctuaries to remember, to pray, and to promise.
I remember the power those long-ago days held for those of us who gathered to commemorate and to celebrate them. But now? Many progressive Jewish communities continue to celebrate Israel, but in the majority of today’s major Orthodox communities it’s rare to find recognition – let alone active celebration – of these most sacred days.
How do we explain this Orthodox response, or lack of it, to the state of Israel? Can any of us deny the miracle Israel represents? For the first time in two thousand years the ingathering of exiles is realized as Jews have returned home to the land promised by God. The city of Jerusalem is rebuilt. The desert once again blooms.
All this on the heels of the greatest churban in Jewish history, the Holocaust.
Miracle of miracles! The gates of Auschwitz closed and the gates of Haifa opened. If ever there was a confirmation of the Divine Covenant, of the eternal relationship between a people, a Torah, God, and a land; if ever there was a fulfillment of prophecies that in spite of a bitter galut and the terror of persecution there would be ultimate geulah and return to the land and its God; if ever there was a period of Messianic possibility and challenge – it is now.
More Jews are engaged in serious, regular, and creative Torah learning in Israel than at any time in the last five centuries. “From Zion the Torah will come forth and the word of God from Jerusalem.” And so it does. The world’s Torah is nourished from its source in Jerusalem. A distinguished chassidic leader recently told me that most Jews are not aware that “the government of the state of Israel is the world’s most generous donor in support of Torah study.”
The silence of the Soviet Jews ended. The influence of Jews in America and Europe is palpable. All this, and more, only because Israel exists.
Yet the majority of Orthodox Jews in America act as though nothing of note happened on May 14, 1948. They refuse to acknowledge God’s outstretched arm or recognize our generation’s restored glory. What arrogance causes them to summarily reject the opportunity to celebrate and rejoice on new Yomim Tovim? How do they show such disregard for those who love, support and sacrifice for Israel? What thinking is behind the rejection of the Hebrew language and the distancing of all that speaks of Tziyonim?
There are Orthodox schools of thought and practice that educate their children – toddlers even! – to think and live as kanaaim.
The fact that modern Israel may not as yet be the fulfillment of all Messianic dreams and aspirations does not, cannot and must not mean its rejection, denial, or disdain.
“Israel,” Rabbi Yaakov Rabinowitz poignantly wrote, “is focal to our people. It is not an afterthought. It is not something to be tolerated for the sake of unity or because it is home and protector to so many of our brothers and sisters. It is a step, small or large is irrelevant, toward redemption. Its triumphs and celebrations are our triumphs and celebrations. There may be differences in the manner of celebration, but we affirm, with strength and conviction and without apology, that it is our simcha and that we want to, and need to, be a part of it. We are proud of its symbols, be they flag or anthem, for they have become sanctified…”
My grandfather, the Romanian gaon Rav Bezalel Ze’ev Shafran, was asked, “Why is it that in the Nusach S’fard Keter Kedushah we ask, V’hu yigaleinu sh’einit?” Why do we ask that God redeem us for the second time? The second redemption has already occurred! Are we not eagerly anticipating the third and ultimate redemption?