Religious Life

Israel Flowering at 70

Israel Flowering at 70
6 Iyar 5778 | April 21, 2018
Rabbi Alexander Davis

You’ve heard of bird watching. In Israel, I learned of a variation- flower watching. Israelis go out to look for signs of spring in the blossoming of the earth.

When we were on sabbatical in 2012, we arrived in the spring and spent our first few weeks travelling around the country. I remember one drive south. We were in the middle of nowhere when all of a sudden we found ourselves in a traffic jam. People had pulled off to the side of the road, left their cars, had gone to explore and to photograph a small patch of land. It was maybe an acre in size and was a sea of red. The flowers looked like poppies but I learned were actually red anemones, in Hebrew, kalniyot. Apparently this particular patch in the Negev is quite popular since it lasts for only a few spring days before the summer heat dries the flowers out. I later learned that there is even a wildflower festival in the area, the Scarlet South Festival. This year’s theme was “Darom Adom Yisrael.”

I’ve been thinking about those flowers now as I long for spring (in Israel, they blossom in February). But I’ve also been thinking about kalaniot, declared Israel’s national flower in 2013, in relation to Israel’s 70th Independence Day.

This week Israel marked her seventieth birthday and we will celebrate as a community on Sunday which is also Earth Day. And the two together with the kalanit brought me to thinking about Israel through the lens of tefilah l’shlom hamidina, the Prayer for Israel, actually just three words.

We are familiar with the prayer for Israel that we recite week after week: “Avinu shebashamayim, barekh et midinat yisrael reshit tz’michat g’ulateinu.” Since we recite it in Hebrew, I want us to focus on the English.

As we know, every translation is a form of interpretation. Let’s see how different siddurim from different movements and perspectives translate it, specifically the phrase reshit tz’michat g’ulateinu:

Reshit- like the word bereshit or rosh refers to the beginning.
Tz’michat- the word tzemech means plant. Tzmichat refers to blossoming or blooming.
G’ulateinu- our redemption. The messianic era.

The Koren siddur, a siddur used in modern orthodox shuls translates the phrase in a straightforward, quite beautiful way, “Bless the State of Israel, the first flowering of our redemption.”

In the Zionist Nehalel siddur, it reads, “Bless the State of Israel, the inaugural burgeoning of our salvation.” Wow. That kinda sticks to your tongue.

The new Reform siddur, Mishkan Tefilah, reads: “Bless the State of Israel which marks the dawning of hope for all who seek peace.” Now that is what we call poetic license.

The siddur of the Conservative movement in Israel, V’ani T’filati, translates it… Oh wait, there is no translation into English.

How does Artscroll translate it? It doesn’t. There is no prayer for Israel. Let’s understand this for a minute.

First of all, we should note that some editions of Artscroll do have the prayer. That is to say, some of our Orthodox brethren do recite tefilah l’shlom hamidina. Some do not. To put a face on the theology, our neighbors at Darchei recite the prayer. Our neighbors at Bais and at Torah Academy do not. That is not to say that they don’t like Israel. They are not anti-Zionist. But they don’t believe that the State has any religious significance. Its founding is not part of God’s plan for the world. Therefore, Israel is not the beginning of anything. Now if it were to be a truly Jewish state, not a secular democracy but a state founded on and run according to Orthodox halakha, then perhaps they would say these words. But as is, Israel is important as a place where lots of Jews live and where much of Jewish history happened but is theologically unimportant.

In any case, let’s come back to translations. Our Conservative siddur Sim Shalom reads: “Bless the State of Israel with its promise of redemption.” I would call that a creative translation. The word promise is nowhere to be found in the Hebrew.

Why are there so many different translations? Here’s a hint: It is not about the poetry. It’s about the theology, about how God operates in the world and significantly, how we perceive the State of Israel.

We see that clearly in one additional version, the Conservative movement’s new siddur, Lev Shalem, which translates as follows, “Bless the State of Israel [that it may be] the beginning of redemption.”

This version follows the practice of England’s chief Rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits who added the word “sheteni, it may be.” Doing so turns the phrase into an expression of hope rather than a statement of fact. Not, “Israel is the first flowering of redemption” but a prayer, “May Israel become the beginning of redemption.” Putting the word in parentheses is a way for the community to choose whichever sentiment they prefer to pray.

Let’s dig deeper into the difference more.

Some argue that the modern State, for all its faults, is “the instrument through which God will bring the Jewish people its redemption” (Jonathan Sacks). Indeed, gathering Jews from around the globe fulfills the prophet’s vision of one of the first steps toward redemption. It is reshit tzmichat g’ulateinu. Still others can’t reconcile the Israel they know with this description of Israel as flowering of redemption. They see too many weeds. Occupation, they say, can’t conceivably be part of the plan of redemption. Therefore, they qualify the statement saying, “Israel holds the promise or hope of redemption.”

To better understand the parameters of the discussion, we need to know the history. The original prayer was written by Israel’s chief rabbi, Rav Herzog and edited by Nobel laureate, Shai Agnon.

When they spoke of “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption,” they did not mean the messianic redemption; rather, the simple redemption consisting of Jewish sovereignty in the land.

In the aftermath of the Six Day War, however, that the understanding changed. The students of Rav Zvi Yehudah Kook asked argued that “beginning of redemption” referred not to Jews having sovereignty in the Land but the State having absolute sovereignty over all parts of Eretz Yisrael. The implication of their theology is that were the State to return territory, it would betray the beginning of redemption.

But we don’t have to understand the phrase in geo-political terms because phrases like “beginning of redemption” predate the State. They were already in use 100 years before the State of Israel was established. In 1874, for example, the early Zionist, Polish rabbi, Eliyhu Guttmacher, wrote a letter saying if there were 130 families working the Land, it would be considered the beginning of redemption. This notion that a sign of the messiah would be apparent in the earth is based on a teaching in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a): “Abba said: “There is no clearer indication of the end of days than what the prophet Ezekiel said: ‘you, O mountains of Israel, shoot forth branches and bear fruit for my people Israel” (Ezekiel 36:8.). That is to say, the blossoming of the earth is not a sign that winter is past.  The first flowering of the Land that gives us hope for tomorrow, hope that the spring and the season of peace will one day arrive.

A seed takes root in the earth and stretches forth out of the ground to the sky toward the light. Israel began as a seed. That seed first took root when Abraham moved to the Land, looked up to the heavens and was blessed to learn that his descendants would one day dwell on the land. Later, that seed was carried in the heart of Moshe across a desert and planted in a land flowing with milk and honey by Joshua. Thousands of years later, a long dormant seed began to germinate in the mind of a secular Jewish man in Vienna. He watered that seed and cared for it. And it grew and grew, eventually being replanted in its native soil. And then in 1948, that seed blossomed forth. And in that same year, a song writer put to music a poem written three years earlier by Hebrew poet, Natan Alterman, a poem called, Kalaniyot, Anemones:

Anemones, anemones
reddish, red-haired
Anemones, anemones
anemones of dew and grace/charm

Sunset on the hill will blaze and go out
but the anemones will always bloom.
Storms will thunder and roar greatly
but the anemones will always bloom.

Yes, generations come and pass without end
but each generation has an anemone in a tune.
Happy is the man if between storms and thunder
an anemone bloomed for him, if only just once.

כלניות כלניות
כלניות אדמדמות אדמוניות
כלניות כלניות
כלניות מטוללות חינניות

שקיעות בהר תבערנה ותדעכנה
אבל כלניות תמיד תפרחנה
סופות לרוב תהומנה ותסערנה
אבל כלניות תבערנה

כן הדורות באים חולפות בלי גמר
אך לכל דור יש כלניות וזמר
אשרי האיש אם בין סופות ורעם
פרחה הכלנית לו, לוּ רק פעם


Shabbat Shalom.