Religious Life

Zionism’s Infinite Ideal

Zionism’s Infinite Ideal
28 Tevet 5779 | January 5, 2018
Rabbi Alexander Davis

History. Family. Connection. Conflict. I added Tarbut, culture.

As we went around the circle, each person shared one word that for them captured the meaning of Israel. It was the opening night of our family tour to Israel. 39 of us traveled to the Holy Land, some for the first time ever, some for the first time in 20 years. We packed a lot in over nine days from jeep rides in the Golan Heights to floating in the Dead Sea, singing in the Roman amphitheater of Ceasaria to shopping amidst the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem’s Machaneh Yehuda farmer’s market. We covered politics, history, geology, theology and of course left time for shopping and dining as we took in the sights, sounds, and tastes of Israel.

Beth El’s former senior rabbi, Rob Kahn was our guide and his daughter Dalya who had finished her army service just four days earlier, served as our youth madricha. So, you can imagine that the learning was accessible, creative, full of laughter and sweet- correct answers to Rabbi Kahn’s questions were rewarded with candy which kept the students engaged.

There are many words that could be used to describe the trip itself: song-filled, fun, feast, busy, inspiring, tiring, spiritual, and on and on. But I’d like to concentrate on two words from that first night that captured our impression of Israel. Ingenious and Complex. And indeed, over the coming days, we encountered examples of both.

Ingenious. Deep inside the Western Wall tunnels, our guide pointed out a Herodian stone over 44 feet long, 9 feet tall weighing over 500 tons. It’s one of the largest building blocks in the world. How did builders 2000 years ago move it perfectly into place? Archaeologists presented this question to physicists who have come up with various theories but no definitive answers.

Those same builders were tasked with another seemingly impossible job- supply water to the top of a desert mountain community where it rains only once a year. They did so by channeling water through the Judean hills to fill the enormous cisterns of Masada.

Jump ahead 1900 hundred years and we see resourcefulness without which the State of Israel would not have been born. In 1945, kibbutznicks in Rechovot knew that war was approaching and worried that without ammunition, Israel didn’t stand a chance to survive. So, they devised a plan to build an underground bullet factory literally under the noses of the British. They encountered many problems along the way but with each challenge, they devised a solution. For example, it didn’t take long for underground workers to realize that they were not tanning like their fellow kibbutznicks who were working the fields under the hot sun. They couldn’t blow their cover, so they set up a tanning booth in the hidden, underground factory.

Ingenuity of course, takes us to the modern-day State where Israel is using science and technology for among other things, Tikkun Olam, to repair the world. In 2018, investors raised almost $650 billion for Israel’s high-tech industry. I got a taste of this progress, literally.

In Tel Aviv, our group did a scavenger hunt competition around the theme of Israel as Start Up Nation. My team got a clue that led us to the second floor of a near-by office building and to a small box in a hallway. Inside the box was a new solution to the problem of global hunger- Grasshoppers. An Israeli firm is bringing grasshoppers to market as a food supplement because they are very high in protein, have no cholesterol or fat and have a low environmental impact. But to win the point in the scavenger competition, one of us had to eat them. I got the short end of the stick and since they were the kosher variety, I took one for the team. Tasted like chicken. Actually, as long as I closed my eyes, it wasn’t horrible.

I could keep going with example after example of ingenuity. And this is part of what makes the political situation in Israel so baffling. If only Israel could think its way through the problem. But it’s not that simple. That leads me to my second word- Complex.

Of course, there are a lot of things in Israel that are complicated. We got a lesson in Israel’s political system with over a dozen parties. That’s confusing. In the Golan Heights, we stood on the boarder to Syria overlooking a UN base and got a 10-minute introduction by a spirited soldier to geo-politics of the region: Sunni, Shia, Iran, Hezbollah, Alawites, Russia. Now that was complicated.

But complex is not just understanding history and ideology. It is the serious issues, seemingly unsolvable problems that threaten Israel’s future: the environmental impact of global warming, the issue of religious pluralism, and of course, when it comes to the Palestinians, the tension between Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State.

The truth is, I’d rather give a sermon that didn’t have to get into these issues. But there is almost no way to avoid it. Everything in Israel has divisive political overtones from the chumus we ate to the history we studied. Here is one example.

We visited an Arab town just outside of Jerusalem called Ein Rafa. It’s right next to Abu Gosh. There, we met with Israeli Arab high school students. These were bright students, fluent in English. Many will attend Israel’s fine universities and study medicine, or law or science. And though they are full citizens of the State, unlike Israeli Jews, they will not go to the army or do the alternative sh’nat shirut, a year of service. Because while their parents consider themselves Israeli Arabs, they call themselves Palestinians. They feel like second class Israelis and so have little desire to serve the State. They see that their extended family in the territories experience restrictions on movement, challenges of employment and what they consider discrimination.  So, it was not surprising to hear their hopes for a “one state solution.” That is to say, they dream of a secular state where Jews and Palestinians live side by side. It sounds nice, but it is not a Jewish State, not a Home Land for the Jewish people- and these are among the most supportive of Israel’s Arab population.

Sadly, one word that did not come up was peace process. Given rockets from Gaza and terror tunnels in the north, given that parties on the left are in disarray and the government is heading for elections, and given the death of left-wing icon, Amos Oz and his generation, there is no discussion about peace process. As westerners, we have a problem with that. We are impatient. We have a short view of history. We would do well to understand the Israeli perspective. The pre-army students with whom we met said, “Peace? What do you mean by peace? Not in our life time.” At the same time, they believe that progress can be made. And indeed, today Israel enjoys better relations with Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the UAE than ever before.

There is much more I can share about our trip. I encourage you to speak to those who traveled to get their impressions and hear their stories. And I invite you to speak to me about our next Beth El Israel mission because these kinds of powerful and enriching experiences are needed now more than ever. At a time when people are predicting a schism of American and Israeli Jews, we built bridges of connection based on love and understanding, openness and honesty.

For now, though, allow me to turn our attention to the beginning of the parasha. There we read God’s promise to the Israelites: “I will free you, and deliver you, and redeem you, and take you, and bring you into the Land.”

I know we are just approaching the Tu B’shvat seder. But skip ahead with me and you’ll recall that this passage inspires the four cups at the Passover seder. It is referred to as the arba l’shonot d’geula, the four verbs describing four stages of redemption. God will free the Israelites from physical slavery, redeem them from psychological enslavement, liberate them to think of themselves as free people and take them into a special relationship as God’s people.

The problem, of course, is that there are five verbs not just four. The fifth verb is v’heveiti etkhem el haaretz. I will bring you into the land.” So why don’t we drink five cups? Davka now that the Jewish people has returned to the Land and built the Jewish State, all the more so, we should toast our settling the land.

In explaining the missing fifth cup, some argue that the hagaddah focuses on the exodus, on leaving Egypt rather than arriving in Israel. Others reason that the hagaddah is written by and for Jews in exile. “Next year in Jerusalem” clearly indicates that the author was in the diaspora when he wrote it.

But I want to suggest that it is not quite that simple. In the Talmud, Rabbi Tarfon does instruct us regarding a fifth cup which over the course of time becomes kos eliyahu, the cup of Elijah. That is to say, the fifth cup does not come to symbolize v’heveiti etkhem el haaretz that God has brought us into our land but symbolizes the messianic era.

The implication is that even once we are brought into the land, we have not reached our final destination. Our mission is not over. Until the messiah arrives, until we achieve a higher level of perfection, we are incomplete. Therefore, the fifth cup is poured but not drunk. But note where this cup appears in the seder- chamishi gomer alav et hahallel. It is part of the Hallel prayers. The very cup that symbolizes incompletion is nevertheless raised in celebration.

The message is subtle but important. To those who only see Israel’s ingenuity and not her complexity, we note that the fifth cup marking our entrance to the land is poured but not blessed, not drunk. To those who only see Israel’s complexity, we raise that cup and sing in celebration despite its imperfections.

Like every country, Israel is flawed. It is incomplete. That strikes us as Jews deeply because it is ours and because we are conditioned to want to fix- l’taken olam. There are great challenges, great complexities that must be resolved. But even in this state of unfinished redemption, we can rejoice. We pour the fifth cup and sing Hallel to celebrate how far we’ve come. But we don’t drink from it to acknowledge there is still more to go. Much work remains. Therefore, the same Rabbi Tarfon teaches “lo alekha hamlakha ligmor, we don’t have to complete the task but neither are we free from starting.”

We hear an echo of these ideas in the writings of Theodore Herzl. In one of his final essays he wrote, “I once called Zionism an infinite ideal, and I truly believe that even after we possess our land, the Land of Israel, Zionism will not cease to be an ideal. For Zionism as I understand it includes not only the yearning for a plot of promised land legally acquired for our weary people, but also the aspiration to reach moral and spiritual perfection.” I shared these words with you last Yom Kippur at the afternoon study session. I hadn’t realized then until this trip, that they are now the first words that greet you when you land at Ben Gurion Airport, “Zionism an infinite ideal tzionut hi idiali ein sofi.”

Israel is a work in progress, an on-going miracle in the making. May we be privileged to deepen our love of and relationship with the State celebrating her achievements and helping her from near and far to reach her potential of perfection.

Shabbat Shalom