The Blessed Burden: Celebrating Israel’s 75th Birthday
The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was a momentous event, a miracle, the fulfillment of a two-thousand year dream of a displaced people. During our years of dispersion, we survived physical persecution, spiritual assault, even genocide. Despite this, in the face of all that history has thrown at us, “we still have not lost our faith.” That animating phrase of irrational hope in the face of harsh reality, is the life-force of the Jewish People. Hatikvah: Hope.
The mystic stirrings of the Jewish heart in the aftermath of the Holocaust were profound. We were shaken to the core by the unspeakable horrors that we had witnessed. But that was not the founding of Modern Zionism, the conviction that the Jewish People have a right to self-determine in our own homeland. That idea, the notion of a Jewish home, predates any nation-state. It is biblical in inception. We were born there. That soil has been our home, has witnessed our pride and degradation. And, in these last 75 years, it has also felt the footsteps of a proud People who have returned home.
We should look with pride at all that we have accomplished: a vibrant (if all too fragile) democracy that serves a beacon of hope (and bellwether) for people all over the world. We have created a thriving economy that is a model of innovation and entrepreneurship. We have built a strong military that defends our people and our land, that holds itself accountable for the values of tohar neshek, the moral use of deadly force. Perhaps a working definition of Zionism is this very intense dynamic: the ethical use of power we wish we didn’t need.
Yes, it’s true, that in our 75th year as a nation reborn, we face internal struggles unlike those of the previous two thousand years. As Yehuda Amichai, one of the world’s greatest poets, wrote of the beauty and complexity of Israel, saying, “The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams, like the air over industrial cities. It’s hard to breathe.” This paradox — the beauty and complexity of our homeland — is a blessed burden. If only there had been a complicated, beautiful home for our homeless grandparents, great-grandparents two hundred years ago, one thousand years ago, 85 years ago… Imagine an alternative history of the Jewish People that didn’t include centuries of pogroms, expulsions, and worse. For so long, the world had “a Jewish Problem,” and the Jews had a problem too — the world. Now, now, it is different. With the founding of the State of Israel, we have regained the right to have our own problems.
The State of Israel remains an experiment in progress, facing many challenges, both internal and external. We must remain vigilant in our efforts to secure the Jewish State’s future. We must continue to work towards the ideals articulated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which remains a touchstone for all of us who believe in the promise of a healthy and noble Zionism.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke of the need to embrace the mystery of life, to recognize that we are all part of something greater than ourselves. He said, “Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious person’s attitude toward history and nature.” This is the attitude that has sustained the Jewish People, the inspiration that must guide us as we continue the work of building a society worthy of our ancestors’ dreams and our descendents’ lives.
I find myself deeply moved by the historic declaration of independence made by the State of Israel on May 14th, 1948. This marked the dawn of a new era for the Jewish people.
As Rabbi Nachman of Breslov once wrote in Ukraine: “All begins are difficult, since in the beginning, one must break and create a new opening. It is therefore very hard.” And, in the words of his literary descendent, Leonard Cohen, who was himself moved to join his fellow Jews in Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
May we, the Jewish People, continue the sacred task of building our homeland. May the State of Israel and the People of Israel be blessed with strength and safety as we continue sharing our precious light with the world.