The Miracles and Responsibilities of Yom HaAzma’ut 

I am unhesitatingly proud and joyous today, celebrating Yom HaAtzma’ut, the 68th Israel Independence Day, even as it comes amid some hard times for the state and its society.

Of course, we should grieve for the numerous small-scale terror attacks of “the Intifada of knives,” and support vigilant defense. We should grieve and worry, too, for the diminishments to Israel’s healthy civil society. From afar we observe increasing demonization in public discourse, especially toward the dissident left and toward Arabs, even Israeli citizens.

I was especially troubled by recent surveys that found that 48 percent of Israelis would favor some transfer of Palestinians out of the country. (Although it was not clear exactly what the respondents meant. Non-Jewish citizens? Forcible explusion? Border swaps?) Also 71.5 percent of Israelis do not consider the control of the West Bank to be an “occupation” at all. Perhaps they need to be reminded that a few million people continue to live under a military government, without basic democratic rights that none of us would tolerate lacking.

Perhaps you read the Yom HaShoah remarks of IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan, in which the general expressed his revulsion at the tendency in Israel to hate the foreigner and rush to justify illegal violence. (Courageous remarks: Guess who is NOT going to become the next chief of staff.) Golan later stressed that he was not comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, but did think that Israel should engage in soul-searching over whether it internalized some of the Shoah’s implications.

Nonetheless, for all the dark clouds, Yom HaAtzma’ut deserves unconflicted celebration. Judaism necessarily finds religious meaning – not only in ritual, poetry, sacred times, sacred books and deep ideas – but in history, among the living bodies of Am Israel, the Jewish people. And the in-gathering of the exiles, the creation of a modern Hebrew society, is a true miracle.

A famous Talmudic passage (Bava Metzia 106a) describes a shepherd fighting off a predator to defend flocks as a “miracle.” The miraculous element, the Tosafot comment there, is the divine inspiration that bestowed “courageous spirit and skill” upon a human to confront mortal threats. An apt description of the divine-human miracle of modern Zionism.

At the same time, divine gifts impose responsibilities to use to them in divine ways. One of our deepest thinkers, Rabbi Avraham Itzhak HaKohen Kook [1865-1935] – who more than anyone gave religious language to the Zionist renewal – was acutely aware of the dangers of applying brutal methods to sacred ends. Jews would leave exile and assume control of their own society, he wrote, because the time had come for governance “without wickedness and barbarism … It is not worthwhile for Jews to govern when it is full of bloodshed and demands wicked methods [Orot, 14].”

Utopian? Probably. Everything connected to governance entail the moral risks of using power. At the same time, R. Kook was most sensitive to the corruption inherent when one pursues sacred ends with improper means. “Weakness, lies and wickedness sometimes seem to support humility, modesty and faith. … But when the good and holy are supported by the wicked and impure, many evils will result. The light of redemption is actualized only by destroying wickedness, even that which seems to support the good [Orot, 87].”

Hag Sameah to all.