May 2016, Yom HaAtzmaut

Dear friends,

Amidst all the celebrations of Yom HaAtzmaut the question that must be asked is: what are we celebrating?
This may sound like a ridiculous question. After all, the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was the first time Jews regained sovereignty in their homeland for nearly 2000 years! All our national aspirations came to be a magical reality within three years after the greatest disaster ever to befall the Jewish People, the Holocaust. We literally rose up from the ashes to recreate our own State where we would no longer allow our enemies free reign nor allow Jews around the world to be boat people turned away from safe haven.

But today, we are three and four generations from that terrible tragedy. We, who grew up with the safety of the mighty Jewish army, privileged to have never experienced really serious anti-semitism, and our children who, God willing, will experience even less; what is the message of Zionism that is relevant to our reality? In other words, if Zionism relies on the tragedy of the Jewish People to be poignant, the less tragic our experience, the less relevant it will be. And since we constantly pray that this will be the case – a world free of anti-semitism, are we not then praying for the end of Zionism?

The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that Zionism is not merely about the physical safety of the Jewish People. Sure, immediately after the Holocaust and with the articulated plan of the Arab armies in 1948 to throw us into the Mediterranean, very little else mattered. It was literally a fight for our survival. But today, despite the ongoing reality of terrorism, the cause is hardly a matter of survival.

If the material concern for the Jewish People is, thankfully, diminishing it is time we go back to the morally enlightened words of David Ben-Gurion in the most inspiring Declaration of Independence: ‘The State of Israel… will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.’

Now this is so highly relevant. Creating a State not only for our safety but with values that represent the highest values espoused in our tradition. And we see these values exemplified in the many highly evolved social laws we read in this week’s Parsha, Parshat Kedoshim. ‘When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not complete your harvest. The fallen fruit of your vineyard you shall not gather. Forgotten fruit you shall not retrieve, for the poor and the stranger shall you leave them’. Jews were commanded to keep the plight of those less fortunate at the forefront of the mind, at every turn of the harvest. And that thought was followed by real action. Similarly, not stealing, bearing false witness, cheating a worker, cursing the deaf, impeding the blind, perverting justice, hating, and bearing a grudge, are all laws mentioned in this week’s Parsha. And of course, loving your neighbour.

The future of Zionism, I believe, is in fighting for the high ideals mentioned in these, and plenty of other laws in the Torah, and explicitly referenced in the Declaration of Independence. For the Jewish State to be an ideal to which we continue to aspire, we must not judge ourselves in relation to our opponents but to the soul of the Jewish People, the Torah.

Unfortunately, too many of today’s political leaders end up being discovered as being corrupt and even indicted for it. Our highest offices are all too frequently inhabited by people who fall way short of Ben-Gurion’s dream of a country ‘based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel’.

Zionism refocused to its inspiring beginning will ensure that the young generation will continue to find meaning in their connection with Israel, beyond the freedom it facilitates them in their gap year.

Tonight after we have enjoyed a wonderful Kiddush, after we have sung some of our favourite songs in honour and love of Israel, after we have heard stories of Israel and after the conclusion of the service we will, as we always do at ARK Centre, sing the Hatikva. As we sing let us express the joy of our accomplishments but also the hope for a State that truly epitomises the ideals associated with being ‘a light unto the nations’.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shneur