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A Marathon Testing Strength, Wisdom

Israel will prevail when government listens not merely in dangerous times.
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and holds the Kaufman Family Chair in Jewish Philosophy. He is author of the highly regarded 2016 book, Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself, and is the host of “For Heaven’s Sake,” one of the most popular Jewish podcasts in North America. Donniel is the founder of some of the most extensive education, training and enrichment programs for scholars, educators, rabbis,

The Jewish story has always been a composite of two distinct themes which compete for our attention, loyalty, and concern. The richness of our story is due in large measure to our unwillingness to allow either a victory.

That our destiny would be built around two themes is found already in the Book of Genesis, where very different images are offered for our people. In one, we are compared to the sand on the seashore, and in the other, to the stars in heaven.

From the moment Abraham began his journey, one distinct from the cultures around him, Jewish survival became an issue. It required of Jews throughout our history a strength of character and fortitude of will to withstand the pressures, pitfalls, and dangers which seemed to perpetually engage us.

To survive, we have needed to be like the sand, which at times may be overrun but in the end is able to deflect waves of danger and crisis. As the sand we cannot afford the luxury of naivete. Even in moments of calm, when all seems quiet and peaceful, we know that somewhere and at some time, the waves will return. And even if each one of us unto ourselves is insignificant as a grain of sand, together we constitute a force which does not yield.

After months of quiet this theme in our story returned to our society. With one terrorist act, followed by a barrage of missiles on our cities, we were reminded once again that even though we may yearn for peace and normalcy, it has yet to become our inheritance. More than simply an attack on our citizens, terror is a test of our will. While our power dwarfs that of all our neighbors and the terrorists who seek to harm us, it cannot provide us with the safety we deserve. In an asymmetrical war one may be victorious when one recognizes not only the gift of power but its limits. It requires subtle and pinpoint uses of power, coupled with the strength of will. It is a marathon, and our test is to find the strength and wisdom to sustain ourselves over time.

We are challenged, however, to be not merely as the sands on the seashore but also as the stars in heaven. To be a Jew is to dream and to aspire to excellence, to transcend the limits of realpolitik and the struggles of the everyday and to build lives of value and meaning. In the life of an individual, and even more so in that of a society, the challenge is both to determine and set a path of value and to find the strength of character to persevere. While we can be like the stars in heaven, all too often we lack the fortitude to keep on climbing. While we know the good, we are all too often underachievers who confuse words for actions and bursts of activity for long-term planning and commitment.The tent demonstrations and their calls for moral, social, and economic reevaluation of Israeli society’s priorities and future direction were a stab at greatness. They were an indication that Israeli society was beginning to peel off the cloak of the conflict and ask itself not merely whether we will be, but who we want to be. The challenge we face is to transform this stab into a plan. The demonstrations reflected a deep feeling that something has gone awry. They were a powerful vehicle for citizens to believe again that their voices count and must be heard, not merely on Election Day. Tents are fine for the summer months but they cannot be a long term paradigm for systemic change built on a realignment of the values which constitute our society. This, too, is a marathon, and our test is to find the strength and wisdom to sustain ourselves over time.

In our story, neither theme has ever prevailed. Our challenge and responsibility is to sustain both perpetually. A new moral and economic social order in Israel will never be achieved if it is founded on naivete with regard to security. A yearning to be like the stars in heaven while forgetting the tides that endanger us is both foolish and will fail to capture the imagination and commitment of Israeli society over the long term.

As the sands of the seashore we cannot in the foreseeable future afford dramatic cuts in our defense budget. If only we could. But that wish does not translate into reality in our neighborhood. Greater sensitivity to social justice and to the needs of our citizens is going to require of us much more difficult work, as we have to make difficult choices and allocations. We are going to have to ask ourselves what are our peoples’ basic rights and legitimate needs in the areas of housing, education, health, and dignified wages, without being able to “solve the problem” from some untapped pool of available resources. To be both economically responsible and socially just is both a conceptual and pragmatic challenge of great proportions.

If we have learned anything, however, from the social unrest in Israeli society over the summer – and we must learn from it – it is that our strength as a society will not be measured merely in the number of Iron Dome units we acquire but by the sense of our citizens that this is a society worth sacrificing for. In the battle of will against our enemies, we will prevail not merely through an acute awareness of the ongoing dangers we face but when our citizens feel that they are living in a society which cares for them. When a citizen believes that one’s government sees them, truly listens to them throughout the year, in their everyday lives, and not merely in times of danger, then one has created a society of strength which is indestructible.

The Jewish story is a tale of two narratives. How they live with each other and nurture each other must be the story of our lives. Building the proper balance is not merely an art but it, too, is a marathon.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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