Yom HaShoah

Israel at 67: Glorious and Frightening, Inspiring and Exasperating

We need the faith to believe that this could be the best place and the best time in Jewish history to be a Jew.
Rabbi Leon Morris is the President of the Pardes  Institute of Jewish Studies and was until 2017 the Vice President for North American Programs in Israel at the Shalom Hartman Institute. Previously he served as rabbi of Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, New York, and was the founding director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan. Leon was ordained from Hebrew Union College in 1997, where he was a

First published by Haaretz

My son returned from school, sharing with me what he learned about Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day. He is in first grade. The explanations he heard from teachers and classmates were far more detailed than what I would have offered back home in America. My parental and educational instincts would have shielded him and preserved his innocence for a few more years. I would have explained in vague and universal terms the cruelty of some and bravery of others.

What he learned at school was far more direct. Jews were killed – men, women and children – and the sadness remains with us these many years later. I, his new immigrant father, found myself assuaging his fears by talking about the meaning and significance of Israel. It’s different now. We have a state and an army and a place we finally call our home. Beginning to feel stirred by my own words, I told him how this is the best place and the best time in all of Jewish history to be a Jew. He crawled into our bed later that night, whispering into my ear that he had had a bad dream.

I noticed that the whole country seems to follow the approach I took that evening with my son. Days before Holocaust Remembrance Day, enormous Israeli flags and blue and white bunting begin to be hung from public and private buildings everywhere. While they are ostensibly for Memorial Day and Independence Day, their placement a week earlier – before Holocaust Remembrance Day – seems to be a way of anticipating the hopeful end to the Jewish people’s saddest, most painful story. Those flags are there to tell us even before the sirens and the tears that things are different now. We have a state and an army and a place we finally call our home.

This is my first Independence Day as a citizen of Israel. When I was the age of my first-grade son, growing up in one of the only Jewish families in a small western Pennsylvania town, I would pore over photos of Israel in Volume 6 of our Encyclopedia Britannica, constructing Western Walls out of Play-Doh, and dreaming of what life must be like in a Jewish country. Forty years later, I’m generating dozens of such photos, mostly featuring my wife and our three children, for family and friends back home via PhotoStream and Facebook.

My children are translating my dreams into Hebrew. At moments like our Passover Seder when my 4-year-old sings “Ma Nishtanah” like she learned in gan – preschool – and my 6-year-old recites “Ha Lachma Anya” and shares numerous insights he has gleaned from his teachers, I know what a favor I have done for them by bringing them here. I find myself incredibly moved and exhilarated by partaking in a Jewish public space, by experiencing being Jewish as an insider. At a gas station during the intermediate days of Passover, on the way back from a family trip, I bought an overpriced box of matza simply because I could buy a box of matza at a gas station. This is why I moved here, I said to myself.

To move here, and to live here, requires a continual assuaging of fears and affirmation of hope. At times, I am telling myself what I told my son. We have a state and an army and a place we finally call our home. But still, there is so much that could lead one to despair. Occasionally, I also wake up from a bad dream. Sometimes, I turn the declarative sentence I said to my son into a question I am asking myself: Are things really different now? There are enemies that cannot be defeated like an army. There are nations calling for our destruction that could be capable of carrying out their fantasies. There is increasing extremism everywhere we look in the region. And within Israeli society itself, there are growing gaps between rich and poor, a rise of racism, a lack of sufficient empathy for refugees, and a paucity of political imagination, vision, and diplomacy.

Israel at 67 is glorious and frightening, inspiring and exasperating. It is a nation that requires a constant reawakening of faith and hope. In a letter to David Ben-Gurion, Abraham Joshua Heschel argued that the 20th century witnessed not only a loss of faith in God: Jews had also lost faith in the idea that they were a nation, and that the nation would one day reestablish itself in the land of Israel. “Many were convinced that the end was near. Without faith, there could be no visionaries … I do not believe in the decline of faith, but in its reawakening,” Heschel wrote.

Israel, in so many ways, is about the reawakening of faith – faith in the fulfillment of old promises, faith in the resurrection of our dry bones from the grave, faith in history to ultimately right itself. It is not an easy faith. Today as well, creating a new story, a new reality, and a new future requires this uneasy sort of faith. Such an uneasy faith must do more than assuage our fears for a few hours. It needs to inspire us to believe that this could be the best place and the best time in Jewish history to be a Jew.

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