“The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people,” David Ben-Gurion announced on the 14th of May, 1948, opening the declaration of independence that established the Jewish state. Above him hung a portrait of Herzl, and two flags in white and blue. The dangers of war loomed ahead, and the nation held its breath.
I read Ben-Gurion’s words hundreds of times. I heard them recited in state ceremonies and high-school lectures, quoted in speeches, and referred to in political debates. I passed them on to my own children, with teary eyes and a full heart. I wrote them down in my journal after touring Israel’s hills.
Yet somehow, I never really stopped to consider them. And until rereading this week’s Torah Portion today, I never realized that in a way, they tell a lie.
“Lie” is too strong a word, of course. The ancient Israelites did, in fact, only attain statehood when they settled the land of Israel. Without statehood they couldn’t truly experience the trials of sovereignty and independence, and without facing those challenges our predecessors couldn’t have developed the institutions and values that inspire us to this day. Without them, we couldn’t have become the kind of nation that survives millennia of exile, and stays strong.
But the birth of our nation can’t be reduced to the political realities of the ancient Israelite lawmakers and kings. The Jewish nation wasn’t formed by a king in purple garments. Long before we were a sovereign nation with a leader, we were a collection of individuals who chose to join a bigger story, regardless of the costs.
We first chose to join this story back in Egypt, when we dared to slaughter the hircine deities of our oppressors, and then display their blood over our doors. “We are no longer your slaves to torment,” our actions told the Egyptians. “We are joining a bigger story, and you can’t scare us away from this path.”
We chose to join this story, once again, when we plunged into the Red Sea. We watched it open up around us, and chose to walk between its walls of water, and hold our fears at bay.
And we chose to stand in Sinai, and accept a covenant with God.
Our covenant was unique among the laws of ancient kings. While they simply enforced their will from above, the covenant is an agreement between consenting parties: God on one end, and every single Jew on the other. Each Israelite had to accept the covenant as an individual, and each had the right to expect that God will be true to His end of the deal.
Jewish men historically wore “ptil tekhelet,” a blue string of dyed wool, to remind them of this covenant. The choice of color wasn’t coincidental, though we only fully understood it in recent years.
As rabbis and researches discovered in the twentieth-century, the tekhelet, the bright sky-blue dye described by our sages, is produced from a sea snail called Murex Trunculus. But to their dismay, they failed to reproduce the exact process: The dye they made was royal purple, not blue.
Prof. Otto Elsner, of the Shenkar College of Fibers, solved this mystery by chance: He noticed that the dye he produced on sunny days was far lighter than the purple dye he produced when the sky was overcast. His discovery supplied us with the final piece of the tekhelet puzzle: When we soak wool in dye indoors, we produce the purple known as “argeman“, the traditional color of kings. But when we take the same vat of dye outdoors into the open world, the wool turns into the bright blue our forefathers wore to remind them of the covenant.
The tekhelet, as we understand it now, reminds us of more than the content of that covenant: It reminds us that we chose to join it as individuals, and not as the subjects of a king. The Jewish nation is what happens when you take what was once perceived as the prerogative of kings clad in purple — the power to create a nation — and give it to every Jew out in the world. We, not our leaders, birthed the Jewish nation. The chosen Nation is the product of OUR choice.
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The birth of our nation didn’t end in Sinai. We were reborn in ancient Israel and in Babylon, in Achashverosh’s Persia and in the Hellenistic world. We were reborn when the Romans marched into Jerusalem, when the Spanish royals banished us, and when our enemies slaughtered us over and over again across the world. Time and time again, it proved dangerous to be Jewish. And time and time again, the individuals who chose to remain or become Jewish ensured that our nation will be reborn anew.
The Jewish nation, a nation born out of individual choices, never stopped being reborn. It is born over and over again through our choice to belong to it. It’s born through our choice to remember our history, and to bring it into our modern lives. It’s born and reborn through our choice to fight for its future, and for the values that we want it to uphold.
The costs of our choice changed over time. Today, most of us risk our popularity, not our lives. But the choice itself remains the same: Do we join the Jewish journey, despite the price? It was this choice, made over and over again by every single Jew in history, that made us into the nation we are today. It is this choice, if we make it, that will make us into the nation we can be tomorrow.
The Land of Israel wasn’t the birthplace of the Jewish people: We are.
“The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people,” David Ben-Gurion announced on a historic day almost 69 years ago. Ahead loomed the dangers of war, above hung the flags of the new state. The flags were white and blue: White, like the new page we were turning. Blue, like the ancient tekhelet, a reminder that we create our nation when we choose it, regardless of the dangers ahead.
And on that day too, with dangers ahead and choices to make, the Jewish nation was born.