Last Pesah, after leading two seder evenings, my friend Ted was stricken with a rapidly accelerating respiratory disease that has a mortality rate of over 50%. He was intubated, isolated and placed in a paralytic coma. Ted remained that way for weeks. His physicians, friends and family agonised, uncertain whether he would live or die. Throughout this terribly fearful time, aware of his possible death, we continued to hope.
Slowly, Ted began to awaken. Slowly, he began to breathe. Slowly, he began to move his toes. Slowly, he began to speak. After seven weeks, he was transferred to a rehabilitation facility. Recently, he returned to synagogue and shared a dvar torah in our minyan.
The book of life is one of the strongest and most simple metaphors we possess. In the awesome piyyut, Unetaneh Tokef, we use the image of writing and life to articulate an awareness of how fragile and frail our lives are. But what appears to be written and sealed is not necessarily fixed. Our actions create hope and the possibility of a different end to the narrative.
In a recent visit to Berlin, I was struck by its vitality and the acknowledgement of its Nazi past. I taught a seminar about Maimonides and Yehudah Halevi. Who could have imagined this after the Holocaust or during the days of the divided city?
Throughout the 1980s, Krista Tippett was a media correspondent in Germany. Recalling that period, she said that there was a change in the air at that time, but no one knew explicitly what was coming. It appeared that the Cold War would go on for decades, while underneath the surface, the rumblings of a new social system were rising.
Tippett recounts: “On the night the [Berlin] Wall fell… the entire city walked joyfully through it. The border guards joined them. … There are places in human experience that politics cannot analyze or address, and they hold more possibility for change than we can begin to imagine. How [can we] give voice to those raw, essential, heart-breaking and life-giving places in us, so that we may know them more consciously, live what they teach us, and mine their wisdom for our life together?” Can we learn anything for our personal lives from the events and processes of history?
I was in the former Soviet Union during the late 1980s and remember the sense that something was happening, but no one really knew what it would be. The end of the Soviet Union only appeared to be leading to a more democratic Russia. In 2011, the heads of state in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen were ousted. The President of Syria went to war with his own people. The so-called Arab Spring became the Arab Winter.
Long-term change is incredibly difficult. This is not only true of nation-states. It is true for each of us in our personal lives. Anyone who has tried to change diet, end addiction, maintain an exercise regime, or alter life-long family patterns knows that momentary breakthroughs require constant effort.
Rabbi Geoff Mittleman observes: “There is so much more change within us than we believe possible. Yes, we struggle. Yes, we fail. Yes, we don’t always live up to our best selves. But in those places, we can find the seeds of growth.” We want to grow the qualities that appear idealistic, but actually are deeply necessary for our personal and societal development. I think of the phrase from Psalms: “we were like dreamers.” Perhaps hope can create a new reality.
Something is stirring in the world. More than the nationalism of British citizens, the antagonism of Russia, the anger of American voters. More than the extremism of Da’ish and al-Qaida, Hizbollah and Hamas. Yuval Harari writes, “Just as the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution gave birth to the novel ideologies of the twentieth century, so the coming revolutions in biotechnology and information technology are likely to require new visions. …” We don’t know what it all means or where it will lead.
But there is a successful example of a sustainable long-term development, one that has affected your lives and the lives of Jews everywhere. The Zionist dream, linked to five historic anniversaries in this coming year, is an example of going big and going home.
In the 19th century, Jews entered as citizens into the life of different nation-states. But at the end of the century, a crisis led many to question the future. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, was falsely accused and convicted of treason. In 1894, French mobs shouted “Death to the Jews.” While Émile Zola composed an open letter seeking justice for Dreyfuss and reform of French society, another journalist turned away from Europe. Theodore Herzl concluded that anti-Semitism was an immutable element of society, which assimilation would not solve.
Working assiduously, Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in 1897. 120 years ago, 200 delegates adopted the founding declaration: “Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Eretz Israel secured under public law”. Herzl composed an argument for Jewish sovereignty, Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), contending that the essence of the Jewish problem was not individual but national and that there was only one solution: the creation of a refuge for Jews in their own land.
In a subsequent novel, Altneuland (Old New Land) Herzl shifted from refuge to utopia, imagining a future Jewish state using science and technology to develop a pluralist, advanced society. Herzl imagined the future state as a refuge, a homeland and as an ideal, forming a new Jewish culture for an historic people in an ancient land.
In a diary entry for 1897, Herzl noted, “Were I to sum up the Congress in a word… it would be this: ‘At Basle, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud… I would be answered by universal laughter. If not in 5 years, certainly in 50, everyone will know it.” Herzl energised something already in motion which few imagined possible. Zionism drew upon the well-spring of the Jewish tradition, added the revolutionary aspirations of Jews seeking to over throw that same tradition, and engaged a world in the midst of transformation.
The hope of Zionism always paid attention to reality. In 1901, the Zionist Congress voted to establish the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, JNF, to purchase land as “the property of the Jewish people as a whole.” The Anglo-Palestine Company was chartered, to promote the industry, construction, agriculture, and infrastructure of the land. Imagination and hard work transformed political hope into reality.
In 1917, twenty years after the first Zionist Congress, anticipating the end of the “war to end all wars,” and aware of Jewish immigration to Palestine, the Foreign Secretary of Britain wrote a short letter, dated November 2, to Baron Rothschild. It confirmed Herzl’s dream and changed the course of Jewish history. The Balfour Declaration read: “His Majesty’s government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” Almost one hundred years ago, the confluence of personal influence, political opportunity, and much mazal made the hope of thousands of years possible.
Throughout the middle of the 20th century, despite internal disputes, Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael grew. The Yishuv established cities, defended settlements, and sought to mediate the growing conflict between Jewish and Arab claims to the land. The international community affirmed the legal and moral right of the Jews to “re-constitute” themselves as a modern people, to “re-turn” and “re-claim” the land. The language indicates widespread acknowledgement of the enduring significance of the Jewish past and people. Teshuvah is our internal term to express this desired re-union. Following the Holocaust, efforts at aliyah intensified. International public opinion favoured the creation of a safe refuge for survivors.
There is a small street in Jerusalem that bears the name Kaf Tet b’November. On November 29, 1947 – next year will be seventy years – the UN General Assembly voted for the partition of Palestine. Fifty years after the first Zionist Congress, a Jewish state was about to be born.
There are moments when something raw and life-changing is in process. We sense it, but can’t fully understand what it all will mean. All the explanations and analyses, as important as they are, cannot give full voice to what we are experiencing. We feel this when we fall in love. We experience this when our children or grandchildren are born. We know this when our loved ones die. The generation that experienced the Shoah or the early years of Israel felt this life changing period in their guts. That is why their commitment to Israel is so deep.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, referencing the Song of Songs and the lover who knocks at the door of his beloved, identified the political, military, theological, social and historic “knocks” as miracles that opened the door to the founding of the State of Israel.
The historian Anita Shapira reminds us that everything depends on timing. Zionism emerged in response to “a world cut loose of its moorings…. Zionism could not succeed in [our] current context. Only in an age in which all of society’s anchors were being uprooted, in which all traditional values and all guarantees of existence appeared to be in doubt— only at such a historical moment … that emphasised … the collective, when hopes for total redemption were rampant, when many peoples risked all they had for the sake of a better future—only at such a time could Zionism have … created the active vanguard so essential for its success….” For both the religious thinker and the historian, Zionism was a hope that succeeded at a particular moment in history. What would happen today were the UN asked to vote on a sovereign Jewish state?
A fourth anniversary is approaching in 2017. Throughout the first months of 1967, Israeli forces had been skirmishing with those of Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Tension was rising. Jordan joined Egypt and Syria in a military alliance. There were significant misreadings of the intentions of the various countries. Egypt blockaded Israel’s access to the Red Sea, instructed the UN to remove its peacekeeping forces from Sinai and mobilised its army. The United States and the Soviet Union clashed in the UN. Israel called up its reserves, prepared 10,000 graves and proclaimed a government of national unity. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol delayed the decision, finally initiating a pre-emptive defensive war. The resultant six days changed the military, political and geographic framework of Israel in the Middle East.
The return to the historic heartland of the Jewish people resulted in more respect among other countries and inspired a reawakening in Jews around the world. It also triggered the birth of the settler movement and left Israel in control of millions of Palestinians. In this victory were the seeds of many of the complex issues facing Israel. Still, it is hard to imagine our pride for Israel without this remarkable event.
Israel is, of course, still facing many challenges. This past summer, I explored a mixed Arab-Jewish neighbourhood near a station of the Jerusalem light rail line. Recently, two people were killed there. Security and safety are always paramount. But Israel moves forward. Last year, I walked into the massive tunnels being built for the high-speed train that will link Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. I accompanied Canadian Parliamentarians to the campus of the Israel Aircraft Industries and the offices of Google to see examples of high tech Israel. There is also social change. Two of my grandchildren have begun to study Arabic in the bi-cultural Yad b’Yad school near their home, one of six such schools now operating in Israel. Two Ethiopian born lawyers were recently named to the judiciary. These are contemporary expressions of hope for the future of Israel.
On the 9th Av, I spoke to the Masorti community gathered at the Kotel, I mentioned my frustration when speaking with Knesset members about the lack of religious pluralism in recent legislation. During a WZO sponsored trip to the Galilee, I met with a Muslim sheikh in Nazareth who wants better health, education and city services for his community. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process remains at a standstill. I flew back to Canada with fifty Eritreans who had sought asylum and were being relocated under family reunification visas to Canada. Major challenges remain for Israel to become the “light to the nations” that Isaiah and Herzl envisioned.
Still, despite difficulties, and unlike the failed national experiments I mentioned earlier, Israel has remained a democratic, Zionist and Jewish state. These four Zionist anniversaries remind us that the Jewish saga over the past 120 – 100 – 70 and 50 years has required hope, effort and devotion.
Our tradition teaches us to maintain hope. As individuals, even as we face extremely challenging moments in our personal lives, we are counselled, “Hope in the Eternal, be strong and of good courage.” This is not a pollyanish optimism that all will be well, but a hope that if we and others can work together, difficult decisions and scary situations can be faced. What appears to be written and sealed is not necessarily fixed. Our actions create the possibility of a different narrative.
Last Shabbat, as Ted spoke of his recovery from near-death, he thanked his family for having maintained hope at such a hard time. Ted pointed to the difference between optimism and hope. He quoted Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “One of the most important distinctions I have learned in the course of reflection on Jewish history is the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that, together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to have hope. Knowing what we do of our past, no Jew can be an optimist. But Jews have never – despite a history of sometimes awesome suffering – given up hope.”
A fifth anniversary: 140 years ago, Naftali Herz Imber, who came from the same town as my father’s family, composed the first draft of the music and words that became Hatikvah. We need to sing of hope: not only for the State of Israel and the Jewish people, but for our private and important ones; and for the strength and solidarity to make those hopes real.