This past weekend, at Shabbat dinner, I was talking with my new friends about a visit I made last summer to the Tower of David in Jerusalem while I was still living in Israel. The most striking part of the visit for me was, strangely enough, a small poster showing a chronological list of all the civilizations that have controlled the city of Jerusalem.
Before the state of Israel, the British; before the British, the Ottomans and so on, for two thousand years until the Jewish Second Temple period, the Babylonians, the Jewish First Temple, and the many civilizations before that even.
It was striking for two reasons. First of all, it made me grateful. I’m grateful to have been born during an era that I can have unfettered access to the holiest city in Judaism. I now look back fondly at having lived in a country where the public holidays are also my religious holidays, where Kosher meat isn’t the exception, it’s the standard. For so many reasons, we should be thankful for the existence of the Jewish state in our historic homeland, and we should not take it for granted.
This led me to my second, gloomier train of thought: just as quickly as this era came into being, so could it end. Could any of the previous civilizations who controlled this land have ever thought that they would lose its control? The State of Israel faces very real, existential threats. Who is to say that we won’t simply be another bullet point on a list of civilizations controlling Jerusalem?
With this in mind, I look to our texts for a lesson. Even though the first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, and the second by the Romans, the Talmud attributes part of the blame to ourselves. We hold ourselves to account for rampant murder, idolatry, and sexual misconduct within our own society which contributed to the destruction of the First Temple. Similarly, it is said that our Sinat Chinam — baseless hatred — contributed to the destruction of the Second Temple and exile from the land for two thousand years. In essence, we lost the moral authority as “a light unto the nations,” and we no longer merited the land.
Now, it is clear that Israel needs to mitigate its external threats – this we can all agree on. Israel is fortunate to have the strongest military in the region, and the US as its superpower ally. It was thanks to technology like the Iron Dome that I was able to sleep at night last summer when I was living in Tel Aviv.
Something else was keeping me up at night. What are we doing as individuals, or collectively as Jews, to ensure that we continue to be worthy of this land? During good times, we become complacent; under threat, defensive. This leaves little room and little time for the honest introspection it takes for self-improvement. This is true for us as individuals and as a society. So if not now, when?
Lately, I’ve started attending synagogue more frequently. I’ve long struggled to find meaning in prayer, but I’ve always found it to be a useful tool for guided meditation. It’s a time for me to concentrate my thoughts on values that I (and my community) deem important, and I consider it a time to think about how my behavior aligns with those values. Prayer isn’t for everyone. But I think most of us can appreciate that there is a great deal of value in taking a moment for self-reflection.
Take a moment every day, or even every week, to remove all distractions, and to think about how well your behavior is in line with your values. Consider how Israel’s leaders are guiding the country, and whether their leadership is in line with Israel’s values. And then effect change if not.
How do we ensure that a betrayal of our core values doesn’t contribute to our expulsion from the land once again? How will future generations hold us to account?