William Hamilton

Am Yisrael Chai – Ba-Hem

Recently, as one Jerusalem protest was winding down and another was beginning to assemble, a protester on one side of the debate was overheard saying to a friend on the opposite side: “If you’re leaving now, could I please borrow your Israeli flag?” 

This doesn’t mean feelings aren’t fierce. They are. The stakes could not be higher. It does, however, mean that, more often than not, good people are not losing the plot. 

I’ve just returned from eight unforgettable days with more than 300 participants from Greater Boston in celebration of Israel’s 75th Birthday. CJP’s SPARK Mission was impressively designed and marvelously implemented. I was fortunate to spend most of my time with a huge young adult cohort, 100-strong. More than half of those on my bus were visiting Israel for the first time. Their thirst for belonging and belief-formation was captivating. 

Here’s a taste from among dozens of their delicious reflections. So much of what shows up in life is out of our control, so stay humble and ask for help. Scripture seems to care that we live with purpose. Since most of life doesn’t hold still, my beliefs aren’t going to either. 

Early on some Israelis wondered, “Why are you here?” Yes, to witness history, we replied, But also to meet you, here and now, to tell you how much you matter to us. Watching a look of surprised-relief appear on their faces, again and again, felt heartwarming. Of course, it also revealed just how much wear-and-tear they’ve been through since the rallies began in January. 

We held still for the Memorial Day Siren, during which we watched surfers on the Mediterranean kneeling on their boards reverentially. 

Between standing erect, standing still, and striding defiantly forward, we met many postures. Some revealed our spine. Others our spirit. The most transporting, by far, was when we danced. We danced three times. First, in Haifa, at our joyous arrival. Next, at Shabbat dinner in Jerusalem, bringing joy to sanctity. And finally, in Tel Aviv when we celebrated our dear Israel’s 75th. 

The contrast between the spirit-souring stories we consume online with the spirit-soaring reality we felt was, as usual, significant. Both are real. Both belong in the plot.

One of my favorite Israeli thinkers these days is Einat Wilf. Her twitter identity reads: Feminist. Zionist Atheist. Yes. She continues to make it clear that Israel’s democracy will always remain robust because it is the Jewish State. She and so many others refuse to permit one type of Jewish life to hijack all the others. 

Speaking of what Judaism has to say about empowering debates that are stubborn and fruitful, this week’s portions of Torah include a vital phrase. A guidepost for the lovingly (rather than strictly) observant. “When you apply the laws and traditions to your life, you will live fully through them” (v’chai ba-hem) (Lev. 18:5). That is, when you apply them tenderly, you take what’s, alas, been sometimes made radioactive, and make it instead radiate with goodness.

Oh, and what was that plot of which so many continue to adhere? The Jewish People Lives. Am Yisrael Chai Ba-hem. Our beloved People thrives by bringing a loving-Torah to life. 

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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