The sweep of time propels us forward, especially palpable now as the swath of spring holidays that marks the season comes to a close. From Pesach to Shavuos, it charts our journey from redemption to revelation as so many footsteps in the sand, reminding us that as space and time coalesce, it is the human dimension, as religious historian Jonathan Z. Smith observes, that brings place into being.
And so, at this time of the year, that place, both terrestrial and celestial, the state of Israel and the land of Israel, preoccupies me, as its story unspools, meted out in the counting of the days, mapped out as so many weeks of the year. Israel’s unique duality is no more evident in that spate of holidays, civil and religious, the remembrance of the unconscionable death and destruction of the Holocaust, then the celebration of the founding of the Jewish state, its miraculous military triumphs and its solemn day memorializing the profound human cost such triumphs exact. The civil holidays are interspersed like so many points on a time map between the festivals marking the parting of the Red Sea and the Exodus from Egypt, the wanderings of the ancient tribes in the desert wilderness culminating with the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.
The inherent vulnerability of the Israelites’ passage is imbued with metaphoric resonance now, as Israel struggles to reconcile its identity as both a Jewish democratic state and a divinely ordained ancestral homeland, evinced so very painfully in its failed efforts to find its way through the modern day wilderness of the seemingly insoluble Palestinian conflict. The occupation of the territories after Israel’s 1967 defeat of Jordanian, Egyptian and Syrian forces, has festered in the ensuing fifty years into an intractable conflict enflamed by terror, exacerbated by Palestinian corruption and political posturing, and complicated by Israeli settlements, complicit in compromising Israel’s moral stature and constraining its ability to make peace.
But as Smith suggests, and as the sages remind, while place has both worldly and cosmic markers, its location is actualized by human endeavor, its purpose fulfilled by human right and divine might that “bring it into being.” Such actions, as the journey from Pesach to Shavuos, from redemption to revelation reveal, are borne by freedom and engender responsibility. This spring season of holidays holds the hope for freedom to flower into responsible leadership who can draw on the missteps of the past to courageously imagine a new future. It holds the hope for leaders, who as the weeks leading up to Shavuos call on us to do, work to refine their character, to draw on their essential humanity to come from a place of humility and compassion. It holds the hope for leaders who can create a space for compromise and reconciliation and make a place that reconciles the Biblical prophesy of the land of Israel with the political reality of the state of Israel. It holds the hope of a glimmer of peace.
All it takes, as we are taught, is for one person to take the first step.
This year, in this time, may it be so.