Ariel Stone

Israel at 75 and the parashat hashavua

We have just marked the 75th year since the declaration of independence of the modern State of Israel (we say it that way because this is the third time that Jews have been in a position of self-rule in our at least three thousand year history). 

When the state was founded, the Ashkenazi Jews who were primarily involved in that political act were a traumatized people, many still not sure what had happened to their families in Europe, and they themselves often concentration camp survivors. They wanted to go home. They wanted to be safe in the land that for two thousand years had been ingrained by Jewish culture to be the home we longed to return to. Every year at the end of the Seder we repeated it: “next year in Jerusalem!”

The preceding week we marked Yom HaShoah, the Day of Remembrance of Holocaust and Heroism. The juxtaposition of these two modern Jewish holy days, as well as the historical proximity (the Holocaust took place between 1939-1944) and the birth of the State of Israel in 1948, has led more than one Jew and non-Jew to believe that Israel was founded as a result of international guilt. 

It is true that in a way, the state of Israel was voted into existence by the United Nations when the British partition plan for two states in the area, one Jewish and one Palestinian, was approved in 1947. And no doubt there is something there. But this explanation erases fifty years of urgent lobbying and smuggling, and one hundred years of emigrating and struggling.

For the Jews of Europe, antisemitism had risen to such murderous heights that it caused the beginning of a wave of Jews leaving their homes – which they were told quite definitively were not, after all, their homes, although they had lived there sometimes for more generations than they could count. The ancient impulse to go home, coupled with the rise of European utopian socialism, offered Jews a dream of a better place, their own place, where they could sit under vines and fig trees and none would make them afraid (after the prophecy of Micah 4.4)

There was so much death, so much terror, and so much fear. Those of us who were not there can barely imagine it, even after all the Yom HaShoah information we’ve learned. The land of Israel was not easy, though: of 50,000 Jews who left Europe for Israel in a wave of emigration which is today called the Second Aliyah, many died of starvation (they weren’t farmers) and disease (mosquitos were rampant), and many more returned to Europe. According to some counts, only 5000 stayed and survived.

Today the State of Israel is rightly accused of visiting upon others the terrors and abuse Jews suffered from for so long in Europe. This may be due to PTSD, or the rough neighborhood, or some other form of doorway to evil, but it must be said that the Jewish state is not promoting the values of justice for all and kindness toward strangers as the Torah and our prophets insist that we must. This breaks the hearts of all Jews who care about our people, and causes some of us to do what we can to support the efforts of all who are working for justice in Israel.

Somewhere between all the death that we remember on Yom HaShoah and the vibrant resurrection some of us saw in the birth of the modern state of Israel, hope has turned to tragedy. Partly because as Jews we care about the welfare of the Jews of Israel, and partly because the state of Israel represents us in the world to antisemites – and not only that; many of us are proud of the state and linked by family or friendship to some of its citizens.

Our perspective as Jews, as secular and Western as our outlook may be these days, is rooted in Jewish religious culture. It derives from two thousand years of the development of our sense of mitzvah, and of what it means to be a mensch. All of this is derived, ultimately, from the generations of Torah Study that have always guided us.

So let’s consider:

Our double parashah for this week consists of the two sections named Akharei Mot “after death” and Kedoshim “holy.” As juxtaposition is a regular urge to midrash in rabbinic Judaism, much commentary has been devoted to just what meaning these two names might yield to us as we consider them, each in our different contexts, throughout Jewish time.

Akharei Mot:

“Do not follow the acts of the land of Egypt, where you once lived…follow My judgements” (Lev.18.3)

Comparing the State of Israel to any other state is politically legitimate and yet, for Jews, entirely inappropriate. The Jewish state should act Jewishly. Thus from Jeremiah all the way to our own sense of distress.

“‘You must not enter the Holy at any [spontaneous] time,’ so that Aaron should not die as his sons did.” (Rashi)

We may not act as we wish regardless of the respect due other human beings, or we will defile the holiness we are supposed to be creating among us, and it – and some essential aspect of our community’s life – will die.


“You shall be holy as I HaShem am holy.” (Lev. 19.1)

We are not supposed to be comparing ourselves to other peoples and other nation states. We have an independent Jewish standard by which we judge ourselves and our people.

“Holiness may be found wherever there is a safeguard against immorality.” (Tikkunei Zohar 56, quoted in Likutey Moharan 1, 36.8)

An excellent support for the idea of checks and balances!

There’s a natural human desire to find meaning when people die, that it might have been for some worthwhile purpose. We lift up the memory of those we love after their deaths through doing justice, which we call tzedakah. In this way we, “after death” make “holy” meaning for their lives and our own. 

On Yom HaShoah we reflect on what it has meant for the Jewish people to be helpless victims and doomed rebels. By declaring Never Again we hope to make the memory of their lives holy. Similarly, in the two national memorial ceremonies held yearly, both that of Israel and the joint Israel-Palestine memorial, those who have lost loved ones to the Israel Palestine conflict mourn, and want to see those lives made holy. 

As the historic events of the last 16 weeks in Israel have made clear, we are a long way from learning how to sanctify the lives lost. But the vibrancy of the protests – up to half a million people in the streets, out of a population of 9.5 million – is awe-inspiring. 

Our siddur records the traditional doctrine that “because of our sins we were exiled from our land.” According to ancient Jewish tradition, idolatry and immorality caused the first exile, and baseless hatred the second. May we learn from our own history, and not repeat it! And may we who are way over here in the US see ourselves not as helpless bystanders but capable of support for the power of good not only in our communities here, but in our beloved Jewish communities of Israel and all the Diaspora, that one day we might all be able to say with the Psalmist:

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ ה’ מִצִּ֫יּ֥וֹן וּ֭רְאֵה בְּט֣וּב יְרוּשָׁלָ֑͏ִם כֹּ֝֗ל יְמֵ֣י חַיֶּֽיךָ׃ 

May HaShem bless you from Zion;

may you share the prosperity of Jerusalem

all the days of your life, 

וּרְאֵֽה־בָנִ֥ים לְבָנֶ֑יךָ שָׁ֝ל֗וֹם עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ {פ}

and live to see your children’s children.

May all be well with Israel! 

Psalm 128.5-6

About the Author
Rabbi Ariel Stone has been Shir Tikvah’s spiritual leader since the congregation’s founding in 2002. A caring and vibrant leader, she is a knowledgeable teacher of Torah and a recognized scholar of Jewish mysticism. She is the first female rabbi to be the head of a congregation in the state of Oregon. She helped to create TischPDX, Hesed Shel Emet of Portland Oregon, Rachel's Well Portland Community Mikveh, and the Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance.
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