About a month ago on Shabbat at the 2018 AIPAC conference, I participated in a conversation with Elana Stein Hain about contemporary issues relating to the modern state of Israel and to Zionism in general. We asked each other a series of questions and the first question that she asked me was to evaluate the success of religious Zionism in America. I quoted a colleague of mine, Rabbi Ira Ebbin, who suggested that we the religious are very successful as Zionists, but we are not that successful as religious Zionists.
What does that mean? It means that as religious Jews we are very connected to the Zionist enterprise. We support the state of Israel through visiting the country, through buying Israeli products, through donating to charitable causes in Israel, through political advocacy at AIPAC, through marching in the Salute to Israel Day Parade, through reciting the prayer for the soldiers of the IDF and for the State of Israel in our synagogues, and through taking pride in the successes and feeling the pain of the failures of Israel and its citizens. We the religious feel emotionally connected with our brethren in Israel and with the country as a whole.
However, we have not been as successful at understanding and appreciating the philosophy and ideology of religious Zionism. How does a return to Zion impact our lives as Jews? What does it truly mean from a religious perspective to return to our homeland after 2000 years in exile? What does the term “atchalta d’geula,” the beginning of the redemption, mean to us?
Rav Kook wrote a work about the land of Israel entitled, “Eretz Cheifetz.” In it, he wrote:
The land of Israel is not some external entity.
It is not merely an external acquisition for the Jewish people.
It is not merely a means of uniting the populace.
It is not merely a means of strengthening our physical existence.
It is not even merely a means of strengthening our spiritual existence.
Rather, the land of Israel has an intrinsic meaning.
It is connected to the Jewish people with the knot of life.
Its very being is suffused with extraordinary qualities.
The extraordinary qualities of the land of Israel and the extraordinary qualities of the Jewish people are two halves of a whole.
Do we truly appreciate the significance of the land of Israel as Rav Kook did, that the land of Israel and our qualities as a nation are two halves of a whole, that we are inextricably linked to this land? Do we appreciate that, yes, halachically, we may be permitted to live outside Israel because of certain reasons, but there is a significant spiritual price to pay? There is a price to pay because the quality of a religious life in the diaspora does not compare to the inherent spiritual quality of life in Israel. Do we struggle with the fact that we are not taking advantage of the tremendous opportunity that God has given us in our lifetimes to live out our national dream? Do we realize that to be a committed Jew is more than observing kashrut, Shabbat and taharat mishpacha? It requires us to truly appreciate the centrality of Israel in our religious lives.
If I am an ideological religious Zionist, then I yearn to live a fuller, more meaningful life in Israel even as I find myself currently forced to remain outside of her borders, and it also means that I truly celebrate all those who have become part of our history in our days, those who have made the move to Eretz Yisrael and those who have defended this nation as a member of the IDF. That is why I am so proud that as our community celebrates the 70th anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel, we at the Young Israel of Oceanside pay tribute to those members who have made Aliya or fought in the IDF by creating a special plaque with all of their names listed to be hung prominently in our shul. This plaque is a testament to the firm value that our community places in the ideology of religious Zionism and in the ultimate goal that we educate our children that even if we may not be able to recognize our future in Israel, hopefully they will. V’shavu banim li’gvulam.