Remembering Jerusalem and forgetting Jewish history
On Yom Yerushalayim, Israel and world Jewry are confronted with the trials and difficulties Israel faces now and in the future. In many ways, it is a more complex celebration than Yom Ha’atzmaut; the existence of the state of Israel, achieved by the events commemorated on the latter, is a fact. The status of the territories, captured in the war marked by the former, is complex and in flux. To many Jews, the unification of Jerusalem and the capture of the Kotel are uncontroversial victories; to others, the celebrations merely cover up a reality that Zionists are too insecure to admit–that Jerusalem is not truly unified, and in capturing the Holy Places, Israel might have forfeited something greater. “Ein Kedusha b’eer kvusha,” they say. “There is no holiness in an occupied city.”
At the heart of the controversy is the march through the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem. As revelers celebrate through the streets of the Old City, there is jeering of the Palestinian shopkeepers and residents. Many stores and houses along the route must be closed and locked up. Sometimes the march takes on the character of an incendiary victory parade. The hubris is palatable. Good people can and do disagree about the merits of the march. But is this kind of overt national self-confidence, without a hint of self-reflection, healthy for the Jewish people?
While reading the Tanach, the Old Testament, one is struck by the sinfulness of some of its main protagonists. Even the most revered and honored of the Jewish kings and prophets erred in ways that are disturbing to modern Jews. As a young teenager, reading the story of King David for the first time troubled me. How could we revere such a figure– a man traditionally regarded as most loved by God– who, in his lust, committed such atrocious crimes against his own officer–sins so glaring that the God of Israel cursed him with near-constant tragedy for the rest of his life?
Questioning my teachers on this point, they taught me an important lesson: King David was a human being, they told me, and no human being will avoid sin. It is in how we respond to our own shortcomings, what we learn from them, that we find the foundations of self-repair and virtue. The Book of Samuel makes David’s sins evident so that we, and the troubled monarch, might learn from them. The Old Testament does not wash away these sins, or cleanse them from the record; they are there for all Jews to read for the rest of time.
In this, the Bible differs from traditional national stories. In the process of the formation of national identity, the imperfections of its history are cleansed, washed away, and replaced. National self-confidence, hubris, and a belief in our own relative perfection replaces the self-reflection that might be inspired were our histories left muddy and unchanged. This is because modern nationalism, divorced of universal moral principles, substitutes the nation-state for God. The eternity of God is replaced by the eternity of the nation; the oneness of the body of the nation replaces the oneness of God; and the perfection and infallibility of God is replaced by the belief in the infallibility of the nation.
Jews have made the same mistakes with the formation of their own modern state. The construction of the state of Israel was a miraculous, momentous, and historic occasion for world Jewry. It was natural for Jews to fall in love with their newfound self-determination after so many centuries of vulnerability. Indeed, the unbelievable, chilling formation of the Jewish State, especially in the shadow of the Shoah, led many Jews to believe that they were witnessing the visions of the prophets made real in the world. They saw God’s hand in history.
Along the way, however, Jews have forgotten the tradition of self-criticism and reflection that lies at the heart of our prophetic and Biblical tradition. To be sure, there are many people in the world who would like to see Israel isolated and destroyed, and so tribal attachment to the state, knee-jerk defense of Israel, and unabashed displays of aggressive national pride, as we see on Yom Yerushalayim, makes sense in this context. However, we have allowed enemies of the Jewish state to define our conversation. The purpose of a Jewish state was never solely self-determination. Self-determination was merely a means to the ultimate end, which is the constant and determined effort to perfect ourselves and the world, to repent for our sins and figure out, truly, what living a meaningful Jewish life is about.
Traditional Jewish history is split into two themes; the theme of ultimate redemption, and the theme of a cycle between sin and repentance. If we cleave too closely to the former, as we have done, we forget the latter. The entire Tanach is filled with the stories of Jews who failed to meet their obligations, and who were brought low because of it, only to be entreated by the prophets and by God to repair themselves and their society. Do contemporary Jews see themselves as outside the bounds of traditional Jewish history? Do we see ourselves as present at the culmination of that Jewish history, which sees as its end the fulfillment of God’s promise and the beginning of the Messianic age?
If so, it is the ultimate hubris to believe we are the generation of Jews to merit the fulfillment of prophecy. If we learn anything from our patriarchs and matriarchs, from the prophets and kings of ancient Israel, it is that hubris is the downfall of great men, women, and nations. We must see ourselves as within Jewish history, and that includes the cycle of sin and repentance that characterizes most of that history. We must always be self-critical, reflective, and humble.
If the books of our tradition teach us anything, it is that at the moments the Jewish people experience their greatest triumphs is when they must be vigilant, lest they abandon their values, forget God, or collapse into decadence. In his confidence and jubilation in victory, Yiftach condemned his daughter to the sacrificial pyre. Solomon, with his material wealth and international prestige, forgot the foundation of his kingdom–fealty to God and to universal moral principles. And David, our troubled king, could not build the house of God with hands stained with blood.
On Yom Yerushalayim, we remember a lesson from our tradition, that we shall not forget Jerusalem. Our tradition also has much to teach us about hubris and humility. They are not the only lessons, but they are important, and to forget them is to forget Jerusalem itself.