Like for so many other people, singing “HaTikvah” gets my heart thumping and my eyes watering pretty much every time. I’ve sung those poetic words set to that simple but moving melody in every powerful and emotional place you can imagine — the Kotel, the gallows room in Akko prison where members of the Jewish Underground sang it as they were being hanged by the British, Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, Har Herzl; even Majdanek and Birkenau.
I sang it once again a few days ago on Yom Ha’Zikaron, together with hundreds of other Israelis at the end of our local ceremony honoring fallen soldiers, during which no one talked and no one left before the end (a rare occurrence in Israel). When we reached the words, “To be a free nation in our land,” I swelled up, yet again, with the visceral realization that we, the Jewish people today, have actualized and are living the dream of countless generations of our ancestors. As Yehuda Avner so eloquently said, “for twenty centuries, we Jews were always the object of history, where others made the decisions for us…[Now] we are the subject of history, where we make the decisions for ourselves.”
And if all we did for the rest of our nation’s life was enjoy and celebrate that independence, “Dayeinu!” I could completely understand.
But, as HaRav Haim Kohen (a master Kabbalist who lives on the outskirts of Tel Aviv — Only in Israel!) teaches, independence is not enough for the Jewish people. After centuries of expulsions, persecutions and pogroms, yes being free in our land is quite magnificent and long, long overdue. Military strength, economic success and security, yes, are all important things that we must invest massive amounts of our time, energy and resources into. But they are not the endgame for Am Yisrael. Rather, they are tools for us to achieve our people’s primary purpose — to be a “nation of kohanim (priests) and a holy nation” (Exodus, 19:6).
What does that mean that all of Am Yisrael is meant to be a nation of kohanim? Isn’t a kohen something someone is or is not, something one is born into or not? How can all Jews become kohanim??
We know that the kohanim are the descendants of Aharon, brother of Moshe, and were the ones chosen to work in the Temple in Jerusalem, serving on behalf of the entire Jewish people. So too, the teaching goes, all of Am Yisrael has been chosen (as in the “chosen people”) to live life with the entire world in mind. Together with aspiring to being a holy nation ourselves, we are meant to inspire the world to be holy along with us. It is simply not enough for us to be an “Am hofshi b’artzeinu”, a free people in our land. We are commanded to be an “Am kadosh“—a holy nation that sees its entire existence as serving a higher purpose for all of humanity.
Sounds totally awesome, right? But how do we actually accomplish this??
That question is WAY to big to be answered in a single blog (not that I can fully answer it anyway), but I will say this.
First of all, I think many individuals and organizations and companies in Medinat Yisrael today are already manifesting this vision. All the things we make sure to mention when we are enumerating the ways in which Israel has become one of the world’s most successful nations and is making a difference in the lives of humans all over the planet — hi-tech innovations, medical breakthroughs, humanitarian support, to name a few. Israel really is becoming the light unto the nations it was meant to be, but simply couldn’t while living as a scattered and exiled people.
On the flip side, however, it would be at least somewhat understandable if Jews in the Jewish state just wanted to forget about the world and be a little selfish for once. After the world gave us 2000 years of reasons why we needed a country of our own, we could comprehend why some Jews might want to turn Israel into a ghetto the size of a country and just be left alone. To worry about themselves. To take care of themselves. To protect themselves. And nothing more.
But we can’t.
And we don’t.
Because it’s not who we are.
Because it’s in our spiritual genes to care, to give, to reach out.
And, talking about holiness, that’s the holiest thing we could ever do.
If you’re a person who believes that there are no coincidences in life and that everything happens for a reason, you’ll probably find meaning in the fact that just one day after communities around Israel cleaned up from their Yom Ha’Atzmaut celebrations and returned to the normal routine of life, the Torah portion of “Kedoshim — Be Holy!” was read, a section of the Torah that lists many specific action-based ways that we can bring holiness into our lives and be a role for others to do the same. Just in case we needed a reminder of what our independence is really about and what we are able to accomplish with it.
This Torah portion also teaches that we should be holy because God is holy. What does it meant that God is holy?? One thing it means is that God is the epitome of giving, in its most perfect and absolute form. And we, in our quest to be holy, are encouraged to give. To overcome our innate selfishness and think of others. Others in our family, in our communities, in our nation. And, yes, others in the world. To the extent that we do, we become holy.
And while it’s for sure not always easy, and sometimes even seems like an impossible dream, that’s the essence of Am Yisrael, what it means to be a Jew. That’s what we were chosen for.
As we celebrate Israel’s 70th, my hope and my prayer is that all of us living in Israel today can and will do our part in helping Am Yisrael to continue to grow into a “kingdom of kohanim and a holy nation”. That we see our historic return to our land after 2000 years not only as a sanctuary to guard us from anti-Semitism and persecution and not only as an opportunity to create a strong and successful nation, but also an opportunity and a means to do something good for the entire world, helping to bring it to its complete and intended form.