Vernon Kurtz
Vernon Kurtz

The Challenge of Yom Ha’Atzmaut

The Torah portion of last Shabbat, Parshat Shemini, contains a long list of the characteristics of animals, fowl and fish that classify them for eating. According to traditional Rabbinic practice, the animals and the fowl must be slaughtered in accordance with specific rules in order to be kosher. Those classified as nevelah, animals or birds that die of natural causes or as a result of an improperly carried out act of ritual slaughter, and terefah, animals or birds suffering from a wound or illness that will cause them to die within twelve months, are not considered kosher and cannot be eaten.

The Babylonian Talmud in Hullin 51b outlines a very interesting case: if a bird fell or is thrown with force upon a stream of water and we are not sure whether a serious injury has occurred to the bird then there is a special procedure that must be undertaken to ascertain whether it still can be considered kosher. Rav Judah in the name of Samuel suggested an objective criterion: “It is sufficient if it swims the length of its body…This is so, however, only if it swam upstream.” If it simply floats with the tide, Rav Judah suggests, it may be mortally wounded and unfit for slaughter. However, in his view, should it be able to swim upstream, then the bird does not have a serious injury and may be slaughtered for food.

Irving M. Bunim, in Ethics from Sinai, suggests that this law is applicable, not merely in the context of kashrut, but in all aspects of Jewish life. A Jew must be willing to swim upstream against the tide. If he or she is merely carried downstream by surrounding currents and takes the path of least resistance, that person’s Judaism and Jewish identity will eventually fade away. However, if they can go against the flow, swim upstream against the tide, his or her Judaism and Jewish identity will survive.

Judaism is counter-cultural. It swims against tide of prevailing thought, norms and practices and sets high standards for those who take its message seriously and profess through their thoughts, deeds and actions to be part of a people that has a unique message for the world. It has always been the case that we have had to swim upstream in order to solidify our Jewish identity and national existence.

Bunim, in particular, was referring to Jewish life in the Diaspora. Being in a minority status in a majority culture has always been a challenge for the Jew and his or her Judaism. It is not easy maintaining one’s identity under those circumstances. One must swim against the tide and willingly choose to solidify one’s particular identity. It is a constant challenge for those who choose to live in the lands of the Disapora.

However, I would like to suggest that it is also a challenge for those of us who live in the State of Israel, even under the conditions, or especially under the conditions, of being a member of the majority culture in the State. Did we return to Zion just to be like all the other nations? Is it enough to be like all the other societies in our neighborhood or is it our responsibility to assume Isaiah’s challenge of being “a light to the nations?” We instinctively know the answer to that question.

We are on the eve of Yom Ha’Atzmaut, the 73rd anniversary of the establishment of the independent State of Israel. Against all odds and all common sense, three years after 6 million of our brothers and sisters were killed in the ghettoes, forests, concentration camps and extermination centers, the State of Israel was established. After 2000 years we have returned to the land and created a new Jewish commonwealth.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg, in his Torah commentary for the seventh day of Pesach, writes: “Yom Ha’Atzmaut recreates the Passover/Exodus event of our time. The distance from powerlessness and genocide in Auschwitz to the heights of a rebuilt and flourishing Jerusalem, is of greater magnitude than the movement from slavery in Egypt to the entry into the Holy Land. The numbers are greater. In the Torah narrative, 600,000 Jews came out of Egypt. By comparison, 600,000 Jews survived and won the War of Independence. They were followed in redemption by 800,000 Jews from Arab countries going from marginal status and persecution to freedom in the homeland. They were followed by several hundred thousand Ethiopian Jews going from minority pariah status and from poverty and hunger to a new life as citizens of a Jewish majority state. They were followed by a million Jews released from oppression and discrimination in Russia to full rights and a free economy in Israel. By sheer demography alone, the Exodus of our era considerably outweighs the classic biblical redemption as living proof of the Torah’s vision.”

The fact that the State of Israel exists today as a vibrant free nation, filled with immigrants making their home within its borders, a place where Torah study and science exist, where Hebrew again is a living language, and where we are masters of our own fate, is truly the great miracle of our time. We can be thankful to God “for granting us life, for sustaining us and for helping us to reach this day.”

Zionism has achieved its dream, at least, in a political sense. However, we are not close enough yet to actualizing the full capacity of that dream and vision. Zionist leaders of the past did not simply dream of the establishment of a state like all others. They also saw the need for a “model society” to be established in the land. Herzl wrote about it in Altneuland; Ahad Ha’am professed the need to actualize a moral system for Jewish society, the creation of a society of total righteousness that would act as a beacon to the world; Rav Kook felt the same, except that his conception was based on his particular religious worldview. Against the popular culture and thought of their time, and I would suggest ours as well, just creating an independent state for its citizens does not mean that the project has reached its end goal.

Political Zionism may have realized its vision in the creation of the state but we have much more to do. It is not enough that we have now have an independent strong and vital Jewish state, it must be “a light to the nations,” not only in vaccinations and in overcoming the Covid 19 virus (although thankfully that seems to be true), but also in the behavior and actions of it leaders, ministers, and advisors and all its citizens. It is our task to break down the barriers that have divided us, to create a society of righteousness and justice for all, to use the best of our religious heritage for the benefit of all of the citizens of the state and to build upon the dreams and visions of those who founded the state and those who gave their lives for it. It remains our task to create peace among ourselves and between us and our neighbors.

This is not an easy task or a very popular one, especially in the neighborhood in which we live, and in a world that does not always appreciate the very Jewish message that is ours to live and express. But it is essential. We have to swim upstream, against the tide, of our day and age and create a state and a society where justice, righteousness, equality is exhibited for all. This is our supreme challenge as we celebrate Israel’s 73rd birthday. Are we up to the challenge? Only time will tell.

About the Author
Rabbi Vernon Kurtz is Rabbi Emeritus of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park Illinois, an 1100 family congregation which he served for 31 years. He is past president of the international Rabbinical Assembly, MERCAZ USA and MERCAZ Olami, and is a member of the committees of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency and the Jewish People Policy Institute. He is also past president of the American Zionist Movement and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute. He is the author of Encountering Torah - Reflections on the Weekly Portion. He and his wife Bryna made Aliyah in June 2019.
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