Zionism vs. cynicism

“The siren went off and my kid just asked as his eyes grew huge: ‘Is this the one where we run or stand?’ My heart breaks” tweeted Sarah Tuttle Singer of the Times of Israel earlier this week.

Twice in the past week, amidst more than 700 attacks on Israeli lives, the siren required its listeners to stand still in honor of those killed in the Holocaust and in defense of Israel.  For a young child to have to decide whether a siren aims to honor past fallen or to hasten shelter to prevent new loss-of-life is heartbreaking indeed.

Making distinctions is at the heart of this week’s portion of Torah.  Boundaries are clarified between holy and profane, between pure and impure.  To make this clear, the text prohibits admixtures of wool and linen, certain seeds, and the breeding certain animals.

Twice in the portion, however, we encounter an urge toward sameness.  The most familiar verse in Leviticus encourages, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (kamocha) (Lev. 19:18).  This sentiment is later echoed by the command to love the stranger as yourself (kamocha) (Lev. 19:34).  Love swells toward similitude, leaving behind coarse distinctions.

The ultimate similarity relates to holiness.  God’s holiness is intended to inspire ours.  Striving for holy living brings us back to distinctions.  Alas, profanity’s pull can feel gravitational.

IDF Colonel Benzi Gruber recognizes the relentlessness of this challenge.  “No matter what kind of person you are when you enter the IDF, six months of serving at Checkpoints will change you” he often says.  How to reduce the corrosive effects of such stressful service?  Add mitzvot and deeds of kindness to your week.  Making this part of a soldiers program is the best way to mitigate the rusting of a person’s character.  Striving to ‘Be Holy’ asks us to reach for the summit in order to avoid the abyss.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “To dwell in the land is to sense that the idols of cynicism are tottering.”  The ultimate distinction is between Zionism and cynicism; between making do to manifest the miraculous, and succumbing to despair which rewards adversaries.

May the worthy strivings of Israel and the whole House of Israel, now 71 years young, ever honor the best in our distinctions and our similarities.  May we thus continue to resist the cynical and insist upon the solemn.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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