Friday, December 24, 2010

Shemot 5771 - The Nexus of the Personal and the National

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel, 12/25/2010.)

Two weeks ago today, Shabbat morning, the day after I returned from Israel, I was awake at 4 AM. Zev woke up and cried briefly, but I managed to get him to go back to sleep. But I was wide awake. So I picked up the Jewish Week, and started to read it from cover to cover. Not far into the newspaper, I found myself crying.

Now, I have found that jetlag does tend to destabilize me somewhat, emotionally. But I found myself weeping over the stunning list of all the nations that provided support to Israel during the fire that took place a few weeks back.

Most notably, Bulgaria sent 92 firefighters and a plane. Greece, Spain, the US, and Russia all sent significant personnel and material. OK, not too surprising there. But the names on the list that really brought up the tears were Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, and the Palestinian Authority.

I cried not because of the tragedy itself; since I had actually been in Israel when it happened, and as such had long since recovered from the shock over the extent of the damage and the loss of life. No, I was crying because it was just so tragically beautiful that all of these nations, including some who are not necessarily on good terms with Israel right now, overlooked their differences, put the lives of their own sons and equipment in danger, and placed a higher priority on saving lives and trees and property than on political squabbling. I cried because, when it came down to it, these people, these nations, came to aid the modern Jewish nation.

Let’s take a step back for a moment.

We began reading the book of Shemot / Exodus this week, having just finished the book of Bereshit / Genesis.

So here’s a question: Considering the narratives of each book, what is it that differentiates Bereshit from Shemot?

Bereshit is about Creation, of course. But it is also about the establishment of the Israelite line, from Abraham to Joseph, and the individual relationship that each of these characters, the Avot / Patriarchs, the Imahot / Matriarchs, and Jacob’s children have with God.

Meanwhile, Shemot begins with a recap of this line, listing the family members that came down to live in Egypt with Joseph - his brothers and their families. But almost immediately, this group of 70 people, each of whom has a name and a distinct identity, becomes an ‘am, a nation. (Here is one small irony of this book - Shemot means "names," referring to those identified in the opening verses; from that point forward, not a single Israelite is identified by name until Moshe comes along.)

And who, officially declares the Israelites a nation? It is none other than the Par’oh / Pharaoh, the new king “who did not know Joseph,” as we read in the first aliyah this morning. It is, in fact, the only occurrence in the entire Tanakh of the phrase, “‘am benei yisrael,” literally, the nation of the children of Israel. Par’oh gives us this name.

And it is a nation that the Egyptians must reckon with. The rest of that story we know well because we retell it every Pesah, with all of its nationalist implications for ancient Israelites and modern Jews.

Our parashah today stands at this cusp, at the nexus of the personal and the national. It is the threshold of nationhood. And the rest of the Torah speaks of that nation’s relationship with God.

Now let’s return to the present, or at least to the late 19th century. (It is remarkable that the difference between 1860 and the present is tiny on the scale on which we are measuring.)

Modern Israel fuses the personal and the national. That was, in fact, the primary goal of Zionism, the political movements that emerged in Central and Eastern Europe in the latter half of the 1800s.

Partly in response to the Russian state-sponsored pogroms of 1881-84, and partly due to the growing Jewish intelligentsia in Eastern Europe, the first Zionist groups appeared in the 1880s in Russia. These groups were established to arouse a new, modern national consciousness among the oppressed Jews of Russia, shuddering from fear and cold in their shtetlakh (little Jewish towns). Some of those so aroused actually made it to Ottoman Palestine and established towns and agricultural collectives. Among them is the town where my son lives, Nes Tziyyona, established in 1887.

The goal of this new consciousness was to give the disenfranchised, unenlightened, ghetto-confined Jew hope for the future, an optimism that some day they might leave the troubled lands in which they dwelt and become, in the words of Hatiqvah, “‘Am hofshi be-artzeinu.” A free people in our own land. Naftali Herz Imber penned those words in 1878, in response to the establishment of the new Jewish settlement of Petah Tiqvah (literally, “the opening of hope”), now a major suburb of Tel Aviv.

The Jews of Russia began their transition from individuals to nationhood, not unlike the transition seen in Parashat Shemot.

Over the next few decades, other groups began to advocate for their own variations on the Zionist dream, culminating with the First Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland in 1897.

113 years later, today’s Israel is a complex, multi-faceted, staunchly democratic society that still reflects the Zionist attempt to fuse the personal and the national.

For example, when I was there, the newspapers reported a kick-off party celebrating the establishment, in Jerusalem, of a new, secular yeshiva. The goal of this yeshiva is to encourage non-religious Israeli young people to wrestle with their Jewish identity by studying the great works of secular Jewish and Zionist thinkers as well as the non-halakhic portions of rabbinic literature. One of the founders, a young man named Ariel Levinson, identified this as “an experiment in Judaism.”

Another example: during my two-week visit, the winter rains were long overdue. (These are the same rains that we mentioned in this morning’s Shaharit Amidah, and will do so again in a few minutes, with the line “mashiv haruah umorid hagashem.”) This lack of rain is partly to blame for the great fire, but also has caused the water level of the Kinneret to descend past the “red line,” the point at which the salt content of the water is too high, to the “black line,” below which water can no longer be pumped from it for fear of damaging the water infrastructure.

To help ameliorate the situation (or at least to raise awareness), the Chief Rabbis of Israel wrote a new prayer for rain, and while I was there held special ceremonies at the Kotel to pray for the advent of rain.

What do these example point to? That Zionism and medinat yisrael, the modern State of Israel, as Dr. Kenneth Stein of Emory University put it, are the newest plank in Judaism. Zionism fundamentally changed the nature of the Jewish religion, because we now relate to God and other nations once again as a people, and not merely as individuals davening in a minyan, scattered about the world. That the modern Jewish nation-state is the completion not only of “hatiqvah bat shenot alpayim,” the hope that comes from 2000 years of yearning, but also, in effect, the transition to modern nationhood that began with the Israelites’ descent into Egypt detailed in today’s parashah.

As further evidence, I’ll point out a new tool I discovered this past week. It’s an application in Google Books called the Ngram Viewer, and it instantly searches the 5.6 million books that Google Books has scanned to date for any search terms that you want. It also graphs the data, so that you can compare the number of occurrences of one term against another.

So a couple of days ago I tried this with the terms “Zionism” and “Jewish nation.” “Zionism,” of course, did not occur in English-language books before the 1880s, because the concept had not reached fruition. The term, “Jewish nation,” prior to late 19th c., always appeared in a Biblical context. There was no contemporary concept of the Jewish nation outside of our ancient texts, both for the Jews and the non-Jews. The Zionist movement changed that.

Every time I come back from Israel, I am reminded that, although I love Great Neck and I love my work here at TI, and I am as American as the next guy, on some level Israel is my home. It’s the home of all of us. In some ways, I am aware of a fundamental yearning, the aforementioned “hatiqvah bat shenot alpayim” - “the hope of 2000 years,” that tells me to pick up and go. And maybe someday I will. For good. (Judy and I often fantasize about the newly-gentrified and very cool Neve Tsedeq neighborhood, in the oldest part of Tel Aviv.)

And so, as I wept over the Jewish Week two weeks back, I reflected (in my jetlagged haze) on the power of nationhood, on the transformation of a largely powerless, dispersed people into a unified political force. (Well, somewhat unified, anyway.) We may not be on good terms with everybody, but we are literally and figuratively on the map. That should never be taken lightly, nor should it ever be taken for granted.

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