This Wednesday is Yom Hazikaron, Israel's Day of Remembrance when we remember all those Israelis who gave up their life so that we could celebrate, on the next day, Thursday, her independence (Yom Ha'atzmaut).
We as a people always seem to live, like Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut - on the edge; between tyranny and hope; between violence and security. We have known struggle and compassion. We have suffered from senseless hatred and stood proud amidst the almost constant threat of annihilation. And through it all, the dream of a homeland for the Jewish people and the reality of the State of Israel have served as pillars of our continued existence and proof of our tenacious spirit.
As a child I lived, for a short time, in Israel with my family. I attended an Israeli school, soaked up Israeli culture and learned Hebrew. It was almost ten years later in 1987 when I visited Israel again as a teenager with USY, the youth movement of Conservative Judaism. For two months I experienced Israel again, this time through the eyes of a budding adult, struggling for independence and yearning for connection.
My next visit was a number of years later when I was invited to serve as a spiritual leader for a group of Jewish day school educators traveling to Israel for the first time. Again, this trip was different in that I was now traveling not as a participant, but as a leader.
And oh how time passes. In 2006 I traveled to Israel with more than a dozen temple members from my former pulpit in Canton, Massachusetts. I remember the feelings of guilt that I had when I realized that it had been almost a decade since my last visit. Israel looked so different than I had remembered it. And now, I was seeing it through my children’s eyes.
Since that trip, I have returned to Israel at least a dozen times and each visit has been meaningful and special to me. As an adult, a leader, a father and a rabbi, I can see in Israel the challenges that I couldn’t appreciate as a child or teenager. I can understand, to a point, how difficult life is for Israeli citizens who are living under the constant threat of terrorism and violent attack. And I can also understand how wonderful it is to visit and live in Israel.
Israel has produced more technological and medical breakthroughs than ever should have been expected from a tiny country under a constant barrage of rocket attacks. There should be no Israeli films, music, dance, art, and cuisine when Israel has to protect itself by requiring almost every citizen to serve in the military. And yet Israeli culture thrives!
Indeed, American Jewry, Americans as a whole and peace-loving people around the world benefit greatly from all that Israel offers. I would go so far as to suggest that without Israel - American Jewry, and in fact the world as we know it, would be in a very different place - a much worse place – than it is with Israel.
As the only reliable democratic partner in the Middle East, Israel is a beacon of light in an otherwise dark part of the world. When we yearn for a peaceful world, we think of Jerusalem – the city of peace (Yerushalayim – Ir shel shalom.) Because of Israel and the contributions and sacrifices that she has made over the past 70 years we are able to live comfortably in South Florida and elsewhere in the United States as Jews. We may not see Israel in our lives everyday and we may only hear about her ongoing political and military battles – but make no mistake about it – Israel is a part of every Jew and Israel is needed by every Jew.
Because we love Israel so much and because she holds so much promise for the Jewish people and the world - we must hold her accountable for the mistakes she makes. Every nation makes mistakes and there is no reason to expect Israel to be immune. As members of the Jewish people we are each called upon to take responsibility for how our Jewish state falls short. Through our love and criticism; our support and rebuke - we push Israel to be more democratic and more free for all peoples who live there.
May this week's celebration of Israel's 70 birthday be an opportunity for each of us to fall in love again with our homeland; to commit to visiting and supporting her and to promise to hold her to the highest standards.