Reflections on Memorial and Independence Day - May 9, 2014

Dear Friends: 

As so often, the weekly Torah portion provides the best commentary on what transpires in our lives during the week.  I arrived in Israel on Yom haZikaron, Israel's memorial day - a day of deep solemnity when Israel's citizens mourn the 23,169 people who have died, either as casualties of war or terrorism, since 1860, the year marked as the advent of the modern Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel. Just two days before Memorial Day, a 20 year old woman from Afula became the latest of that number.  And just as somber as the mood is during that 25 hour period, the next day the country becomes joyous and celebratory as the 66th anniversary of Independence is marked with song, barbeques, trips to parks, beaches, and hiking trails, with blue and white flags lining the streets, hung on doors and public buildings, and cars decorated with flags attached to their back windows, waving in the breeze. 

It is told that an hour or so before the opening of the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, Theodore Herzl ordered his aide, David Wolffsohn, to create a banner for the hall's entrance. A stranger to Basel, Wolffsohn had no idea where to find such a thing. He ran and scoured the shops of the city in search of a suitable emblem, but found nothing appropriate. Exhausted and frustrated, he entered a small synagogue to rest a moment.  There he immediately saw his emblem: he held up a large blue and white wool tallis.  He removed the fringes, the tzitzit, and took his Swiss fountain pen and inscribed a Magen David in the center. Thus, was Israel's flag born.  This we know: A country whose flag is a tallis, whose anthem is a prayer of hope, and whose national vision is the ancient dream of the prophets, will yet find its way to peace.



In parasha Behar, we read the line which is famously inscribed on our own Liberty Bell in Philadelphia: "Proclaim liberty throughout the Land unto all the inhabitants thereof."  Independence in 1948 fulfilled the Herzelian dream of "being a free people in our own land" but Israel lacks a constitution. In the Megilla of Independence, read by David Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv, and more explicitly in the 1992 Basic Law: Human Liberty and Dignity, there is this statement: "Fundamental human rights in Israel are founded upon recognition of the value of the human being, the sanctity of human life, and the principle that all persons are free."  This is not only a powerful moral and legal statement of which we Jews should be proud but it is also an imperative to exercise  collective moral actions. The Jewish task is to proclaim liberty throughout all the lands we reside in and to oppose enslavement and oppression wherever it occurs.

Reading in the newspapers about the kidnapping of more than 300 young girls in Nigeria who were taken  hostage by the Boko Haram, a ruthless Islamic fundamentalist army, is a startling reminder that slavery and sex-trafficking still exist in many parts of the world. This moral outrage exists nearly everywhere, including in the States and in Israel. Migrant workers live in a perilous legal state and are vulnerable to predatory behaviors by employers who withhold pay with impunity or parents whose poverty is so burdensome that they sell a child into slavery.

Israel's 66th anniversary is cause for celebration and rejoicing. The day after, Israel must turn to ensuring that the problems that bedevil her outstanding achievements and indomitable spirit are remedied.  Using the same courage and resolve with which the nation was born, Israel absorbed millions of immigrants from the four corners of the world, established first-class universities, hospitals, technology, and flourishing cultural arts, all the while confronting an Arab world which threatened her existence time and time again. Her democracy, at once robust and flawed, is still remarkable for such a young, beleaguered country. Israel is determined to proclaim liberty throughout its land. The yearning to live in freedom and in peace remains undaunted.

I met briefly with our March of the Living students in Jerusalem yesterday, after they had danced, cheered and sang (until they were hoarse) with 5,000 other Jewish teens from around the world. I asked one young woman what was the most impressive moment of her trip. She hugged me tightly and said immediately: " Singing Am Yisrael Chai! in Auschwitz-Birkenau and in Latrun, Israel".

A country whose flag is a tallis, whose anthem is a prayer of hope, whose national vision is the ancient dream of the prophets, will yet find its way to peace.



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