As Israel celebrates its 70th anniversary of statehood, it is a good time to offer gratitude to God for the gift of a sovereign Jewish state. It is also a good time to assess the dream of Zion. My thinking — as an individual and a rabbi who led a diaspora community for decades — has evolved over the years.
As a young man born in the last years of the Holocaust, I saw the State of Israel as the ultimate response to the Shoah. Never again would Jews be defenseless. Israel and its army would be there to protect Jews everywhere. I understood Israel’s Chok Ha’shevut (Law of Return), granting any Jewish immigrant immediate citizenship, as a deeply religious statement. Never again would Jews in distress have nowhere to go.
As I grew older, my understanding developed from viewing Israel merely as a physical haven for Jews. It became one based on the mandate to be le-ohr goyim — a light for the larger world (Isaiah 42:6).
Mainstream Jewish belief maintains that the “light” is our mission to bring Torah ethics to the world. Our task is to function as the catalyst in bringing about a redeemed world. The movement is not from the particular to the more particular, but rather from the particular to the universal; not a statement of superiority, but of responsibility.
This does not suggest we are inherently better. Light moves in different directions. As we enlighten, so too can we be enlightened. Maimonides makes this point, stating: Accept truth from wherever and whomever it comes.
From this perspective, Israel — the Jewish state — is important not only as the place that guarantees political refuge; not only as the place where more mitzvot can be performed; not only as the place where, given the high rate of assimilation and intermarriage in the exile, our continuum as a Jewish people is assured. It is rather the place where we have the means to carry out our mandate. Only in a Jewish state do we have the political sovereignty and judicial autonomy to potentially establish a just and ethical society from which others can learn.
Of course, Jews living in the diaspora can make significant individual contributions to the betterment of the world. And there are model diaspora communities that impact powerfully on Am Yisrael and humanity. But I would insist that the national destiny of the Jewish people can only be realized in the land of Israel. Only there do we as a nation have the potential to contribute to repairing the larger world.
It must be noted that God’s covenantal promise that the Jewish people is eternal does not guarantee that we will always be sovereign in a Jewish state. To wit, the Jewish people were stateless after the destruction of the Second Temple for 2,000 years. This is a disconcerting thought. It would be comforting to know that Israel’s existence is guaranteed. All we would have to do is be. Once understanding that we must do our part to remain sovereign in the land, we realize that we must be worthy of the land. Being is not enough; doing is necessary.
For me, the greatest challenge to maintaining sovereignty in the land is not the physical or spiritual threat but rather achdut Yisrael — Jewish unity. Unity is not uniformity. Uniformity is achieving togetherness by eradicating the other’s view. Unity is living together despite differences — religious, political or otherwise. How we respect each other, listen to each other, learn from each other despite our disagreements — all of these are critical to Israel’s survival.
What then can one do for Israel while living in the golah (diaspora)? The Talmud records that from the exile, one ought to be a doresh tzion, a seeker of Zion (Rosh HaShanah 30a). For me, a doresh tzion is one who recognizes that his or her life as a Jew in the diaspora is incomplete. It is the person whose goal is to live in Israel. It is the person who, while living outside Israel, does tangible acts to connect to the land — visiting Israel, buying Israeli products, calling friends in Israel, advocating for Israel and supporting the redemptive mission of the people of Israel in the land of Israel. Only one living in Israel is a complete Zionist, but in the exile we can constantly yearn to be there. To paraphrase Rav Nachman of Bratslav, wherever I am walking, I am walking to Israel.
The word Zion is associated with me-tzuyan, which means to excel. Tziun is the mark, and the center; it is the place from which the core values of Judaism emanate. The place of dissemination of these values is Israel. But this is no simple emanation. The rabbis point out that just as the light (ohr) of day ascends slowly, so too the redemptive process may be slow. Note the prophetic words which describe the process of redemption as a “poor person riding on a donkey.” As Rabbi Yehuda Amital told me, a donkey moves slowly, sometimes forward, sometimes bucking and lurching backwards — but ultimately it reaches its destination.
Israel faces all kinds of challenges. But its 70th anniversary is a time to celebrate, to step back and marvel at its accomplishments. Israel will continue to be a great country as long as we keep the message of Zion alive, impacting Am Yisrael and doing our share to change the world. Then, and only then, will the dream of Zion be realized.
Avi Weiss is founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale – the Bayit and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat rabbinical schools. He has been a longtime activist on behalf of the State of Israel.