Understanding the Sacred Obligations of the People of Israel and the State of Israel: Past, Present, and Future

February 17, 2023

This week’s Torah portion brings the many mitzvot (lit: “commandments,” though I prefer the term “sacred obligations”) for which the Israelites will be responsible, having entered into the covenant with the revelation of the 10 commandments at Mount Sinai in Parashat Yitro, which we read last week. Many of the mishpatim (laws) center upon the establishment of a civil society based in justice and compassion; a society which will, for the first time in human history, have at its core the value of b’tzelem elohim, every human being as created in the divine image. A few examples of these mitzvot: “You shall not oppress nor do any wrong to strangers, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21) “If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them. If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it before the sun sets; it is the only available clothing—it is what covers the skin. In what else shall [your neighbor] sleep? Therefore, if that person cries out to Me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate.” (Exodus 22:24-26)

Even at this early stage in the Israelites circuitous journey toward the promised land, extensive laws about how to create a society based in chesed (you may be familiar with the line from Psalm 89, which we sing at the conclusion of many Friday evening services: Olam chesed Yibaneh – a world of abundant lovingkindness shall be built”), with these statues being primarily concerned with how we behave toward others.

There is a long journey yet to unfold, from the wilderness of Sinai to the land of Israel, and an even longer journey to come after that: From establishing the societies of the First and Second Temple periods, through the experience of two traumatic destructions, dispersions and exiles, to the ultimate establishment of the State of Israel, in 1948. 

This spring, we mark the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel. As this milestone approaches, Israel faces arguably the greatest moment of internal political crisis in its history, alongside a major exacerbation in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The State of Israel, in its immense complexity, has been a source of both joy and confusion, frustration, and challenge, for both Israelis and Diaspora Jews, for its entire existence. Now, in February 2023, we have reached a point where for many American Jews, the news from Israel particularly since the last elections in November, is simply overwhelming, and it is tempting to tune out and disconnect rather than to lean in, learn and engage.  In these last few months, aligned with a disturbing anti-democratic, authoritarian and extremist trend playing out throughout the world,  extreme right-wing politicians have taken power in Israel. (Here is a statement from the Reform Movement – the Union for Reform Judaism – in response to the elections, which is very helpful in explaining the implications of the elections for both Israelis and Diaspora Jews). Those in power are seeking to enact laws which call into question the Jewish identity of those of us outside of the Orthodox world, the inclusion of LGBTQ+ Jews, and so many of the values a majority of the Jewish people hold dear. Here is an excellent recent piece from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) entitled Israel’s Dual Crises, Explained. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets in recent weeks to rally for Israel’s democracy, and these protests have also been held in cities across North America. See this article about the protests here in Boston and other cities. 

It is in exactly this moment that we at TOS will have a long-overdue opportunity to engage as an American Jewish community with the history and present of the state of Israel. I am excited to share with you a few upcoming opportunities for learning and exploration, in which the complexity and pain of this history and present, along with the triumphs and joys of the State of Israel past and present, will be illuminated and discussed.

As always, I want us to be a community in which we share our stories with one another. I am hoping to open up more opportunities for TOS members to do this, both in services and at other programs, on our blog, and more. On March 10th during our Erev Shabbat service, our member David Seldin will share his personal story of his engagement with Israel. Beginning the following week, on March 13th, all are welcome to participate in the first of a three-session class, Israel 101, taught by Rabbi Jethro Berkman and Dr. Jonathan Golden. (For more information, click here.) On April 28th, at Shabbat B’yachad, we will learn about and celebrate Israel through food, music, and the sharing of experiences. 

I would like to look toward a congregational trip to Israel within the next two years, having had to cancel the planned trip for February 2021 due to the pandemic. It is my hope that increasing our educational opportunities related to Israel, within TOS and in the broader community, will strengthen connection to the Jewish state even at a moment when it is tempting to disconnect. We are the people Israel – Yisrael – which means “one who wrestles with God.” We are a people who has not been afraid to wrestle, to struggle. The sacred obligation is to engage in the holy work of struggle, as we strive always to create a world based in the Torah we accepted at Sinai. May we create a world of chesed, by doing the difficult work of learning about and engaging with Israel – all that it has been and all that it can be.

Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman