“The First Flowering of our Redemption” Leaning into Pesach, Leaning into Connection with the Contemporary, Complex, in-Crisis State of Israel

March 31, 2023

This Shabbat, on the cusp of Passover, is known as Shabbat haGadol – “The Great Shabbat.”  There are several traditional explanations for this designation, which you can read about here, but I want to share some reflections about what makes this Shabbat so significant in this very moment. We need the sacred pause of Shabbat and the expansiveness, connection and reflection it is meant to offer, so very deeply right now. The weight of the crises in our nation and our world are strangely dissonant with the buds on the trees and the crocuses emerging from the hardened ground. 

Seasonally, we enter this Shabbat during a time of hope and promise, soon to remember our people’s liberation from the bonds of slavery, our freedom, and the responsibility which comes with it. As we celebrate the season of rebirth and the bursting forth of spring flowers, we are aware that over 5,000 miles away, the only Jewish state on earth, the “Reishit tzmichat geulateinu” (the symbol of the “first flowering of our redemption” as we say in the traditional Prayer for the State of Israel), faces a profound existential crisis. Whether or not we have been to Israel, or feel a sense of personal connection to this land or culture, Israel is home to nearly half of our people. Our family.  Our people is famous for its divisiveness (as the old joke goes, where you have two Jews, you have at least three opinions), and Israel’s citizens are themselves incredibly diverse in background and political opinion. The responsibility that comes with the freedom we celebrate this Pesach, is enormous. The project of figuring out how to live out our people’s values in the context of a Jewish station is never complete, and always complex. Freedom is a gift which we must continually work to sustain and to merit. 

A long-simmering political tension has exploded in recent weeks into an unprecedented crisis, and the continued existence of Israel as a democratic state seems anything but assured. As I’ve written in previous communications, it may feel overwhelming to try to sort out what is happening in Israel and why, especially if you, like so many Jews and non-Jews alike, are not familiar with the political system or history of Israel. However, we are obligated to learn, to connect, and to use our voice as a Diaspora Jewish community integrally bound up with our fellow Jews, to support Israel as a democratic state. To that end, I will offer below some resources to help us begin. As we re-enact our journey to freedom that took place millennia ago, we remind ourselves that the journey is not over. Freedom places demands on us. And, to quote the title of a play written by my great-great-grandfather, Sholom Aleichem, Shver tsu zayn a yid! (It’s Hard to be a Jew!)

Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, said in a convening of Boston rabbis that I attended this morning, “When our family is in crisis, we must lean in and stay engaged.” This critical moment for Israel is a historic crisis for American Jews as well, whether or not we consider ourselves connected to or knowledgeable about Israel. This current political and existential internal crisis for Israel has drawn out a deep unity where it has in recent years been easy to see only fracture and division. The protests of hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been filled with Israeli flags, with the Israel Philharmonic playing in the streets, with the very diverse groups within Israel coming together in support of the democratic identity of the state. Significantly, according to Kurtzer, 70% of Israelis agree that the recent attempt at Judicial reform was unjust either in content or in process. 57% of Palestinian Israelis support the protests against the judicial overhaul. While for much of recent Israeli history, the voice of American Jewry (and Diaspora Jewry more generally), particularly the voice of our religious leaders, has not been taken seriously, this has changed. At one of the recent protests in Tel Aviv, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, spoke to tens of thousands of Israelis, who listened and received his presence with deep gratitude for showing up and bringing the voice of our community to support the protests.

We must do the difficult and sometimes overwhelming work of leaning in and learning about what is happening in Israel, and using our voice to connect to and support our family there. As I’ve written about in previous messages, we are doing exactly that as a TOS community, launching various educational and programmatic opportunities to learn and to engage. At our Shabbat B’yachad service on Friday evening, April 28th, we will have the opportunity to learn from Rabbi Jethro Berkman, who has decades of experience teaching about Israel. He will offer a d’var torah and an opportunity for Q and A. Other opportunities will be scheduled in the coming months as well.  Here are some other resources for learning about and making sense of what is happening in Israel and understanding the historical context:

https://www.jewishboston.com/resources/israel-at-a-crossroads/

Some episodes of a podcast from the Shalom Hartman Institute (I highly recommend this podcast in general)

https://www.hartman.org.il/six-stories-about-the-protests-in-israel-2/

https://www.hartman.org.il/what-happens-next/

Here is a wonderful book for those seeking some historical overview, from a personal perspective: https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Israel/Noa-Tishby/9781982144944

May we have a Shabbat Shalom, and a sweet and joyous Pesach which renews our commitment to doing the hard work our freedom asks of us.

Rabbi Audrey Berkman