Longing for a Spiritual Center: Yom HaAtzma’ut 5780

On this date in the Hebrew calendar, the 5th of Iyyar, 72 years ago, the State of Israel declared its independence. In the years since, Israel has struggled for its survival and thrived, become a home to Jews from around the world, and built a unique national culture and identity. 

It is incredibly moving to walk the same paths our ancestors walked thousands of years ago and to visit the land where the Jewish people encountered God and forged our traditions. For me, the land of Israel is sacred ground. I am filled with gratitude for Israel as a safe haven for Jews. I am inspired by the innovation and creativity of the people who call Israel their home. 

Among Zionist thinkers, there is an immense diversity of thought about the goals of the Zionist enterprise and how best to approach it. Many of the early Zionists, like Theodor Herzl, emphasized the importance of political self-determination and the role of the state in providing security and a place of refuge. This is certainly something that the modern State of Israel has been successful in accomplishing. Many political Zionists yearned to be a nation like any other. Asher Ginzberg, known by his pen name Ahad Ha’am, instead argued for the need for “a Jewish state and not merely a state of Jews.” He advocated for the creation of a spiritual and cultural center in Israel for all of world Jewry. 

While Ahad Ha’am’s vision was a secular one, he recognized the importance of ethics and values to the sustainability of a Jewish nation. This vision is one that resonates with the teachings of the Torah in this week’s parasha, Acharei Mot – Kedoshim. God instructs Moses to say to the community: ‘Kedoshim tihyu’, “you shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). And what does being holy involve? Among the mitzvot described are honoring parents, providing food for the poor, fairness in business practices and the administration of justice, and treating the disabled and elderly with dignity. As the following chapter makes clear, the observance of these commandments is intimately connected with the survival of the people in the land. The Land of Israel is not a no-strings-attached gift from God; rather, it comes with a responsibility to live in accordance with a higher set of values. Without them, life in the land is unsustainable. 

As we mark Yom HaAtzma’ut today, I celebrate Israel’s successes, the uniqueness and beauty it has contributed to the world, and renew my support for Israel in fully realizing its potential as a spiritual center, guided by a commitment to the values of justice, fairness, and the recognition of human dignity. If this seems overly idealistic, I recall Herzl’s own words in response to those who suggested that the founding of a Jewish state was unrealistic: “Im tirtzu, ein zo aggadah” – “If you will it, it is no fairytale.”

I wish you and all the citizens and of Israel a happy and meaningful Yom HaAtzma’ut. I pray that we all find ways to strengthen our relationship to the land and its people, today and every day. 


P.S.: As a way of marking the day, I suggest checking out contemporary Israeli film, TV series, music, or literature, which are widely available online. Some of my movie favorites are by director Shemi Zarhin, especially “Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi.” 

For some other suggestions, check out this list from the Forward of Israeli films and series available for streaming online: https://forward.com/culture/434533/your-guide-to-every-single-israeli-tv-show-and-movie-you-can-stream-right/