Deut. 8:1-8; 11:8-12; 26:1-11; 30:1-16
Rabbi Gary Pokras
Four passages from Deuteronomy are assigned to Israel’s Memorial Day (Yom HaZikaron) and Independence Day (Yom HaAtzma’ut). Just as Yom HaZikaron morphs into Yom HaAtzma’ut, so that they we can better appreciate what those who sacrificed their lives help to build, so too, these four passages are best understood as a single unit.
The first excerpt is a reminder of our struggles as we wandered through the Wilderness. It frames those struggles as a form of chastisement from God to teach us: “not on bread alone does the human live, but on every utterance of the Lord’s mouth.” [Deut. 8:3].
The second passage connects our ability to live in the land with strength, and explicitly predicates our strength to our fealty to God’s commandments.
The third excerpt details the rite dedicating the first yields of the crops to God. Each person who brings an offering is required to say:
My father was an Aramean about to perish, and he went down to Egypt, and he sojourned there with a few people, and he became there a great and mighty and multitudinous nation. And the Egyptians did evil to us and abused us and set up us hard labor. And we cried out to the Lord God of our father, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our abuse and our trouble and our oppression. And the Lord brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm and with great terror and with signs and with portents. And He brought to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, look, I have brought the first yield of the fruit of the soil that You gave me, Lord. [Deut. 26:5-10]
This rite is especially notable because it focuses our attention, reminding us that our strength and wealth come not from the work of our hands, but from God.
The final passage places agency in the people of Israel to act in such a way as to bring blessing or curse upon themselves – curse if we follow the ways of other nations, and blessing if we stay true to God and Torah. It also reminds us that Torah is already with us and accessible. We do not need to travel across and ocean or up to heaven to ask for it, for “it is very close you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.” [Deut. 30:14]
Taken together, these four passages describe Torah’s vision for Israel and her people: a bountiful land populated by a strong and capable people, driven by empathy (who remember what it was like to suffer); who remember with gratitude all that God as done for us, so that our laws will be rooted in, consonant with and guided by Torah (all that God has taught to us through the generations). It will be unlike any other nation in the world.
Today that vision seems distant. As the State of Israel prepares to celebrate its 75th birthday, it is torn by unprecedented civil unrest, ignited by the proposals of the most extreme right-wing government in its history. Yet, I would argue that the very source of the unrest is about how to interpret the vision found in these verses. The protesters, regardless of whether they are in favor of the new government or opposed are proudly waving Israeli flags. They are all committed to the continuation of Israel as the Jewish state. Where they differ, and passionately, is about what that means. Should Israel be a liberal western democracy, guided by Jewish values or should it adhere strictly to rabbinic law? Should it turn inward and focus solely on Jews and Judaism, or should it cultivate and support more diversity, especially regarding the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians? Which teachings/values should be emphasized? For many Israelis, in today’s highly polarized political world, these questions have become existential.
I do not know how this will all resolve, but I remain hopeful that the dedication both sides have to a strong Jewish Israeli future will help them to return from the brink to find a peaceful consensual solution – one that reflects the best of Israel’s Jewish and democratic nature. May we merit an Israeli future worth celebrating – year after year after year.