Sermon: Where Do We Stand (Shabbat Atzmaut) (Cantor Cheryl Wunch)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 21 March 2015

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.  We hung our lyres upon the willows in its midst.  For there they who carried us away captive asked us for a song; and they who spoiled us asked us for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”  How shall we sing God’s song in a foreign land?  If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.  If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

-Psalm 137

This is Shabbat Atzmaut – the Shabbat of independence, celebrated on the Shabbat between Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut.  If you’re anything like me, you may be unfamiliar with the concept of Shabbat Atzma’ut.  It is not a globally recognized special Shabbat on which a second Torah portion is read.  I had never even heard of it until moving here.  In fact, in my research, I could not find any definitive information about this religious observance.  As far as I can tell, it is a recent innovation of British Jewry, most likely focused within the Progressive community.  The Movement for Reform Judaism includes it in its annual calendar of holidays and Torah readings, and reading a special Torah portion has become commonplace in our wider Reform community in the UK.  Some congregations will even chant a full Hallel, like we would on the Three Festivals, Rosh Chodesh, or Chanukah.

Now, here’s where it gets a little bit confusing, at least to me.  A few short years after the establishment of the State of Israel, in response to widespread public interest and excitement, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel announced that Yom Ha’atzmaut itself should be declared a minor Jewish Festival – on which Hallel should be read.  Not the Shabbat before, but the actual day.  This declaration by the Chief Rabbinate was of course, controversial, with every segment of our people, from the secular Zionists, who did not want any religion being infused into the Independence Day celebrations, to the most Orthodox, who believed that just reciting Hallel wasn’t enough, voicing their concerns.  Over the years different groups have established and evolved their own practices, including Hallel, special Torah portions, special Haftarah portions, and even specially written liturgies.  Again though, these are all practices for the day of Yom Ha’atzmaut.  As far as I can tell, putting these religious observations onto the Shabbat before was likely a result of the Reform movement wanting to have the observance of Yom Ha’atzmaut fall at a time when people were already in Shul, instead of asking them to come yet again, or, maybe there was some interest in separating the religiosity of the festival with the more cultural celebration that many of us associate with Yom Ha’atzmaut.  As I said, it is unclear how this became a special Shabbat, but the message is obvious – Israel matters.

I was brought up to believe, as I’m sure many of you were that Israel could do no wrong.  Fervent support of Israel was simply the Jewish way.  My grandparents were active in helping to build and support the country at the time of its birth, and my uncle moved there when he was a teenager and eventually served in the military.  We raised money, went on solidarity walks, donated trees, and bought Israel bonds.  We saved our money so that we could visit.  It was clear that helping to continue to build the State of Israel was our duty as Jews.  We did not criticize, we did not question, as any critiques or questions would be considered anti-Zionist, and therefore anti-Semitic.  Anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism were not mutually exclusive.  One could not say anything negative about Israel without being called a bigot, a Jew hater.

Now that Israel has entered, what some are calling its adolescent stage as a nation, both personal and public critique of its leaders, policies, and actions has become far more widely accepted.  Jewish organizations, clergy, students, and leaders have been vocal in their understanding that Israel is not beyond reproach.  We are slowly beginning to understand that thoughtful, intelligent dissent on issues surrounding Israel is simply another way to support the state.  It is our homeland too, and while no one can fully understand what it is like to live there until they have done so, we all have an emotional investment in Israel’s success as a nation.

In the declaration of the establishment of the state of Israel it is written, “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

Many people, many Jews, believe that Israel has not lived up to this declaration.  Some fault Israel, and some understand that this is a goal towards which Israel continues to work.  Supporting Israel, watching it from afar can be challenging and painful.  When we hear of human rights atrocities, of women and Arab-Israelis being treated as second class citizens, when peace talks break down, we can begin to lose faith in our ‘land flowing with milk and honey.’  Across the globe, Jewish communities are polarized by their views on Israel.  This land that once united almost all of our people has become the focus of great debate and tension.  What this debate, tension, and heartache teach us though, is that Jews around the world still care greatly and deeply about our homeland.

No matter how you engage with Israel, it is important THAT you engage.  Israel is our home, the place where our entire family belongs.  Like any family, our relationship is not always easy.  We disagree, we fight, and we even have members who are painfully estranged.  In the end though, regardless of its growing pains, despite some of the deeply disturbing event that occur, Israel as a Jewish Nation still has a right to exist, and cannot do so without our help.  We should still be marching in parades, engaging in intellectual discourse, sending our financial support, and making every effort to visit.  It is only by showing our support that we also earn the right to critique and rally for change.

I don’t know if Yom Ha’atzmaut, or even Shabbat Atzmaut should be considered a religious festival.  There is certainly precedent for it – Chanukah, an historic event comprised of a military battle maintains such a status.  On Chanukah we talk of miracles, the miracle of the small army of Maccabees defeating those who tried to stop them, and thus being free to live and practice as Jews.  Purim, too, is a minor festival on which we celebrate Jewish strength and fortitude in the face of imminent destruction, and we celebrate the miracle of our survival.  The formation of the State of Israel was also a miracle – one that our families a few short generations ago could only dream of.  Israel is not perfect.  Israel has a long way to go.  But Israel is a miracle; its mere existence is a miracle.  On Chanukah and Purim we recite an extra prayer, Al HaNisim¸ that talks about God’s role in those miracles.  In the late 90s, a new version of this prayer was written specifically for Yom Ha’atzmaut.

Al hanisim v’al a hapurkan, v’al hag’vurot, v’al hatshu’ot, v’al hamilchamot she’asita l’avoteinu, bayamim haheim bazman hazeh.

We thank You for the heroism, for the triumphs, and for the miraculous deliverance of our ancestors, in other days and in our time.
In the days when Your children were returning to their borders, at the time of a people revived in its land as in days of old, the gates to the land of our ancestors were closed before those who were fleeing the sword.  When enemies from within the land together with seven neighbouring nations sought to annihilate Your people, You, in Your great mercy, stood by them in time of trouble.  You defended them and vindicated them.  You gave them the courage to meet their foes, to open the gates to those seeking refuge, and to free the land of its armed invaders.  You delivered the many into the hands of the few, the guilty into the hands of the innocent.  You have wrought great victories and miraculous deliverance for Your people Israel to this day, revealing Your glory and Your holiness to all the world.

May it be this way now, and always.