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Synthesis and Statehood (Yom Ha’atzmaut)

To celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut in Israel is truly a special experience. I have had the privilege of doing so twice, most recently last April, while spending the year studying at Yeshivat Lev HaTorah, in Beit Shemesh. There are no words to describe the palpable excitement which envelops the country on this day. On Yom HaShoah, we mourn the loss of six million Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust. On Yom HaZikaron, we pay tribute to the thousands of Israeli soldiers and civilians who gave their lives in the struggle for Israel’s survival. But on Yom Ha’atzmaut – no less than twenty-four hours later – we turn our focus from the past to the future; from despair, to hope. We look back on millennia of exile and persecution, and we look around to find the nation of Israel once again secure in its eternal homeland, and we give thanks, and we sing, and we dance. עם ישראל חי – the Jewish people lives.

David Ben Gurion declares the establishment of the State of Israel.

This Monday evening marks sixty-six years since the establishment of the modern State of Israel. On May 14, 1948, the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Iyar, our people reclaimed its sovereignty for the first time in nearly two thousand years. The Declaration of Independence which Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion read from in Tel Aviv’s Independence Hall belongs, in some respects, in the same category as the Biblical books of Joshua, Ezra and Nehemiah: all tell the singular story, spread over hundreds of generations, of one nation’s dream to live “as a free people, in its homeland – the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” The difference is that מגילת העצמאות, the “scroll of Independence,” is a contemporary text, written in straightforward prose. It needs no commentary to be understood, nor is it its goal to teach us that which we do not already know. Let us, then, return to the source – the Tanakh – and draw our inspiration for this holiday, as we do for all holidays, from the teachings of our canonical works.

The Bible records that the Jewish people first left Israel in the days of Joseph, immigrating to Egypt due to famine. They were freed from slavery several generations later by Moses, and returned to Israel under his successor, Joshua. Many scholars have noted textual parallels between the narrative of יציאת מצרים, “leaving Egypt,” and the narrative of כניסה לארץ, “entering Israel.” But it was R. Boaz Mori, my Rosh Yeshiva in Lev HaTorah, who made what I consider the most fascinating discovery in this regard. Here’s what he pointed out:

  • Excavated ruins of what archaeologist Adam Zartel identifies as the “Altar of Joshua.” The structure was discovered in Israel on Mount Ebal and is the oldest surviving Israelite altar which has been discovered to date.

    Both Moses and Joshua have a divine encounter with God during which they are informed that they are standing on “holy ground.” But whereas Moses receives the instructions “של נעליך מעל רגליך” i.e. take your shoes off of your feet (Exodus 3:5), Joshua is told “של נעלך מעל רגלך” – take your shoe off of your foot (Joshua 5:15).

  • Moses splits the Sea of Reeds so that the people can leave Egypt, and Joshua splits the Jordan River so that the people can enter into Israel. But whereas the Sea of Reeds forms “two walls” (Exodus 14:22), the waters of the Jordan River gather into “one column” (Joshua 3:13).
  • In both books we read of a battle during which the leaders raise their arms to heaven while the people fight. But whereas Moses raises ידיו i.e. both of his hands during the war with Amalek (Exodus 17:12), Joshua only raises ידו i.e. one hand during the war with Ai (Joshua 8:18).
  • Moses receives the text of the Torah on two tablets (Exodus 32:15). God commands Joshua to re-write the text of the Torah on two stones upon crossing the Jordan. However, He stipulates that those two stones must be “plastered together with lime” (Deuteronomy 27:2), i.e., formed into one tablet.
  • Moreover: In the days of Moses, the nation accepts the terms of the covenant with two words: נעשה ונשמע, “we will do, and we will listen” (Exodus 24:7). When they re-accept the covenant during the days of Joshua, however, they respond with only one word: אמן, “amen” (Deuteronomy 27:11-26). Note: For the description of this ceremony as it took place in the days of Joshua, see Joshua 9:30-35.

Once it’s pointed out, the pattern is impossible to miss. When the Jews leave Egypt, everything occurs in “twos.” Upon entering the land of Israel, however, the same processes repeat themselves in “ones.” In fact, we can add two more examples to R. Boaz’s list:

  • The Israelites travel towards the Sea of Reeds carrying bundles on שכמם, “their shoulders” (Exodus 12:34) – plural. But they leave the Jordan River carrying stones on שכמו, “his shoulder” (Joshua 4:5) – singular.
  • Both the Israelites, in Egypt, and the members of Rahab’s family, in Israel, save themselves from impending plague / war by taking refuge inside their houses and demarcating their doorways with some sort of sign. For the Israelites, that sign is the painting of their “two doorposts” in red (Exodus 12:7). By contrast, Rahab’s sign is a single “red thread” (Joshua 2:18).

There’s more to be said here, for sure. For now, though, let’s suffice with the data that we have, and ask ourselves the critical question: What’s the point behind all of this “two / one” symbolism?

About three hundred years ago, a German philosopher by the name of Georg Hegel famously argued that all of history can be interpreted as the transition from “twos” to “ones.” He called this idea “dialectic.Johann Fichte, who lived at roughly the same time as Hegel, described the initial stage of dialectic in terms of a thesis – an initial movement or ideology – and its antithesis – a counter-movement or counter-ideology which arises in response. Fichte explained that although the thesis and the antithesis exist in tension, they ultimately give way to synthesis: the compromise which brings together the best of both. That synthesis, in turn, becomes its own thesis, which prompts another antithesis – and so the process continues, much like primary colors combine to form secondary colors, which then produce tertiary ones.

George Santayana warns us that we must learn from the mistakes of the past, or else risk repeating them. For Hegel, dialectic is the mechanism through which we learn those lessons: it is the process of trial-and-error which allows history to progress. At the start of the Industrial Revolution, children were working in sweat shops for twelve hours a day, under hazardous conditions, earning barely enough to feed themselves. Men like Marx and Engels hoped to remedy this situation by nationalizing the means of production and abolishing all ties of family and religion – but under communism, corruption, intolerance and oppression increased. Today’s model, “regulated capitalism,” brings us closer to a happy medium. Corporate competition inspires creativity and stimulates productivity. Minimum wage, workplace safety measures, and pension plans ensure that employees are treated with the dignity they deserve, instead of as interchangeable commodities. We are slowly learning.

Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, sung before a 2014 World Cup qualifier match.

Perhaps we can use the ideas of Hegel and Fichte to help us understand the thematic meaning behind the Tanakh’s “two-one” pattern. So long as we remain in exile, we are capable only of producing “theses” and “antitheses:” factions and sects, each with its own competing ideology. Our people grow polarized because there is no pressing need for us to solve our disputes. If you and I disagree, we simply go our separate ways. I withdraw into my community, you withdraw into yours, and – as Kipling would put it – “never the twain shall meet.”

With statehood, on the other hand, comes synthesis. The dialectic of the diaspora ends the minute we gain sovereignty over ourselves. No longer can I afford to ignore your opinions, nor you, mine. Suddenly we are each responsible for the fate of the other. The choices I make now impact directly upon you, and vice verca. And so, one way or another, we must learn to get along. We must learn to compromise. We must learn, as R. Jonathan Sacks so beautifully writes in  The Dignity of Difference, that “each of us has some of the truth, but none of us has all of it.”

Three times in the book of Joshua we find a phrase which appears nowhere else in Tanakh: “עד תום כל הגוי” – “until the whole nation did it together” (Joshua 3:17; 5:6; 5:9). It is the Bible’s version of that well-known aphorism, attributed to Aesop:“united we stand, divided we fall.” Until everybody enters the Jordan River, nobody is moving out. Until everybody has recovered from his circumcision, nobody is getting up to leave. Unity is the byword here. Like a body which freezes in paralysis if one leg wants to go right and the other, left, the body politic does not move forward unless all of its members find a way of resolving their differences through a system of governance and of legislation applicable to each.

That is the project taking place in Israel today. ברוך השם, we have always been, and will continue to be, a people who thrive on מחלוקות לשם שמים: “disagreements for the sake of heaven.” Israeli society does not suffer from a shortage of opinions. But slowly, surely, it is learning to negotiate between those opinions in a way that is equitable, respectable, and sustainable. כל ישראל ערבין זה לזה: Reform or Orthodox, observant or secular, Ashkenazi or Sephardi, right-wing or left-wing, Russian, Ethiopian, Moroccan or American, we are all Jews, and are all responsible for each other. And by building a nation together in our historic homeland, we have the opportunity – now, for the first time in nearly two-thousand years – to accept that responsibility upon ourselves in a way our ancestors could only dream of.

Chag Atzma’ut Sameach!

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