A story is told of a young boy who never spoke. The boy’s mother sent him to doctors, specialists and all sorts of professionals, but to no avail. The boy still never spoke. Eventually, the mother gave up and resigned herself to raising a son who would never speak. One day, to her greatest surprise, after serving her son dinner the boy exclaimed, “Mom! This food stinks!” His mother was overjoyed. “I’m so happy you can speak! But I don’t understand. Why didn’t you say anything until now?” The boy responded, “Until now, I never had anything about which to complain.”
Sometimes, it seems we have a tendency to focus on the negative and to complain about perceived imperfections, despite us having much for which to be grateful.
This week, we observe Yom Hazikaron and celebrate Yom Haatzmaut. While many of us view these days as quite significant and go to lengths to participate in their observance, some in the orthodox community do not share our outlook or our practice. I’d like to frame the two sides of this important debate in the context of how we view the kedusha, the sanctity, of the land of Israel.
In Parshat Acharei Mot, the Ramban explains that the consequence of engaging in forbidden sexual behavior is exile from Israel. According to the Ramban, exile in this case is not simply a punishment for bad behavior, but a logical consequence due to the nature of the behavior and the inherent sanctity of the land of Israel. Certain sins create a spiritual virus in the land that can only be cured if the virus is removed; hence, exile. Many orthodox Jews look at the land of Israel today and lament the secular and anti-religious behavior that exists there. These individuals ask, “Is this why we’ve waited 2000 years – for this type of behavior which defiles the land?” In focusing on this view of kedusha, one cannot help but focus on the imperfections with our modern State. While imperfections certainly exist, there are other interpretations of kedushat ha’aretz, and I suggest we focus on those this week.
In the Sefer Kuzari, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi explains the flip side to the Ramban’s approach. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi argues that the intrinsic sanctity of Israel allows us to sense God’s Divine Presence more acutely there. It is because of this sanctity and heightened awareness that prophecy can only be achieved in Israel. (While there are prophets who prophesied outside of Israel, they are seen as exceptions to this rule.) In discussing Israel’s holiness, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi opts not to focus on the many sinners who are sadly behaving in a way that is not befitting the sanctity of the land. Instead, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi highlights the transformative power of the land that awaits all those who seek out its holiness.
In “The Emergence of Ethical Man,” Rav Soloveitchik explains that kedusha is not intrinsic to an object; rather, it is man-made. It is our actions, deeds and mitzvoth that create kedusha. In order to experience the sanctity of the land of Israel, we must do so actively, by conquering and settling it. On Yom Hazikaron, let us suspend all other thoughts if only for a moment, in order to remember and pay homage to the individuals who did just that. It is in memory of, and with greatest respect for, those who created kedusha by sacrificing their lives for the land of Israel.
Were we to take Rabbi Yehuda Halevi’s and Rav Soloveitchik’s approach, would we not look at all the Jews who are inspired by Israel and be filled with gratitude for its very existence? Whether one is spending a gap year in Israel, visiting the land on a Birthright trip or walking in the footsteps of our ancestors, the modern day State of Israel holds transformative potential for those who wish to engage with its holiness. So let us celebrate this week. Let us focus our thoughts and our deeds on the great and holy potential that Israel offers. The present state of our land is not perfect, but the potential is holy and most importantly, it is ours to sanctify. So let us sanctify it. This Yom Haatzmaut, when we sing and dance and express our gratitude for the modern state of Israel, let us feel thankful for the tremendous gift of her potential.
It is so easy to be silent or to complain, but this coming Wednesday and Thursday let us remind ourselves how fortunate we are to live in such inspiring times. Fortunate that after 2000 years of exile, we can live as Jews in a country that is imbued with kedusha and that creates opportunities for us to create kedusha in the world. We live in amazing times!
זה היום עשה ה׳ נגילה ונשמחה בו!