Friday June 3, 2022 – ד׳ סִיוָן תשפ״ב
וְחָנ֖וּ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אִ֧ישׁ עַֽל־מַחֲנֵ֛הוּ וְאִ֥ישׁ עַל־דִּגְל֖וֹ לְצִבְאֹתָֽם׃ (במדבר א:נב)
“The Israelites shall encamp troop by troop, each man with his division and each under his flag for their forces.“ (BaMidbar 1:52)
On two Sundays in a row, we saw and will see a massive convergence on Jerusalem’s Old City. On each day religious Jews make their way through its narrow stone-paved alleyways to the Western Wall Plaza; each filled with a sense of fervor and mission; each fulfilling the vision of what they believe to be our mission as Jews, and each trying to fulfill the covenant between us and God.
Last Sunday was Yom Yerushalayim, the newest holiday on the Jewish calendar that commemorates the reunification of Jerusalem under Jewish sovereignty in 1967. It is celebrated on the 28th day of Iyar, and for the past three decades has come to be known as the Jerusalem Day Flag March, which goes through the Old City with Israeli flags waving. Coincidentally, the Flag March comes during the week of Parashat BaMidbar (which this year, is read the Shabbat before Yom Yerushalayim in Israel), in which each encampment during the biblical period of wandering was specifically instructed to fly its flag. A flag certainly is a symbol of identity and inspiration. It serves as an emblem of security and a reminder of our sovereignty as well. But, it can also be threatening, even idolatrous.
Just as the blue and white striped flag of the Jewish State is waved menacingly in the Yom Yerushalayim Flag March by right-wing Israeli zealots, this week a controversial bill passed a preliminary reading in the Knesset outlawing the display of enemy flags — including the Palestinian flag — from being flown at state-funded institutions.
Over the past years and decades, the Flag March was the way many demonstrated Israeli sovereignty over the entire city of Jerusalem – which is why the march is routed through the Damascus Gate and the Muslim quarter of the Old City. The march is largely led by youth and is difficult to control. Radical national groups use the march to flaunt Israeli control of Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents, shouting racist taunts, and using violence toward Palestinians who dare open their shops or are just standing there.
To put it in context, after the Six-Day Way the primary political objective for many Religious Zionists was the settling of conquered territory in Judea and Samaria and opposing the relinquishing of any territory within Israel’s biblical boundaries. We do have a deep ancient and biblical connection to much of this territory, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we must maintain sovereignty over it.
Minimally, for the National-Religious camp, maintaining full control of a united Jerusalem was a given. And many saw the decision by Moshe Dayan in 1967 to allow the Jordanian authorities to retain control of the Temple Mount which was accepted as a pragmatic necessity was later seen as a disastrous mistake.
Many of us vividly recall that a significant number of Israelis harbored deep hatred and resentment against the Rabin/Peres Peace process of the 1990s which intended to return land in exchange for peace, recognition, and end-of-conflict with the Palestinians. The fervor in opposing any compromise around land eventually led to Rabin’s assassination by a religious zealot. Since then, radicalized rhetoric has increased and intensified including from sitting Knesset Members.
As Rabbi Yosef Blau of Yeshiva University recently commented:
“When a successful Yom Yerushalayim is one that saw no rockets launched from Gaza at Israel, then the day has become an expression of political power. Its religious nature has been lost.”
Next Sunday, many Jews will again converge on Jerusalem’s Old City in celebration of the Festival of Shavuot.
Shavuot is about two things:
- It is a biblical pilgrimage holiday when Jews brought their choicest produce to the Temple in Jerusalem thereby recognizing our abundance and offering to those less fortunate. It is about generosity, equality, and dignity. Shavuot offers us this lesson from Megillat Ruth (read on Shavuot) regarding how Boaz treated Ruth,a foreigner in his midst:
וַתָּקׇם לְלַקֵּט וַיְצַו בֹּעַז אֶת־נְעָרָיו לֵאמֹר גַּם בֵּין הָעֳמָרִים תְּלַקֵּט וְלֹא תַכְלִימוּהָ׃ וְגַם שֹׁל־תָּשֹׁלּוּ לָהּ מִן־הַצְּבָתִים וַעֲזַבְתֶּם וְלִקְּטָה וְלֹא תִגְעֲרוּ־בָהּ׃ (רות ב:טו-טז)
“When she got up again to glean, Boaz gave orders to his workers, “You are not only to let her glean among the sheaves, without interference, but you must also pull some [stalks] out of the heaps and leave them for her to glean, and not scold her.” (Ruth 2:15-16)
- In rabbinic times, a significant transformation of the festival took place. After the Temple was destroyed and our people exiled, the festival of Shavuot became “zman matan Torateinu”(the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Sinai), according to an interpretation of Exodus 19:1. The 16th-century mystics instituted the notion of Tikkun in which they would stay up all night studying Torah with the hopes of moving from the remembrance of revelation to bringing redemption closer. By the early hours of Shavuot morning, as the sun peaks out over the golden sands of the Judean desert, the Kotel Plaza is already packed. Tens of thousands of Jews come together in prayer and song celebrating the gift of Torah.
Those who celebrate these two holidays in Jerusalem emphasize specific aspects of the holidays, and their observances share much in common.
They adhere to one set of laws and reject another. Yom Yerushalayim and Shavuot represent for some a devotion to Torah Law and God and a rejection of the ethereal laws and democratic institutions of the modern State. We see this in the unchecked lawlessness of those running amuck in the Old City as well as violence by unruly thugs from Settlements, and who put Halakha above all.
On the other hand, many Reform Jews reject the binding nature of halakha and privilege the spiritual aspects of religion that bring universal humanitarian messages.
The answer, as I have suggested here many times, is balance.
Yes, Jerusalem is the most important place to me as a Jew. It is unparalleled in holiness, rich with history, and without apology the capital city of the state of Israel and the Jewish people. That does not give us the excuse or license to shove our sovereignty and jingoism down the throats of those who also find connection, belonging, and generations of dwelling in this “city of peace.”
When joining in the collective covenantal confab celebrating Torah, it is prudent to consider Isaiah’s approach:
“…כִּי בֵיתִי בֵּית־תְּפִלָּה יִקָּרֵא לְכָל־הָעַמִּים׃” (ישעיהו נו:ז)
“For My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
Even at our highest moment of spiritual ecstasy, we can share this mountain, city, and even God with others.
For those who regard theirs as the only living and true Judaism, and that anyone who differs, interprets, or signals another approach are not only mistaken but pose a dangerous threat to the Torah, need to read Isaiah slightly differently with this in mind:
“כִּי בֵיתִי בֵּית־תְּפִלָּה יִקָּרֵא לְכָל־הָעַם!”
“For My House shall be called a house of prayer for the Entire Nation of Israel” (not just one kind of living Jewish expression).
For those who ascend that Holy Mountain in pilgrimage and prayer to relive the moment of revelation; for those who come to renew their relationship with our Creator as students of God’s Torah and as fulfillers of all that is found in it; for those who think it is their role to alienate, ostracize, and be violent towards the other – we say: there is another way!
On the Shabbat between these two Sundays, we must affirm that our Peoplehood represents an utter rejection of לְאֻמָּנוּת / leumanut – supremacist nationalism, and a denunciation of superiority. Rather, Jewish Peoplehood requires a dialectic between the spiritual and the rational, between universal values and familial loyalty. On this holiday of Shavuot, we should bring our bikkurim (first fruits) and offer gifts to those whose [metaphoric] produce yielded less. Our Peoplehood is a way for us to stand up in the face of the dangers posed by an unhinged nationalism. Our Peoplehood is a path toward a deeper sense of wholeness and Tikkun (restoration) for ourselves, for the Jewish nation, and for our world.
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach.