Passover and the opportunity of Zionism
Michael M. Cohen
April 8, 2023
Passover is our story of deliverance and emancipation from slavery to liberty. Passover is also associated with Shavuot when we count the 50 days connecting the two holidays. That linkage with Shavuot, our celebration of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, underscores that freedom lies within the context of community and responsibility. There is another combination of Jewish holidays celebrating freedom: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
If Passover and Shavuot focus on homo civitas, then Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur remind us of our free will and the need to be wise in our deliberations and choices. One way to look at this dialectic is to see our two spring holidays spotlighting our external life, while our two fall holidays turn our attention inward. They are two halves of a greater whole, which is why they fall six months apart in our annual holiday calendar.
This year’s calendar points out to us that in a few weeks, on the 5th of Iyar, we will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the birth of Israel. Freedom is at the heart of Zionism. We sing in the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah” (The Hope) –“Lihyot am chofshi be’artzenu,’eretz-tziyon virushalayim.” (To be a free nation in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem).
Furthermore, we find the word “freedom” five times in the Israeli Declaration of Independence: “... the people kept faith with it throughout their dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom... and never ceased to assert their right to a life of dignity, freedom and honest toil in their national homeland... contributed its full share to the struggle of the freedom... it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom... 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...”
For many, a focal point of the Zionist narrative is the need for safety and security as a response to the painful arc of Jewish history. This provides a clear reason for the need for an independent Jewish state. But at what price? This author has written previously on these pages, “We are still a traumatized people almost 70 years since the smokestacks of Auschwitz were put out. Add to that the shadow of 2,000 years of persecution and the reemergence of new viral and violent anti-Jewish sentiments and actions. And yet, we are more than victims.”
AVRAHAM BURG in his thought-provoking book The Holocaust Is Over; We Must Rise From its Ashes makes the case that traumatized people can easily fall into a trap of fear, closing down and limiting their ability to be truly free. That dynamic can morph into a form of nationalism that curtails freedom.
One of the major stumbling blocks holding back Israelis and Palestinians to move forward so both peoples can live in freedom is that we are dealing with two wounded and fearful people too far apart to realize the words of Rev. Martin Luther King, “For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”
Israel has vital security needs, but that is not the totality of its essence. In his articulate book about the Haggadah of Passover, The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life, Mark Gerson recalls an encounter between the author Herman Wouk and David Ben-Gurion at Ben-Gurion’s home on Kibbutz Sde Boker: “As the meal concluded, Ben-Gurion said to him, ‘You must return to live here; this is the only place for a Jew like you. Here you will be free.’ Wouk replied, ‘Free? With enemy armies ringing you, with their leaders publicly threatening to wipe out the Zionist entity, with roads impassable by sundown – free?’ ‘I did not say safe,’ Ben-Gurion replied. ‘I said free.’ (The Telling, p. 81)
While well aware of Israel’s security needs, Ben-Gurion, who made many decisions through that prism, was not held prisoner to that Zionist goal. For Ben-Gurion, the raison d’etre of Zionism was the ability for Jews to be free to create a Jewish community in their homeland.
They are not mutually exclusive. There are real fears and challenges Israel faces externally and internally; but at the same time, there is an opportunity the Jewish people have not had in over 2,000 years.
Rabbi Ben Goldberg adds, “Fear is one way our brains keep us alive and out of dangerous situations. The problem is when fear makes us incapable of acting or consistently tense or unable to focus on anything else but the things we fear. Fear as a human emotion and the triggers that bring it out in us are not going away. So our spiritual challenge is to learn to live with fear, to control our fear rather than letting our fear control us. Of course, we are not the first people to feel fear.
“More than 80 times in the Bible, God tells people not to be afraid... Why are there all of these reassurances not to fear? I do not think it is because we have nothing to fear. Nor do I think it is because God will magically swoop in and solve all our problems for us. No. God tells people not to fear because a life dominated by fear is no life at all. As Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, ‘Fearful people cannot be happy. Fearful people cannot be generous, charitable or forgiving. Fear constricts the soul and keeps us from being as fully human as God would like us to be.’”
THE ISSUE under discussion this Passover, on the eve of the 75th anniversary of modern Israel, is how do we perceive the origin story of Zionism? It parallels the disagreement in the Haggadah between Samuel and Rav. Do we understand our story of liberation begins with physical enslavement or spiritual degradation? The former spotlights our interface with the outside world, and the latter with our internal concerns. The former is guided by pain and fear, the latter by the endless possibilities of redemption.
We also find these two orientations in the difference between Masada and Yavneh and their callings, “Masada will not fall again,” and “Give me Yavneh.” The Jewish people have returned as a reborn nation 2,000 years after the fall of Masada, not because of what happened at Masada but because Rabbi Yochanan asked the Romans for the town of Yavneh, where he could reconstitute Jewish learning – a key pillar to Jewish existence and survival (Gittin 56b).
Writing in Sapir: A quarterly journal of ideas for a thriving Jewish future, Bret Stephens reminds us of the work at hand to realize the fullness of Zionism: “A Jewish state is not just a political and security concept. It is also a civilizational opportunity; a chance to rediscover, rearticulate and redevelop a uniquely Jewish way of thinking, being and doing in the world; a means of finding out how a culture that was both stunted and enriched in its long exile can, with the benefit of sovereignty, create a healthier model of human community.”
In her article “A Zionism Worth Reconstructing,” Rabbi Amy Klein quotes Rabbi Richard Hirsh, who said Zionism “is not merely an ideology of refuge but a long-range process of a people to rededicate itself.” That rededication and rediscovery of Zionism can only emerge when Zionism allows itself to be liberated from the slavery of fear and embrace the joy and opportunity freedom in the land of Zion and Jerusalem gives the Jewish people.