What Israel restored to the Jewish people

A love song to the state of Israel, on her 75th birthday. Even now. Especially now.

So, this really happened.

Some years ago, my young cousin was on a United Synagogue Youth trip to Israel. While she was there, the group went north to tour the grottoes at Rosh HaNikra.

Alas, while taking photographs, she dropped her camera into the water.

She called her mother, heartbroken, and they both concluded the camera was irretrievably lost.

A month after her return to the States, my young cousin got a package.

It contained her camera.

What had happened?

Apparently, there were Israel Defense Forces soldiers on maneuvers, off the Mediterranean Coast — not far from Rosh HaNikra.

A skin diver found the camera, sitting at the bottom of the sea.

He opened the camera; took out the card; saw photographs of kids wearing USY Minneapolis T-shirts; contacted USY in Minneapolis; asked if anyone who had been on an Israel trip had lost a camera; located her — and that was how my cousin got her camera back.

Perhaps this would have happened anywhere.

But, to me, it is the sort of thing that makes you say: “Rak b’Yisrael. Only in Israel.”

Why? The mitzvah is called hashavat aveidah — returning lost objects.

It is a Jewish obsession. There is an entire section of the Talmud that covers this subject.

There, we read that in the ancient Temple, there was a chamber to which people would bring stuff they had found, and people would search there for what they had lost.

A midrash says every tribe of Israel had a particular job to do. The tribe of Dan had the job of tagging along after all the other tribes to find lost objects they might have dropped along the way.

As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, let us ask ourselves:

What had the Jewish people lost?

And, what did the state of Israel help them find again?

The Jews had lost power, and Israel helped them find it again.

My first encounter with the Shoah was when I was 10 years old. My parents and I watched a documentary on Jewish history that contained scenes from the Holocaust. There was a scene of skeletons in mass graves.

And then, a few minutes later in the film, and three years later in history, there was a scene of jubilant dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv, as the state of Israel was proclaimed.

Even at 10 years old, my sense of time had not yet fully developed. For some reason, I thought the people dancing in the streets were the same people who had been the skeletons in the mass graves — that they had been resurrected from the dead. 

Now, the grisly pun: Last week, we marked Yom Ha Shoah — a day of atzamot, of bones. Today, it is Yom Ha Atzmaut — independence.

From bones to independence. That is the story of the Jewish people in our time. From 1945 — a powerless people, a survivor people — to 1948, a people who pulled off the most startling military victory in modern history and created a new society.

Yes, it is resurrection.

True, power has presented its own moral challenges. But, I prefer a surplus of power, with the ability to debate the ethical implications of that power, to a deficit of power, with unrelenting chanting of dirges over our dead.

The Jews had lost their connection between sacred texts and civic life, and Israel helped them find it again.

Go back, in your mind in high school. You attended biology class on Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday and Thursday, you were in the laboratory, seeing how what you had learned could come to life.

So, too: The centuries of Diaspora living were the Monday and Tuesday of Jewish life. We sat in the “classrooms,” creating our texts and studying them.

But, Israel is the Wednesday and Thursday of Jewish history. We engage in that grand experiment: Do these texts and the values that flow from them actually have anything to say about how we live, how we create a civil society, and how we engage in power?

In the words of the late author Amos Oz: “The Bible and the Mishnah, the prayers and the piyyutim, halakhah, and aggadah do not dominate the State of Israel, but they are present in it and indirectly shape its everyday and spiritual life.”

The Jews had lost their dignity in the eyes of the nations, and Israel helped them find it again.

There is a particularly nasty intersection near my old apartment in the Rechavia section of Jerusalem. Cars come whipping around the corner.

And yet, one year on Yom Kippur, a young child went out, and lay down in the middle of the road, and stretched out his arms as if to embrace the city, and even God.

The child happened to have been born in the Soviet Union. He had made aliyah. He was prostrate in the middle of the street to say this: “This is the busiest and most dangerous intersection in Jerusalem. On every other day, the cars would come roaring by. But today, it is Yom Kippur, and no one is driving. I am safe. I am free to celebrate as a Jew.”

The Jews had lost their spoken language, and Israel helped them find it again.

The Declaration of Independence of the state of Israel puts it this way:

Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every successive generation to reestablish themselves in their ancient homeland. In recent decades they returned en masse. Pioneers, defiant returnees, and defenders, they made deserts bloom, revived the Hebrew language …

Let no one underestimate this miracle — that a language that had relegated itself to sacred text, no longer on the lips of most Jews, could come back to life again. This was the genius of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who created modern Hebrew. The story is too big to tell here; it is arguably the biggest story in Jewish history.

When I walk along the streets of Israel, and I speak Hebrew, I am engaging in an act — once again — of resurrection of the dead.

When I go to synagogue on Shabbat mornings in Jerusalem, I make it a habit to sit near a window. In that way, I have a stereo experience of the Hebrew language.

With one ear, coming from the sanctuary, I hear the chants of ancient Hebrew — the language of Isaiah.

With my other ear, coming from the playground outside the synagogue, I hear children laughing and playing, even taunting each other in modern Hebrew.

Like I said — resurrection.

Oh, by the way, the founding document of the state of Israel — what we often call “the Declaration of Independence of the state of Israel” — that is a misnomer.

Let’s call it what it really is — Megillat Atzmaut, the scroll of independence. A scroll, as in another scroll, to follow the scroll of Esther, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Ruth and Lamentations. Another scroll, because in an uncanny sense, the state of Israel was to be a continuation of the biblical epic, and its foundational document was to be a modern/ancient Jewish proclamation.

I don’t know about you, but that brings tears to my eyes.

The Jews had lost their connection to holy space, and Israel helped them find it again.

Ever since the destruction of the second Temple, Jews had relegated their holy spaces to the private (the home, and most specifically, the dining table), and the public and civic (the synagogue).

But, as for the holiness and spirituality that we could find in a land, it was missing and/or lived in deferment.

There is still holy space. No matter how often I visit Israel, when I look out the window of the plane and first see the shoreline of Tel Aviv, I weep, and the tears that fall from my eyes are very ancient tears. When I walk through the streets of that first modern Jewish city, and tremble at its growth and its hipness — yes, I feel a sense of spirituality.

I feel it when I walk through the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem and see how we Jews have rebuilt our land block by block, reclaimed from the deliberate destruction by the Jordanians between 1948 and 1967. 

I feel it on Shabbat in Jerusalem, with its almost utter quiet and its relative lack of commercial activity.

Some years ago in Jerusalem, I was walking to a friend’s house for Shabbat dinner.

I stopped on a hill, and I gazed upon the erev Shabbat sunset.

An old woman stood next to me. We watched and contemplated the sunset in silence.

Finally, she said to me in Hebrew: “The overwhelming majority of people never see this.”

She was right.

First: Sadly, most people never get to see a sunset in Jerusalem.

Second: Even if they notice it, they might never really see that sunset — with the inner eye of the heart and of the soul.

Let others, and at other times, see the shadows and potential darkness that fall across the land, and across the state.

Let others, and at other times, engage in the necessary (even when sometimes, disproportionate) critiques of Israel and Israeli policies.

But that is not how you celebrate a birthday — especially a 75th birthday.

If Aunt Izzie was celebrating her 75th, you would not gather the cousins in a circle to enumerate her imperfections, irritating features and even her failings.


As we enter Yom Ha-Atzmaut, Israel’s independence day, Israel’s 75th birthday, let it be a day of unfettered joy.

Because, among all the other things I believe, this, too, I believe — a statement of my faith.

Israel is the greatest achievement of Jewish history, in the last 2,000 years.

In the words of the old Zionist folk song: “We have come to the Land, to build — and to be rebuilt by it.”

We were, and we continue to be, rebuilt by this Land.

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