Yom Ha’Atzmaut 2015 Sermon

By Rabbi Michael Berk

I think if you want to understand the complexity of Israel’s on the edge of its 67th anniversary, it’s important to understand the two holydays we’ve just celebrated.

First in this holiday cycle is Purim. Purim represents the story of the Jewish people throughout most of our history, especially our dispersion among the nations. Namely, it’s the story of a people who had no power; and as a result were existentially vulnerable, dependent on the kindness of their neighbors for safety and security. A cautionary note comes right from the Torah; hundreds of years before the Purim story occurred: Remember what Amalek did to you in the Wilderness. Who was Amalek? A king that felt threatened by the wandering Israelites, even though they posed no threat to him, and who, unprovoked, tried to destroy the Israelite nation. He failed; and the Torah warns: never forget Amalek, who became the prototype of the Jew hater. Haman was a descendant of Amalek. So was Hitler. Purim teaches us: never forget that evil exists and that there are people who will, out of hatred, seek your destruction. Or, as Yossi Klein Halevy has taught: Don’t be naïve.

A few weeks after Purim comes Passover. You know the story of Passover. It’s the world’s first liberation story. But, what’s the message of Passover? Look at the way God introduces Himself to the Jewish people right after their liberation. At Mount Sinai, in the first of the Ten Commandments, God will tell us the most important thing God wants us to know about Him: I am the Eternal your God, who liberated you from Egyptian slavery. And then, during the rest of the Torah, Scriptures will remind us of that by repeating a command more than any other commandment in The Bible: Remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Don’t ever forget what was done to you when you had no power to protect yourself. And don’t ever treat those living in your midst that way.
These are two non-negotiables from our Scriptures: From Purim: Don’t be naïve. From Passover: Don’t be brutal.

In the Jewish view of things, we need both Purim and Passover. One without the other is only a caricature of a human being. Baruch Goldstein was a Purim Jew – he staged his massacre in Hebron on Purim. There was no mitigating compassion. Judge Goldstone, in his now infamous report on Gaza, used the holocaust to describe how he felt compelled to judge Israel. The holocaust inspired him to care about those who were persecuted. His report basically said Israel had no right to defend itself against the rockets raining down from Gaza. He is the Passover Jew of compassion – but without the mediating influence of Purim.

We need both these holidays. With only one of them, the discussion about peace in Israel is doomed. That to me is the nature of the political polarization both in Israel and among American Jews. The two holidays have been separated. Everyone is certain about what they know, but they only know the non-negotiable of one of the holidays. We have separated into the Purim camp which says to those with whom it disagrees: don’t be naïve. The Arabs are all out to kill us. There is no one to talk peace to. And there is the Passover camp which says, don’t be brutal; be compassionate; make peace; end the occupation and withdraw from the territories.

This is the conundrum Israel is wrestling with on this Yom Ha’atzmaut. How do you synthesize the Purim and Passover messages? How do you show compassion and care for the stranger in your midst when that stranger, whom we are commanded to protect, seeks to displace us and deny our right to a land. It’s hard to live in a place where there are no easy answers.

You hear the complexity of Israel’s situation by asking an average Israeli what she thinks about a Palestinian state. The truth is, despite what you may hear, your average Israeli is a little to the left when it comes to the Occupation and a little to the right when it comes to the peace process. They are somewhere between Purim and Passover – they have compassion for the Palestinians; but they don’t want to be naïve about Arab readiness to live in peace with Israel. So if you ask, they will answer with a paradox: on the one hand, they will tell you a Palestinian state is a necessity. It would free Israelis from a terrible occupation and from being perceived as a pariah state. It would ease the concern over the complexity of Israel being both democratic and Jewish. So a Palestinian state is an existential need. However, they will also tell you that a Palestinian state prematurely created would be a threat to Israel’s security.

So a Palestinian state is both an existential need and an existential threat. That’s why Yossi Klein Halevy famously said that he has two nightmares: One, that there will not be a Palestinian state; and two, that there would be a Palestinian state.
Here’s what I know: the Israel I love is the Israel that seeks to formulate its foreign policy based on both Passover and Purim; as challenging as that is. Sending a state of the art medical unit to the Congo and Haiti is one way this tension is applied, representing the Passover insistence that we be compassionate and care for the stranger – in the cases mentioned, strangers struck by disasters thousands of miles from Israel. But this tension between these holidays is also implemented in how Israel exercises power; not just restraining it, but wielding it only when necessary. When considering how Israel uses power, for example during the conflict last summer in Gaza, remember that for years Israel has been the subject of the cruelest of experiments – to see how much terror one society could endure, even on an hourly basis, before it lost itself and its values in a frenzy of bloody revenge.

What did Israel do this last summer? Israel was not naïve; the threat from Gaza had to be met with the use of military power. But Israel also knew that the Jewish state ought not be brutal; to allow some measure of compassion to influence the conduct of war. We are all aware of the extraordinary actions the IDF took to minimize civilian casualties during the war last summer. I think Israel demonstrated how a Jewish society could defend itself against terror without becoming the evil empire.

Israel makes mistakes. It’s in the nature of power that it will be abused. The challenge for Israel is to combine the stands of Purim and Passover and create a foreign policy that is both compassionate and respectful of the command to take care of the stranger; AND that insures the safety and security of Israel.

The joy we should experience in celebrating Israel reborn is tempered these days by the growth of anti-Semitism and the virulent anti-Israel sentiment in so much of the world. Jews themselves have been torn apart like never before regarding our homeland. We can hardly speak to each other about Israel. Open your mouth with concerns over the suffering of the Palestinians and the other side accuses you of not loving Israel. Speak to the terror and security issues that make a two state solution seem like a pipe dream and you’re a fascist racist. Even the president of Israel, a right-wing Lekudnik has called for Jews to stop calling into question the Zionism or decency of others with whom we disagree.

Throughout most of history we were a minority group living in places at the pleasure of our hosts. Really, all we wanted was that the non-Jews would leave us alone. Now we have Israel. Now we have power. Now we have the beautiful opportunity to show the world not only that we need a place to live in safety and security, but that we deserve one. So, now, with a Jewish state blessing us for the last 67 years, we can show how Jews take responsibility for the power they wield. And we are guided by the Jewish values that have sustained our people for two thousand year. And from our Torah we learn over and over again that our sufferings at the hand of the Egyptians should caution us about how we treat others when we hold the reins of power. A Jewish state that is not an exemplar on how to treat others is not worthy of the name Israel.

Ben Gurion and the other founders of the state of Israel saw no contradiction in building a state that was both Jewish and democratic. We cannot give up on their dream. A democratic state that is not Jewish does not interest me; and a Jewish state that is not democratic is not really Jewish. Our being chosen by God does not diminish, but increases our responsibility to build a state that is just and that lives up to the ideals our tradition has held dear for thousands of years concerning justice and decency. When I think of Israel I don’t focus on chosenness of the Jewish people as something that happens without our earning it. And I focus as much on Genesis, and the God who created all human kind and has a special relationship with all peoples, not just Jews. So, to build a state that’s worthy of the Jewish people, it must recognize the burdensome and complicated responsibility of power and the imperative for justice.

On this anniversary of the birth of the State of Israel, I say with pride and love for the land that we’ve longed for all these years, and with bit of a lump in my throat, I am a Zionist and I know that Israel can be Jewish and democratic and can create a vision for a nation the likes of which this world has never seen; a nation that really does fulfill the words of the prophet who dreamed that Israel could be a light unto the nations. Ken yehi ratzon – may this be God’s will.


  1. Reply
    Leona Levy says

    Well said…..now what can be done to achieve this balance between Purim and Passover?

    • Reply
      Nikkii Klein says

      We need better promotion and advertising of the benefits that Israel has brought to the world. For example, one o the first to go into Africa, seedless red grapes we all enjoy, plus the many innovations of saving lives via medicines and laboratory research. On the other side of the coin, Israel needs to treat all their citizens, including their Arab citizens, with equal amenities and respect,

  2. Reply
    Arnold Yashar says

    Israel is truly a miracle. For 2000 years, Jews were a minority people at the whim of other countries, often with bad outcomes. Now the Jewish people finally have a place to go when things get bad where they live, and an ability to defend themselves. Unfortunately, Israel has been on defense since independence was declared. They live in an extremely difficult situation where the surrounding countries, and even many of their citizens call for their destruction. I can’t say they’ve always made the right decisions, but I believe they have been extremely moral in defense of their people. Criticism of israeli policy is a great Jewish tradition, but what a worries me is the vile hatred from the far left lately. We see it in college campuses, and political circles. I even see it from some Jews. That needs to stop.

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