Sovereignty!

My dear friend and hevruta (study partner) pointed me to a 1920s Zionist Haggadah. It has some fascinating changes. For example, on the passage “This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of the Egypt,” they say: “This the bread of affliction: that we aren’t living in Israel.” For them, the affliction was living outside of Israel and the remedy to come and eat and drink of the land.

The four questions includes this: “Why is this time different than all other times? In all other times we were quiet, now we are all matzah.” The authors of this Haggadah saw a key difference in their historical moment that Jews were now acting in political ways and speaking out to the world.

Or Avadim Hayenu, we were slaves to Pharaoh, becomes instead: “We were slaves and now we are all slaves living in Exile as it was to Pharaoh.” Their experience of living in Europe was one of exile and oppression. They craved sovereignty and a place to bless. So when the Haggadah says “Blessed is The Place,” a euphemism for God, this Haggadah says, “Blessed is the place, Israel!”

I find myself drawn again and again back to this Haggadah and the hopes of those early Zionists. In the 1920s life in Israel was hard. Somewhere between 25-50% of those who came in this era returned to Europe because conditions were so bad. And yet, despite this, they saw hope in Israel. Even though the communities in Europe were relatively settled and even prosperous, they saw no future there. By contrast, a place where they could imagine a sovereign Jewish state promised our own ability to make our mistakes and our own successes.

At the time, the Tel Aviv newspaper reported an arrest of a burglar. This led Bialik to comment that a sovereign future means having a place where Jewish burglars are arrested by Jewish policemen. True self-governance includes managing crime as much as figuring out how to maintain order. Being sovereign includes having Jewish organized crime alongside a thriving tech industry.

Israel has matured as a state. The innocent aspirations of the 1920s have given rise to the realities of a regional military and economic superpower struggling to hold on to its Jewish and democratic self. For the first time in millennia, a Jewish majority CAN impose its will on a minority. For the first time in millennia, Jews are wrestling with when to use military force and how far to go in maintaining security.

In such a context, surrounded by the immature and often violent Arab political culture, nationalism infused by militarism has arisen. Israelis want to be safe and the Jewish majority is proud of its Jewish identity. The challenge for a mature state is so different than that of the earlier settlers. Now they are redeemed; the question is what will be done with that freedom.

As we celebrate Passover this year, as we yearn for the idealized Israel of the Haggadah, I invite us to connect with the real Israel of today. Maybe we can broaden our four questions this year.

How are the challenges for Israel and Israelis this year different from other years? Before we had no power; now we are a powerful nation. What responsibilities and challenges arise from power? Before we were oppressed and sought redemption; now how can we balance the democratic and Jewish nature of the state? And finally, what place do American Jews play in this and what is our voice and role?

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover,

Rabbi David Booth

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