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October 24, 2014 | 30th Tishrei 5775

Reflections at 60 VI

Galilee Diary #397, July 6, 2008

Marc J. Rosenstein

Rabbi Tarfon used to say: It is not for you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.
-Mishnah, Avot 2:16

There is of course something deeply comforting about imagining the redemption as the restoration of a wonderful past. In history as in life, the return to the womb, to paradise, to childhood exerts a powerful pull on our imaginations. But in fact – no one ever goes back, and if we really think about it, we don't even want to. It's just that the past - or its mythic image – is a known quantity, whereas the future is always, necessarily, unknown. If the state of Israel is meant to be a restoration of the perfect state we once had, and lost, then we know what to expect and what to aim for. Alas, however, the state we once had was indeed a real state, not a mythic one: a state with insecurities and internal conflicts; a state that constantly struggled against threats from within and without; a state in which different peoples and beliefs had to live together; a state which did not contain the entire Jewish people, but had to live in some kind of relationship to communities of Jews living outside its borders; a state always struggling to balance the values of the spirit against the demands of survival.

In other words, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Going back to the good old days will leave us no better off than we are now - and with less experience to guide us. There is nothing for us to do but to face the challenge of envisioning the state we want, and working painstakingly toward the realization of that vision. And even more challenging than articulating a vision is reaching consensus on it.

It seems to me that the vision of the new state of Israel needs to be based not on myths of an ancient utopia, but on the values we have accumulated over the centuries of our experience both as masters of our own state and as residents of others'.

For example:

· Unbiased justice as a cardinal value in the operation of the institutions of the state.

· Sympathy and respect for the stranger, the Other.

· Living in harmony with the land, committed to the wellbeing of future generations.

· Institutionalization of the obligation of the strong to help the weak.

· A culture of free but respectful expression of different beliefs and opinions, encouraging critical thought.

· Constant thoughtful struggle with the challenge of maintaining our continuity with our past while responding to the new experiences and learnings of the present.

We received the Torah in the desert, before we had had to deal with the realities of building and governing at state. When we finally did enter our promised land, we were able to build from scratch, according to the instruction manual we had received at Sinai. Today our reality is much messier. We got the state before the manual was even written. And we still have not even agreed on the table of contents of the manual – yet meanwhile we have full responsibility for building and running the state, in real time, with real people.

Now, as then, it seems to me, the significance of the state of Israel for Judaism is that it lays upon us the daunting task of translating values into institutions, in order to create a utopia in this world.

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