So many of us feel this way, so nostalgic for the Israel we visit, the Israel of our childhoods, the Israel of the 60’s. There is no doubt that Israel is one of the most fabulous, beautiful, and interesting places on the earth. And its also one of the most complicated.
We remember Israel’s fallen on Yom Hazikaron and its Independence on Yom Haatzmaut, and its very, very important to Israelis that we do. Those who have spent time in Israel know how important these days are in that country. You can never forget the country-wide siren/minute of silence of Yom HaZikaron where cars and buses come to a stop and people stand at attention. If you’ve ever been in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem for Yom HaAtzmaut you’ll remember being hit on the head with a plastic hammer, called aptish, with the Israeli flag emblazoned on it. Not respectful, but fun.
But we aren’t Israelis, and our community-wide celebrations in the Diaspora pale in comparison. They often become political with the right-wing taking centre stage, and though many synagogues and Federation sponsors programs and events to mark these two days here, only community members who feel a particular attachment to Israel come out. Falafel and Israeli dancing don’t attract the numbers and there is often a feeling of separateness between “us”—Canadian Jews, and “them”—Israelis who live in Canada.
I would add two factors to the mix of the lack of enthusiasm by the Diaspora community toward Yom HaZikaron and Yom Haatazmaut: one, the realization that many in the Diaspora Jewish communities right now have what they would call a “conflicted” relationship with Israel, and two, the fact that only these specific Israel-themed days seem to bring out Israelis to celebrate, while we lament and moan that the same Israelis do not join our synagogues, our other communal events, and our general Jewish community. Unless the event has to do directly with Israel—say, episodes of a popular Israeli TV show at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival—Israelis on the whole have not been absorbed into our dominant Toronto Jewish culture and they stay away. Neither have they acculturated by understanding that Jewish life in the Diaspora is centred on the shul—a place most Israelis do not feel attached to or drawn to until they realize that one does not simple “breathe the Jewish air” here like in Jerusalem. I remember some potential Israeli City Shul members who were shocked that they were being asked to pay for synagogue membership. I had to explain that no, the government doesn’t pay my salary and no, shul isn’t free here and yes, you should still join because in another generation your kids will be more Canadian than Israeli and they will not learn about Purim and Passover and a brit milah in school, but in shul.
That is why the shinshinim programme is so vital and why I am so proud that City Shul is a part of it. The best way to feel a connection to an idea is to feel a connection to a person who holds that idea. Zionism is a concept, but Sapir and Hadas are people who have taught us what Zionism—support of Israel as the Jewish national homeland—can look like. They have been honest with us and opened their hearts even when it might have been touchy because we asked hard questions and sometimes had heartfelt critique. They have helped us open our hearts to see the depth of possibility in Israel, to see the thread that ties us to a land far away, and to feel its heartbeat within our own chests.
In this morning’s parsha we are warned against being seduced by the immorality of the other nations around us. “God spoke to Moshe saying, Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: I am Adonai your God. Do not perform the practice of the land of Egypt in which you dwelled, and do not perform the practice of the land of Canaan to which I bring you, and do not follow their traditions. Carry out My laws and safeguard My decrees to follow them; I am Adonai, your God. (18:1-4) A very basic anti-assimilation message. When the Children of Israel were in the desert, these two nations – Egypt and Canaan – represented the two most decadent nations on earth. Rashi tells us this, that when he says these two nations are mentioned by name to teach that maseiem shel Mitzrayim v’shel Ca’naanim mekulkalim mikol ha’umot – the ways of these nations are the worst of all the nations.
But it doesn’t ring true for us here in Toronto. We do not find ourselves among immoral people practicing abominations. We do practice the traditions of the place where we live. So Sapir and Hadas learned about Halloween and saw Christmas trees. And they did not convert out of Judaism as a result.
But its the Land of Israel, which makes a cameo appearance in the final verses of today’s parsha in chapter 18, that I want to end with. After a long list of prohibited sexual relationships, the Torah warns that Israel’s immoral behaviour will lead to exile, in verse: “Let not the land spew you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nations that came before you” (v.28). As Rabbi Neal Gold comments on the ARZA website, “The Land of Israel has an allergic reaction to human immorality.” Luzzato, the 19th century Italian commentator writes the following on our verse: “the words “the land became defiled” refer to the inhabitants of the Land of Israel becoming defiled…When the Torah writes that the earth spewed out the people who had sinned, it becomes crystal clear that it was not the earth that had to be punished, but the people on it.”
The land of Israel is allergic to immorality. Or it should be, if it isn’t.
And that is why the shinshinim programme is so important. Not that our shins return to Israel as more moral people—they were already moral when they came to us. But they return to Israel as more thoughtful Jews, and thus their relationship with the Jewish homeland becomes one steeped in Jewish values and Torah, not just in nationalist or patriotism. Sapir and Hadas, I hope you don’t mind if I say it this way: you came to us as Israelis, and you are leaving us as Jews. And Israel will be the better for it. And we are the better for it. And the relationship between the Diaspora and Israel is better for it. Because patriotism for Israel may not move the hearts of Diaspora Jews but having a relationship with Israel based on Jewish history, Jewish values and Jewish wisdom just may. And you will be the emissaries for that when you go back in a few short months. You will speak about Reform Judaism and you will speak about female Rabbis and kids who dress up in Halloween costumes who still light Chanukah menorahs and ask the four questions at Seders. It will be you who figure out how to narrow the space between our two communities. And you will do it because you lived deep within our culture and did not find it decadent or immoral—and you will take that message back too.
Elie Wesel may love Jerusalem when he isn’t there, but Sapir and Hadas you have put Jerusalem and all of Israel into our hearts so that we are there, and we love it too, because of you.
Mazel tov and Shabbat Shalom.