3/21/2005

Of Jet-lag, covenants, and BBQ on Yom Ha'atzma'ut

Hanach la-hem le-yisrael; im einan nevi'im heim, bnei nevi'im heim.
Leave it to Israel; if they are not prophets, they are descendants of prophets
-somewhere in the 6th perek of psachim i'm too tired to look it up.
This statement puts a lot of stock in intuitiuve responses of the Jewish people as a whole. It can be very uplifting - attributing a prophetic element to the collective responses, even (especially) unconscious ones - but at the same time threatening to approve of so many movements which have swept up large numbers of Jews but which I for one would be extremely uncomfortable validating.
There are many ways to think about limiting the scope of 'hanach':
  • Maybe it only refers to examples where tension between the demands of halakha and reality are diminished
  • maybe only collective responses qualify
  • maybe it must involve an act of commission, not simply omission

Whichever it is, I'd like to try to explain one contemporary Israeli minhag - that of BBQing on Yom Ha'atzma'ut - as an expression of Israel's collective prophetic experience.

I don't think it's an import of the American July 4 celebrations. Gut feeling; can't say why. I also can't explain the boppers and the shaving cream. But those are nezek and assur, and therefore not really minhagim.

God made 2 different covenants w/ Avraham - the covenant between the parts (bris bein habesarim - BBHB) and the covenant of circumcision (Bris Milah - BM). In each, God promised Avraham that he'd get the Land of Canaan. But there are clear differences between the two 'agreements'.

BBHB was unilateral - God made a promise that wasn't contingent on anything Abe would do or say. The downside was that it would require exile, slavery, and torment. But at the end of the day there is a guarantee that some remnant would return to the land. As we say in the Haggadah, this promise has withstood the test of time, for in every generation there are those who seek to destroy us.

BM was bilateral. It made demands on Avraham and his progeny. He had to live up to the land; it wasn't a foregone conclusion.

Read up on the 2 chapters; a detailed comparison is beyond the scope of my brain at this hour (it's almost 2 AM; I'm writing from Israel)

These covenants can and do form two entirely different bases for Jewish claims of the land of Israel. BBHM promises a refuge. There needs to be one place which we can retreat to. It's a national 'ir miklat' - a national home. It speaks of a promised land - given by God's good grace to a beaten though possibly undeserving nation.

BM is far more ambitious. It envisions a national relationship with God Almighty. It constitutes a national mission and charge that will be expanded to include all of the precepts of the Torah. In this covenant, the land is contigent upon the Israelites living up to their part of the bargain. This is really a major but entirely overlooked theme of the 5 books of Moses. Ve-acamo"l.

BBHM is a prerequisite for BM. It preceded and necessarily precedes - logically and chronologically - the type of vision engendeed by BM. But if the relationship to God and to the land stop at a BBHB level, then it's doomed to failure. The Edward Said is right. The next victim will take it away.

Thus, when we bentch, in the Bracha on the Land (2nd Bracha), Chazal admonish that failure to mention Brit (milah) and Torah, hasn't really fulfilled his obligation. After all, outside of the context of Brit and Torah, the relationship to God and to the land loses all of its momentum.

There's a strong linkl between BBHB and Korban Pesach - in that in many ways KP is an expression of the ulfillment of the BBHB. It's connection to BM is therefore well understood as well (there are all kinds of connections between KP and BM, ve-acamo"l).

Modern Zionism, from its inception, was torn between two camps - there was the Herzlian camp who saw a Jewish State much as it's envisioned in BBHB. Others saw it as the staging ground for the flowering of a Jewish culture - a positive content to that national vision. This is somewhat akin to the BM approach, that occupancy of the land is contingent upon living up to its standards. Ahad Ha'am didn't get it right, but he was thinking beyond BBHB. Bialik was a bit closer, methinks. There was a similar split within the early Religious Zionist movement as well.

As it turned out, the founding of the State of Israel was, IMO, a fulfillment of BBHB. I also believe that, somehow, deep down in the recesses of our collective identity, we came up with the idea of eating meat cutlets on Yom Ha'atzma'ut as a celebration of God's fulfillment of His promise.

Now comes the hard part, for us. Can we succeed in building a state whose laws, culture, army, government, media, education, etc. lives up to these lofty expectations? I'm not talking about theocracy, but about that high and holy place where democracy and theocracy merge (that's a whole other post).

I've lived in Israel, and will do so again in the not-too-distant future. I've seen a lot of change here in the 16 or so years that I've been observing and participating in life here. And the place doesn't cease to amaze me every time I come back. It's constantly taking baby steps forward. I love noticing the subtle changes that take place over time - in my case it's my first time here in about 15 months. I believe we'll get there someday. I fear what would happen if we stopped moving forward.

Zion will be redeemed through justice; and her returnees through righteousness

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