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Sunday, October 4, 2015

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Commemorations of peoplehood

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We are constantly reminded, and validly so, that the Exodus of the Israelites – our ancestors – from their slavery in Egypt has been one of the most universally affecting and influential themes in western civilization. The story is an explicit testimonial to the power of belief and to the power of hope. One would be hard pressed to think of another narrative that has as meaningfully inspired the hearts of men and women across so wide an ecumenical swath.

But even as Miriam leads the awestruck former slaves in singing a thankful song of universal significance after the miracle of the Red Sea, she is first and foremost leading her own people. Even after they experienced the frightful 10 plagues, nothing so irrevocably convinced the former slaves that their slave masters were finally vanquished than the unbelievable result at the Red Sea.

At the foot of the holy mountain of Sinai, the former rabble of slaves began the long, arduous, intergenerational process of understanding freedom and becoming free men and women.

Thus, though many outside the Jewish faith have applied the lessons of the Exodus for their own instructional purposes, we must never forget that it is the Exodus that launches the divinely scripted saga of the peoplehood of the Children of Israel. The covenant at Sinai, which we recall, discuss and celebrate during the Passover seder, marks the beginning of the Jews as a people. 

Passover is but the first of a quadruplicate of links on the steel chain of Jewish history, hammer blows on the anvil of collective memory, that come in quick succession in the months of Nisan and Iyar.

Barely one week after Passover ends, we commemorate Yom Hashoah v’Hagvurah on the 27th day of Nisan. (See the editorial and the Perspectives essay.)

And then barely one week after that, on the fourth and fifth day of Iyar, respectively, we mark Yom Hazikaron – Remembrance Day for the fallen of the State of Israel – and celebrate Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Israel’s independence Day. (The community-wide commemoration of Yom Hazikaron in Toronto will be held at Beth Tzedec Congregation on April 24.) 

Unless one feels deep in one’s essence a sense of belonging to the tiny, remarkable group we call the Jewish People, it is very difficult to feel the special connectivity between these four calendar events. 

Alas, for so many of the younger generation, schooled less in the traditions, faith, history, literature and culture of our people, but rather more in a milieu lacking any endearment to Judaism and suffused with distorted portrayals of Israel, that feeling of special connectivity is as familiar to them as is the secret work at the CERN laboratory for particle physics in Europe. It may be vaguely familiar, but they are mostly untouched by its meaning. How sorrowfully sad that is. 

Not to grasp, or to understand, or to catch on to, or to celebrate the historic – I would even add the metaphysical – enormity of the rise of the sovereign Jewish state at the near midpoint of the last century is to fail to see the wondrousness of the place of mankind in the flow of time.

After the recent death of journalist Mike Wallace, a film clip surfaced on the Internet of an interview he conducted in May 1958, 10 years after the rise of Israel, with the incomparable Israeli diplomat Abba Eban.

Wallace was his trademark “I’ll-show-you-how-tough-I-am” self trying to steer Eban into answering questions about Jews, Judaism, Zionism and dual loyalty that Wallace considered to be hard-hitting and, obviously, clever. But Wallace was no match for the scholar and scholarly Eban.

“We believe that Israel’s emergence is the greatest collective event in the history of the Jewish People, and that there is no pride and no dignity for a Jew such as those to be found in giving aid and sustenance to Israel in the great hour of her resurgence,” Eban explained to Wallace asking, “whether a Jew would be less of a Jew if he were opposed to Zionism.” 

Earlier, Eban had succinctly and incisively described the hour of Israel’s resurgence as occurring at “the climax of the Jewish People’s agony.”

Wallace hectored Eban again with the same question. Eban responded again with words and meaning that vastly outstripped Wallace’s self-centred questioning, and probably, understanding. 

“I would say that a man who opposed the State of Israel, and the great movement which brought it about, would be in revolt against the most constructive and creative events in the life of the Jewish People, and it’s a fact that the great majority of our kinsmen everywhere, are exalted and uplifted by these events.”

Can we say today with the same quiet confidence of that of ambassador Eban in 1958 that the great majority of our kinsmen everywhere are exalted and uplifted by the event of the Jewish People’s sovereign return to history?

If we cannot, then it is our task to enable us to say that it is so once again.



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