by David Breakstone
The message of the upcoming days of commemoration and celebration is that the responsibility for what happens next is now our own.
Dear Matan and Orian,
Your grandfather’s not exactly known for his complacency regarding Israel’s current state of affairs. Still, the miracle of Jewish statehood is something even he is capable of appreciating from time to time. And this is one of them. Chalk it up to the season. And to you. Even at the tender ages of one and two, you help put things in perspective.
The Pessah we just celebrated together ushers in a remarkable seven-week calendar, chock-full of days recalling momentous events occurring over thousands of years that have shaped our history and informed our consciousness as a people. In time you will come to appreciate that while each of them evokes an episode deeply significant in its own right, their meanings are multiplied by their proximity.
When our rabbis established the laws surrounding the 49 days of counting the Omer, they could hardly have imagined what else we would be recounting during this same season generations later. This period, extending from our physical emancipation from bondage in Egypt to the spiritual heights of Mount Sinai would, with time, also come to encompass various other recollections of tyranny and deliverance: Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day, Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers, Israel Independence Day, Herzl Day, Lag Ba’omer and Jerusalem Day. Falling as they do between Pessah and Shavuot, the convergence of these occasions of commemoration and celebration accentuates the message that our corporeal redemption and moral aspirations are inextricably intertwined.
Which makes that favorite Seder melody, Dayenu, to which you clapped your hands so gleefully, all the more difficult to understand – even for us big people. Would it truly have been enough had we been released from slavery only to be slaughtered in the desert, or left to wander aimlessly in the wilderness – never receiving the Torah, entering the Promised Land, or establishing the Temple as the embodiment of our national and ethical ambitions? No. Neither in regard to our ancient past nor in respect to our recent history. If the First Zionist Congress had been convened but a Jewish state had not been established, would it really have been enough?
How, then, do we make sense of this age-old national hymn? Perhaps the answer can be found in words that don’t appear in the text: If that is all that had been done for us, it would have been enough, but from here on in, the responsibility is ours. At whatever point we enter the history of our people, we need to raise our voices in joyful recognition of all that we have inherited – deeds, sacrifices and achievements. Yet from the moment we consciously become a link in the chain of Jewish continuity, there needs to be a personal affirmation that from this instant on the rest is up to us. Matan and Orian, at this Seder you were still each the child unable to ask. But soon enough the time will come when you, too, will be expected to declare “Dayenu,” acknowledging all that in the past was done on your behalf while assuming responsibility for the future.
This interpretation of these verses was made easy to appreciate by our holiday outing to Mazkeret Batya, one of the first villages founded by members of the First Aliya back in 1893. Establishment of this agricultural enclave resulted from an appeal by Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever to Baron Edmond de Rothschild. The former was a founder of Hovevei Zion and a major figure in the evolution of a religious Zionism with a fiercely practical bent, the latter a staunch Zionist and generous benefactor of numerous settlements and economic enterprises that were part of his remarkable contribution to the building up of the Jewish homeland. As a result of their discussions, 11 young farmers from Pavlova, a small village in what is now Belarus, were chosen to establish this outpost. Strictly observant and motivated by the religious commandment to settle the Land of Israel, they left their wives and children behind (it would be two years before they would be joined by them) and set out for the Promised Land, determined to hasten by their deeds the fulfillment of the divine pledge to bring about the ingathering of the exiles.
One of the very first buildings these settlers constructed still exists today and houses a gem of a museum that tells their story, including, of course, the dire hardships they had to overcome in laying the foundations for the millions of immigrants who would follow in their footsteps. Had there only been Mazkeret Batya and not Rishon Lezion, Rosh Pina, Zichron Ya’acov and Yesud Hama’ala, it would have been enough – if that is all that these 11 pioneers had done for us. At any given point, the responsibility shifts to those who tread the path forged by their predecessors. It continues to shift today. During this extraordinary period when we pause again and again to pay tribute to those who sacrificed, and who were sacrificed, in the name of the Jewish people, we can best acknowledge their contributions by declaiming “dayenu” as a declaration of our readiness to accept the yoke of accountability for tomorrow.
In doing so, we would do well to be guided by the vision of Rabbi Mohilever. Unable to attend the First Zionist Congress because of poor health, he sent a letter in his stead. “For the success of this assembly,” he wrote, “it is essential to establish that all the ‘Sons of Zion’ whose hearts are loyal to our cause work together in complete love and harmony, even if there be among them differences of opinion regarding religion.”
Or regarding anything else, for that matter.
This is what you shall tell your children, and your grandchildren, when they ask you about the significance of these days of triumph and tribulation that are upon us. The meaning of the lives – and the deaths – of those to whom we stop to give homage is that with which we invest them. May we do them justice so that the next generation will have reason to be as proud of us as are we of our forebears. Being a grandfather isn’t essential to appreciating the wonder of all that we have after all that we have lost, but it certainly helps, providing yet another reason to keep dreaming.
David Breakstone is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive; published courtesy of the author.