During every single evening service, Jews recite the Hashkivenu prayer. Within the service, we recite it between the Mi Chamocha and the Amidah. It is a petitionary prayer in which we ask God to be able to rest peacefully through the night and wake up to life the next morning, renewed. On Shabbat, the last line of the prayer is lengthened. Tonight we ended the prayer with the words, Who spreads the shelter of peace upon us, upon all of his people Israel, and upon Jerusalem. On Shabbat, quite possibly the holiest holiday in Judaism, we specifically pay special attention to the protection of Jerusalem and to Israel.
This Sunday evening is Yom Hazikaron, and Monday evening marks the beginning of Yom Ha'atzmaut. The first is the Israeli Day of Remembrance, and the second is the Israeli Independence Day.
Yom Hazikaron is not like our American Memorial Day. It is not a day for vacation travel or for enjoyable socializing. Almost every high school in Israel has a "memorial room" where they can pay tribute to alumni that lost their lives fighting for their country. Schools have special assemblies, everyone dressed in white shirts and blue pants.
A siren blasts throughout the country at 11:00am, marking the beginning of a two-minute standstill. All activity comes to an end. Drivers slowly stop their vehicles and stand on the side of the road to observe this two-minute silence. Radio and television stations broadcast stories of Israeli soldiers and heroes.
In Israel, almost every Israeli knows someone that has been killed while serving their country. This day of Yom Hazikaron is not only nationalistic and patriotic; it is intensely personal.
And as the afternoon hours turn into the evening, a shift happens. The mood changes from somber to celebratory, as the nation turns away from the painful memories and toward the celebration of statehood. During Yom Ha'atzmaut, the entire country celebrates its pride in being Am Yisrael.
These days are a time for us to reflect upon our relationship with Israel.
It's true that Jewish attitudes toward Israel are different than they were in 1948. Just within our Jewish communities in America, there is divisiveness and anger regarding different opinions on Israel. There are lots of Jews today that do not sense a connection between their strong Jewish identities on the one hand and Israel on the other. In recent years, liberal and conservative jews have had problems with the Israeli orthodox establishment. The issues surrounding the Women of the Wall have highlighted gender inequalities that prohibit women from expressing their Jewish selves.
A relationship with Israel is not simple. It can be complex, problematic and frustrating. But as with any other meaningful relationship, these difficulties should not and can not cause us to separate.
The holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote this about God, but it pertains perfectly to Israel:
For a Jew to believe in God is good. For a Jew to protest against God is still good. But simply to ignore God - that is not good. Anger, yes. Protest, yes. Affirmation, yes. But indifference? No. You can be a Jew with God or you can be against God. But you can not be a Jew without God.
We can not be Jews without Israel.
My relationship to Israel makes me a stronger Jew. For those of us who have been blessed enough to be able to travel there, one feels a deep sense of spirituality and connection... We hike Masada, pray at the Western Wall, watch the awesome array of stars in the Negev desert amidst the Bedouins ... these are more than tourist activities. They are a part of our history and our homeland.
The name of our homeland, Israel, is of course taken from the name that God confers upon Jacob - Yisrael. It means one who struggles with God. As we know all too well, Israel is a place of struggle. Jacob was given this birthright because he struggled with God until daybreak. I remind myself of this story when I think of the tensions and struggles regarding the land of Israel.
Like Jacob, we too receive blessing by facing these issues. Visit Israel. Talk to Israelis. Read the news. Open yourself up to the messy, difficult, beautiful and holy country that is our homeland of Israel.
Our liturgy tonight has various references to Jerusalem and Israel. Israel is never far from our hearts. We may not physically live in its land, but it is a part of us nonetheless. We are Am Yisrael. Am Yisrael Chai - the people of Israel shall live.