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Masters of Our Own Fate

Hadassah Magazine May 2008
Commentary: Masters of Our Own Fate

This month, the State of Israel is celebrating its 60th birthday, and most Jews have grown accustomed to the nation’s existence. One day when I was teaching the kin­dergartners in my synagogue school, I asked them, “How old do you think Israel is?” “A thousand years.” “Oh, no,” I said. “Five thousand years?” They kept shouting out higher numbers. When I finally told them the correct answer, they stared at me in disbelief. I explained how the history of Israel is ancient, but the state is very young. I told them that some of their great-grandparents fought to make Israel an independent nation. Do we take Israel for granted? I hope not, since only in Israel can our freedom be wed to our ancient land. Only in Israel do Jewish rights and history come first and foremost....

Last summer, on one erev Shabbat, I strolled down the trendy Emek Refaim Street in Je­ru­salem. The day was winding down. There was very little traffic. People were carrying bou­quets of flowers for their Shabbat ta­bles and last-minute purchases of food and wine. I wandered into the rebuilt Cafe Hillel for an espresso and thought about the homicide bombing that had de­stroyed this restaurant on September 9, 2003. I thought of the lives that were shattered. But when I looked around, all I saw were smiles and all I could hear was laughing. Jerusalem is happiness built on ruins.

My weeks of study in Israel were framed by the minor fast day of the 17th of Tammuz, marking the day the Ro­mans besieged this city, and three weeks later by the full fast day of Tisha B’Av, when Israel’s enemies de­stroyed the First and Second Tem­ples in 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E.

Tisha B’Av is a day of mourn­ing, when Jere­miah’s Book of Lamen­ta­tions is chant­­­ed. In past years, I had gone to the Kotel on Tisha B’Av, the closest place to the ancient Temple’s site. This year, instead, I went to the Haas Promenade, which overlooks the village of Abu Tor and, in the distance, the southern side of the Old City, where members of a lo­cal Con­servative synagogue gathered. Unlike the scene at the Wall, where the mood is mournful, this crowd of 400 recited ancient prayers and also modern songs, including Han­nah Senesh’s impassioned “Eli, Eli.”

One would think that this holiday, too, would color the city’s mood, but the walls of the Old City were aglow. There may well be untold ruins be­neath our feet, but despite ancient grief and ancient exiles, there is no ruin in the air. I revel in the songs of thousands of Jews. I rejoice that we have returned to this city. Israel writes Jewish history each and every day. Indeed, 60 years after its modern rebirth, Israel waves a finger at fate.