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Celebrating the Land, Celebrating Israel

In the nineteenth, and early twentieth, century the roots of the modern State of Israel were sown. Zionist thinkers argued about the character, and purpose, of the state for which we now celebrate seventy tree years of independence.

People are most familiar with Theodor Herzl who more than any other thinker, laid the foundation stones for the modern state of Israel. He was a masterful organizer, convening the First Zionist Congress in 1897. He was a tireless politician. Herzl’s political Zionism envisioned a state for the Jews, wherever it might be located, that would finally cure the world of antisemitism. Although his dream did not succeed in eradicating antisemitism, it did lay the groundwork for the modern state. The State of Israel would be, as it now most certainly is, the master of its own fate. No longer would Jews be subjugated to the whims of tyrants. Instead, they would rule their own lives.

Unlike Herzl, Ahad Haam, believed that such a state must be located in our ancient land and that there we must speak Hebrew. This state must be a Jewish state in which Jewish culture and the rhythms of Jewish life were observed. He did not mean by this traditional Jewish observance. Instead, he understood that schools would mark Sukkot and Hanukkah. On Friday evenings when people ventured out to cafes, as they currently do in great numbers, they would greet each other by saying, “Shabbat Shalom.” The culture would be steeped with Jewish resonance. And this would help to cure the spiritual malaise that infected the Jewish people. In Israel Jews would find a place that helped to revitalize the Jewish spirit.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook is considered the founder of religious Zionism. For many nineteenth and early twentieth century traditional Jews, Zionism ran counter to the religious belief that the Jewish people could only reclaim sovereignty in the land of Israel when God sends the messiah. Kook argued that secular Zionists were doing God’s work even if they refused to acknowledge it. He was instrumental in accommodating traditional Jewish belief with Zionist activities. One could believe in the idea of the coming of the messiah while still working to build a Jewish state. Today, his philosophy continues to be influential with those who see messianic overtones in the modern State of Israel, and in particular its victory in the Six Day War.

These three thinkers continue to find currents in today’s Israel. Their thoughts shape modern Jews’ estimation of Israel’s great success.

And yet lately I find myself drawn to the works of a lesser-known Zionist thinker, A.D. Gordon. Long associated with the early kibbutz movement, Gordon believed that the revitalization of the Jewish spirit would come about by renewing our connection to the land. While he was not enamored of the socialist ideals of the kibbutz movement, he felt that the only way Jews could be saved was by getting their hands dirty working the land. He wrote:
We come to our Homeland in order to be planted in our natural soil from which we have been uprooted, to strike our roots deep into its life-giving substances, and to stretch out our branches in the sustaining and creating air and sunlight of the Homeland. Here, in Palestine, is the force attracting all the scattered cells of the people to unite into one living national organism.
The land is what animates the spirit.

As we continue to celebrate Israel’s technological achievements and prowess, perhaps we should take a moment and hearken back to the spiritual power of our return to the land.

Touching the earth is what can renew the Jewish people.