Last week was Israel’s 64th birthday. Happy Birthday Israel! And in following the tradition of giving speeches that include stories about the birthday boy (I assume Israel is a boy, it is a boy’s name), I will tell one.
When I was 18, I spent a gap year in a seminary in Bet Shemesh, Israel. An experience like nothing other, it was a year where all I was expected to do was to learn and think and experience and remember what it means to be Jewish and someone who has an investment in the state of Israel.
One incident that really stood out from that year was Israel Independence Day. The night before, we spent it dancing with the communities in Chashmoniam and eating BBQ at our Rabbi’s house. It was a very typical night for Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day).
The next day we had off from classes and I came up with the idea that I was going to walk to Jerusalem. I had this notion that today we were going to do it like our ancestors, no more of these buses for spoiled modern day people. My only regret was that I didn’t have a camel (there is nothing in this lifetime that I enjoy more than a good camel ride). I was going to be Independent! And walk there on my own! Onwards to Jerusalem! What could go wrong?
I gathered up four of my bravest (or dumbest?) friends, packed up some water (or iced tea in my case, because I was the ringleader of dumb) and walked to the highway. Dressed in blue and white, with little Israeli flags fastened to our backpacks we marched down Route 38 as a tiny Israeli Day Parade. Every time a car honked at us, a cheer went up. We shouted ‘Am Yisroel Chai!’ to every confused driver. We were walking for two and half hours and not even one third of the way there.
Finally, we got to Route One, a busier highway than the previous. It was then we decided to take a shortcut through the hills, since it was already the afternoon and we hadn’t thought to bring a map, and wouldn’t be able to navigate when it got dark. We shrugged it off and decided to forge our own path through the woods. We had finished our water a little while ago and at least two of us were starting to feel sick. We walked through the woods until there was no cell phone service. Soon, we were thirsty and tired and lost.
After an hour of hiking, we all heard an engine behind us. And heard the yells of young boys, but what they were saying we couldn’t make out. Were they Arabs? “Arsim”? Israeli soldiers who wanted to escort us safely home? We didn’t know so we made the decision to jump in the nearby bushes and hide. We sat for about 20 minutes, but it seemed like an eternity. Hardly breathing, thoughts of Kobi Mandell and other unfortunate innocent hikers passed through our mind. It was then we finally realized that Israel isn’t a little spiritual playground made for us, but actually a potentially dangerous area. Finally, the trucks passed, thankfully not noticing us and we slowly moved on.
It was getting dark by now and even though we followed the path until the end, we still ended up on Route One. Despite protests from my friends, I didn’t want to give up and take a bus for the last 15 minutes. I convinced them that walking alongside the highway in the dark was going to show our independence! Until we reached a 50-foot drop which was a tunnel going under the highway. So, we silently made our way to the nearest Egged bus stop. And from the Tachana we walked to the Kotel.
Even though finally touching the Kotel after our huge ordeal was amazing and rewarding, I couldn’t figure out why I hadn’t made it all the way to Jerusalem on sheer will power. Isn’t that what Israel was about? Doing the impossible?
It wasn’t until a week later during a shiur that I realized no, that’s not what Israel is about. I learned that the word for ‘independence’ in Hebrew is a relatively new word. “Atzma’ut” was developed by Itamat Ben Avi (Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s son) in the 20th century. It is rooted in the Hebrew word “atzmi” and “birshut atzmo” which connote doing something independently, on one’s own steam. It’s not a biblical word because being ‘independent’ is not a real thing in Judaism. We are never doing things alone, we must always be aware of our family, our community and God above us. Israel didn’t become “independent” through one person fighting; it became independent through thousands of Jews and non-Jews alike coming together for a cause. No one person can do anything in this life without the help of others. As Jewish people, we need each other to survive, whether through charity, visiting a sick person, in prayers, in holidays and especially in keeping Israel safe. It also made me realize that until we all feel safe hiking in the Israel, our job isn’t done.
Israel’s “Independence” Day has taught me that no one is a lone wolf in our journey as Jews. We might be able to govern our country on our own, but it needs everyone to keep it running, from the dumb seminary girls who create their own parades in the woods to the bus drivers who carry them the last leg of their trip. We can only function with each other. Am Yisroel Chai.
Why don’t you give helping out your a shot and the Uri L’Tzedek Summer Fellowship in NY or LA Today? Fellows will have the opportunity to work on Uri L’Tzedek’s campaigns, including worker rights, prison reform and domestic violence. Some of the innovative projects include, Tav HaYosher (the ethical seal for kosher restaurants), organizational development, communications, education, service, community outreach, website development, and multi-media.
Please see here for further details on the Israel track.