by Rabbi Ron Stern
There was a time that people would clip newspaper articles, save editions of magazines, or photocopy articles to put into files. These days much of that has become electronic. Now, I use a program called Evernote that allows me to send any item of interest into a cloud-based filing system. As we are in the two weeks that have been dubbed the Israeli “High Holy Days” I decided to search my electronic file drawer using the term “Israel.” I discovered dozens and dozens of articles, podcasts, bookmarked TV shows, travel information, and other assorted bits and pieces of information that at some point over the past many years I decided were worth keeping. Perusing those snapshots of what interested me at a particular time I discovered a vast, comprehensive dialogue that captured my love for Israel and my deep engagement in what happens in our Jewish homeland.
As I digitally “leafed” through my collection I thought of the beautiful words of Psalm 137
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not elevate Jerusalem above all my joy.
אִֽם־אֶשְׁכָּחֵ֥ךְ יְֽרוּשָׁלִָ֗ם תִּשְׁכַּ֥ח יְמִינִֽי׃ תִּדְבַּ֥ק־לְשׁוֹנִ֨י ׀ לְחִכִּי֮ אִם־לֹ֪א אֶ֫זְכְּרֵ֥כִי אִם־לֹ֣א אַ֭עֲלֶה אֶת־יְרוּשָׁלִַ֑ם עַ֝֗ל רֹ֣אשׁ שִׂמְחָתִֽי׃
These words appear in traditional wedding ceremonies, have been set to music, and are a plaintive promise that has been upon the mouths of Jews for thousands of years. Often, when recited before the founding of the state in 1948 they reflected a dream, a hope, for a Jewish return that would bring life and a robust spiritual presence to a desolate city. It was a pledge by generations of Jews that no matter where we found ourselves, our eyes and our aspirations, just like our prayer, would always be turned to the land and the city at its pinnacle.
The psalm says that a consequence of forgetting Jerusalem is a physical handicap, a loss of dexterity and a form of mutism. It is to say that the remembering of Jerusalem is reflected in the opposite: creativity and conversation, dexterity and discourse. That’s what my Evernote collection reflects. Israel (and Jerusalem) has given the Jewish people (among many things) an abundance of resources for both artistic inspiration and something to talk about. It is on the tip of our tongues and before our eyes. It hangs as art upon the walls of our homes, inspires the food that we place on our tables, challenges our values, inspire our moral discourse.
How do we ensure that Jerusalem and Israel continue to occupy a central place in the Jewish heart, the Jewish mind, and maybe even the Jewish stomach? The answer is also inspired by the poem. It must be in our thoughts – it must create within us a passion that erupts in joy when we visit the land, frustration when things going on there don’t reflect our values, pain when her people suffer, commitment to sustaining her society, and yes, loving criticism because we care so deeply about the future of our state. It is essential that the conversation about Israel is robust, deep, uncensored, and reflective of the ardor of our Zionist vision. We must seek to engage our children, our families, our friends in the dialogue. Passivity and apathy are not the emotions we seek to engender. That we may not agree with each other is reflective of the passion that comes from love and engagement.
If only it were easy. If only all American Jews agreed. It’s not easy. It’s sometimes fraught. It’s complex and it’s heartfelt. Perhaps that is what it really means to love Israel fully and to elevate Jerusalem above our greatest joy.