During the recent Passover holiday, we celebrated the ending of our slavery and becoming a free people. After fleeing Egypt, we were liberated but not yet free. Even after receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, we
were not yet free. It took more than 40 years, a full generation, for us to mature enough to be able to accept true freedom.
Just like a teenager becoming an adult, it took us time to understand that true freedom is not the right to do or say whatever we feel the urge to do. As adults we all know that true freedom comes only with real responsibility, with independence. Only when one leaves the parental house and builds a home of his or her own can one fully understand freedom. As a people, a nation, our true freedom came only after resettling and liberating our homeland, Israel. Only after we became a sovereign nation did we truly become free: a free people in our land.
Our bondage in Egypt was the first time in the history of our people that we lost our freedom, but it was not the last. We were exiled from our land after the destruction of the first Temple, came back from the Diaspora, were exiled again after the destruction of the Second Temple and came back in the modern age. It is true that significant Jewish communities lived continuously in the land of Israel throughout history. It is also true that waves of Jews returning to Zion were documented every century through the last 1,000 years. Yet only when Israel as a Jewish state declared its independence did we truly become free once again. As a free country, Israel faces many challenges: economic, educational, legal, security and all the challenges of being a real country.
The presence of a sovereign, free and independent state affects the lives of Jewish people worldwide. Israel’s spectacular victory in the Six-Day War in 1967 gave American Jews a feeling of pride, more than any event in American Jewish history. At that time, political debates about the territories and settlements were not part of the conversation. The image of a truly free, brave and independent Jew changed the way Jews perceived themselves and the way we are perceived by others. The victory of the Six-Day War brought thousands of American Jews out into the streets for celebrations. Less than a week earlier those same Jews had gone out into the streets for emergency fundraisers to help the Jewish state survive. It was clear that the future of the Jewish people depended on the future of Israel as a free Jewish state.
Through the years Israel became a source of amazing creativity and innovation, making the world better through new technology. Archeological digs, Hebrew language scholars and Judaic studies across Israel have completely reinvigorated the world of Jewish knowledge, crossing new frontiers in our understanding of our heritage.
Freedom does not come free. Having an independent Jewish state in our homeland has exacted a painful price. Over the years more than 25,470 Israelis have paid the highest price of all, the price of life, so that the only Jewish state in the world will stay free.
In Jewish life, sorrow and joy are often intermingled. We pledge to remember the destruction of the Temple during our wedding ceremony. We observe the Fast of Esther and then party on Purim. We acknowledge the suffering of our people during slavery in Egypt while celebrating Passover.
Upcoming are two of the most significant intermingled events of the modern Jewish year: The Yom Hazikaron commemoration for Israeli soldiers and victims of terror and the Israel Festival celebrating Israel’s independence, Yom Ha’atzmaut. One cannot emphasize enough the importance of Yom Hazikaron, paying our respects to those who gave us our freedom as a Jewish people. We will commemorate them as a community on April 14 at 6:30 p.m. at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. A week later, on April 21, we will celebrate our freedom at the huge Israel 65 Festival honoring Israel’s amazing contributions to the world. Marking those two days together as a community is the most significant connection we have with our homeland and with our people. It is a central element of being Jewish in modern times and the most significant way of showing our support of Israel. I hope to see all of you at both events, supporting us on our day of commemoration and celebrating with us on our day of joy.
Guy Gelbart is Tucson’s community shaliach (Israeli emissary) and director of the Weintraub Israel Center.