Behar/Behukkotai: My Countries Right or Wrong

Many of you grew up in the 1960s and vividly remember it.  Student occupation of college administration buildings.  Rampant drug use.  Long hair.  Bra burning.  Race riots.  Vietnam war protests.  Protesters within earshot of the Oval Office chanting: “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Flag burnings.  The environmental movement.  The consumer movement.  Political assassinations.  It was a time of great social and political turmoil. 

I was born in 1955, so although I “grew up” in the 60s, I really didn’t participate directly in any of this.  My “turn” for public self-expression came as a college student at UCLA in the early 1970s.   I didn’t riot or protest; I wore a round patch on my jeans with the Hebrew words “Kosher.”  Expressing Jewish pride in public was my small way of being a "radical."  

35 years later, I found myself at John Wayne airport (in Orange County) just after dawn.  I somewhat nervously looked for a very private place to put on my Tallit and T’fillin, but I couldn’t find one, so I went outside to the parking lot adjacent to the terminal, put them on, and said a few quick prayers while people walking by looked at me strangely.  I felt highly self-conscious and later starting remaining in my car (with the visors down) as I “dressed” for prayer before an early morning flight.   Yet, for the past seven years, I have worn my yalmuke full time in public, and haven’t felt particularly self-conscious.  On the other hand, when I am in California, and I see an Orthodox man dressed in “traditional” (i.e. 17th century Polish) Jewish black and white and watch people look at him, I feel a little embarrassed.

These are a few examples of how, during my life in America -- a place of liberty but also of a non-Jewish majority -- my feelings toward public displays of “Jewish identity” have been mixed. 

I mention this because of a word in this week’s Parasha.   That word is “קוממיוּת"  It appears at 26:13:

 אֲנִי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִהְיֹת לָהֶם עֲבָדִים וָאֶשְׁבֹּר מֹטֹת עֻלְּכֶם וָאוֹלֵךְ אֶתְכֶם קוֹמְמִיּוּת:

My JPS Tanach translates this as: “I the Lord am your Gd who brought you out from the land of the Egyptians to be their slaves no more, who broke the bars of your yoke and made you walk upright. 

The shoresh of the word “קוֹמְמִיּוּת” is related to the verb for standing up, as in לקום

But according to my computer Hebrew dictionary, קוֹמְמִיּוּת doesn’t mean “walking upright” but rather “sovereignty” or “independence.”  My pocket Hebrew-English also has these two words as the first two definitions, although it adds as a third “with head erect.” 

So, the idea of קוֹמְמִיּוּת seems to mix pride, confidence and freedom of self-expression, all of which are attributes of independence and sovereignty. 

Often, in our liturgy, the express connotation is that we need קוֹמְמִיּוּת so that we will not feel ashamed.  In the Ahavah Rabbah just before the Sh’ma, we ask G-d: 

 וְיַחֵד לְבָבֵֽנוּ לְאַהֲבָה וּלְיִרְאָה אֶת שְׁמֶֽךָ, וְלֹא נֵבוֹשׁ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד.

 “Unify our hearts to love and to fear Your name, so that we not be ashamed forever and ever.”

It’s a strange prayer, isn't it: to not be ashamed?  Why should be be ashamed?  And then, immediately after, we pray:

וַהֲבִיאֵֽנוּ לְשָׁלוֹם מֵאַרְבַּע כַּנְפוֹת הָאָֽרֶץ, וְתוֹלִיכֵֽנוּ קוֹמְמִיּוּת לְאַרְצֵֽנוּ

“Bring us in peace from the four corners of the earth, and lead us with heads held erect to our land.”  There’s that word, again  קוֹמְמִיּוּת.  Are our heads not "held erect" outside of our land?  And in the weekday Shemoneh Esrai (Amidah), we pray, referring to the righteous:

וְשִׂים חֶלְקֵֽנוּ עִמָּהֶם לְעוֹלָם, וְלֹא נֵבוֹשׁ כִּי בְךָ בָּטָֽחְנוּ

“Put our lot with them forever, and we will not feel ashamed. 

And finally, although surely there are many more such references in our Scripture and liturgy, there’s this line in the Birkat Hamazon (Grace after meals) that Jews (at least ritually observant ones) say every time they eat a meal that includes bread:

וְנָא אַל תַּצְרִיכֵֽנוּ, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ, לֹא לִידֵי מַתְּנַת בָּשָׂר וָדָם, וְלֹא לִידֵי הַלְוָאָתָם, כִּי אִם לְיָדְךָ הַמְּלֵאָה, הַפְּתוּחָה, הַקְּדוֹשָׁה וְהָרְחָבָה, שֶׁלֹּא נֵבוֹשׁ וְלֹא נִכָּלֵם לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד.

“Please don’t make us dependent, Adonai our Gd, on either the gifts of flesh and blood nor upon their loans, but only upon Your full, open, holy, and generous hand, that we not be ashamed nor humiliated for ever and ever.”  

When I looked at various commentaries about these references to “shame,” they focused on the “spiritual shame” of placing trust in humans, rather than in G-d.  I don’t discount that interpretation, but neither do I think it’s the whole story.   The Parashah refers to Gd having removed the Egyptian yoke so that we could walk upright; I don’t think that was entirely spiritual, and the birkat hamazon refers to our not being reliant upon gifts and loans. 

All of these interrelated references to pride, not being ashamed or dependent, walking upright, sovereignty, and independence remind us that Judaism is not “a religion” in the modern sense of beliefs but rather the deepest political, social, and spiritual expression of the Jewish people as a people.  The references to not being ashamed and to walking upright to our own land are born from our very long history of both subjugation and persecution and of sovereignty and independence.  We know what both are like.  And we have learned from terrible experience that we can only be fully our Jewish selves with political sovereignty in our own land. 

Which brings me to my main point.   Most Israelis and American Jews have little or no personal experience with the shame and “yoke” of living without sovereignty.  The generation that survived the Holocaust is largely gone now, and so are the later periods of latent, overt anti-Semitism and discrimination in America.  Especially among the young, both the Holocaust and less virulent forms of anti-Semitism are irrelevant relics of the past, even viewed as “false justifications of continued oppression” against the Palestinians, for example. 

But their (thank G-d) lack of personal experience with persecution, or worse, is one of the reasons why many American (and some other) Jews do not realize what Jewish sovereignty actually means.   It’s not just physical safety; it’s the ability of the Jewish people to fully live lives of Jewish expression.  To give just one little example, while on a public bus in Haifa, I remember seeing a sticker above the driver's head that read, in Hebrew "Love your Driver as Yourself."  In nowhere but Israel is Torah punned on public property.   

I am a proud American, trained as an American political scientist, lawyer, and historian.  I am steeped in American values, law, and philosophy.  And yet, I know that no matter how “free” America is, it will never be the seat of default majority Jewish culture, values, and philosophy.   It will never be a place in which Jews can know that, no matter what may happen in the world, we will never need to be ashamed of being openly and conspicuously Jewish.  It will never be a place in which I can feel and express my Jewishness fully, amid a Jewish majority.  It is only so long as there is an Israel, with a majority Jewish population and Jewish sovereignty, that all Jews in the world can come there and walk upright -- קוֹמְמִיּוּת. 

That is why, no matter how any American Jew feels about the Palestinians, the settlements, the Orthodox, gender discrimination at the Kotel and on buses, corruption in the Israeli government, or any other social or legal issue, he or she must nevertheless support Israel (even while, if necessary, criticizing it) and must protect it as the unique and essential home of the Jewish people and civilization.  Only in Israel can Jewishness rise to full expression and freedom.  In a word, the Jewish people’s  קוֹמְמִיּוּת  

In America in the 60’s, conservatives used phrases like “My country right or wrong” and “America: love it or leave it.”  These phrases were antithetical to liberals (of which I was one, albeit young) because, to them/us, it meant that conservatives both resisted necessary social and political change and that they questioned liberals’/our patriotism. 

But I now think that liberals/we were wrong.  Patriotism, in Hebrew אהבת-המוֹלדת (love of one’s birthplace), was not and is not a dirty word.  Quite the opposite; it’s essential for a people’s pride, development, and healthy future.  That’s obvious (to most) in Israel, which must actively and constantly defend itself against its sworn, armed enemies.  But it’s not so obvious in America.   At some college graduation ceremonies – even in public universities – the American flag isn’t displayed, nor the national anthem sung!  To do so would be seen to the youth, and apparently to administrators, as “condoning” everything about America, the wrong as well as the right.   

But that itself is part of what is wrong with America – and among some in Israel -- today.  It is necessary to love one’s country “right or wrong” because only in one’s country can one be truly and fully what one is.  That doesn’t mean ignoring or condoning what is wrong.  It means not turning one’s back on the essential need of having a country (or countries) in which one’s values and aspirations as a people can be realized.  In which you can “be yourself” and walk upright among your own people(s) in your land(s). 

For American Jews, that means supporting both America and Israel “right or wrong.”  This is an absolutely essential lesson that our youth, especially, must learn if our American and Jewish values and essence are to be transmitted to future generations.  There must be an Israel, not only as a physical refuge for Jews still facing persecution around the world, and for those who will inevitably face it in the future, but as the only possible true home -- in the broadest possible sense of "home"-- for the entire Jewish people as a people.  

May קוֹמְמִיּוּת and אהבת-המוֹלדת always be with us, and may we never be ashamed again. 

Shabbat shalom. 

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3