Israels 60th inspires us to ponder the future


Leviticus 19:1-20:27

Amos 9:7-15

This coming Wednesday evening, May 7, celebrants across the state of Israel will take to the streets in honor of Israel’s 60th birthday. Yom HaAtzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) will be marked by dancing, singing, and all sorts of celebration and festivity.

Sixty is a very special birthday, indeed. According to the Mishnah in the fifth chapter of Pirkei Avot,

one who turns 60 has achieved “ziknah,” or seniority. The Talmud (Tractate Kiddushin, first chapter) identifies this term with one who has acquired knowledge and wisdom.

Over those 60 years, the state of Israel has played a central and dynamic role in the life of world Jewry; it provided refuge, inspiration, comfort and religious nourishment to countless numbers. It once again became home for nearly half the Jewish people, with millions of diaspora Jews visiting and cherishing it as a beloved member of the family. It cared for us and bonded us together as we cared for and bonded with it. Yet given the significance of the number 60, I wondered: What wisdom has Israel imparted to us at this special time?

Truth be told, there are more answers to that question than could ever be contained in a column this size. Israel has meant and taught so much to so many, and continues to do so. Yet one of the myriad lessons is suggested by this week’s Torah portion as well.

Chapter 19 of our parshah is chock full of a variety of laws, including injunctions against looking to auspicious times, engaging mediums and various other future-telling practices (see verses 26 and 31 for examples). But what is so wrong with trying to tell the future? Here we are, fragile beings in an unsafe world. Who could blame us for seeking a bit of inside information or a hint of what is to come?

This issue was the subject of a classic debate in the 12th and 13th centuries between Maimonides (Rambam) and his counterpart Nachmanides (Ramban). Maimonides contended that beyond bringing a person close to idolatrous practices, none of these means were permitted because there simply was nothing to them. People pursuing means of telling the future were wasting the precious commodity of time. The Torah thus prohibited the entire endeavor in the hope that people would engage in more worthwhile activities.

Nachmanides firmly disagreed. In his understanding, the spiritual fabric of the universe is such that there are, in fact, means of inferring what is to come. The possibility of reading indications of what is flowing down through the metaphysical “pipelines” is very real and can be accessed by those that truly are knowledgeable and skilled. (He doesn’t deny the ubiquitous presence of charlatans, but the fact that people take advantage of one another is beside the point of principle.)

Still, the Torah required that our people eschew such practices and pursue a direct link with HaShem, the Infinite Being above the entire system, who is capable of any and all adjustment and influence.

The question of “what is going to happen?” has been ever-present since (and even before) the founding of the Israel. The threats to its existence and integrity have loomed large since the very beginning, often overlapping as multiple dangers menaced at any given moment. It has seemed so many times that a dreadful end could be near, and yet, miraculous day by miraculous day, we have seen it continue on in the struggle to move in better directions.

And perhaps that is one the messages of Israel’s 60th: that the future is given to us to mold. According to Maimonides, it is in fact unknowable, and according to Nachmanides, we are not meant to know it. Either way, our people have long been one that stood for brave commitment and action in the face of danger. Rather than peer into what might happen, we have moved to shape the impact of what already is and adjust to make the most of it.

Is there any way to know what will be? I leave that question to Maimonides and Nachmanides to argue about. In the meantime, I’ll learn from Israel and try to make the present from which that future emerges as bright as it can be.

Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Orthodox Beth Jacob in Oakland. He can be reached at [email protected].