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Jewish Continuity and Belonging

I would like to share a story with you that I read about a father who explained to his son his version of what continuity and belonging means. The father began by saying:

Imagine that, while searching for a book in the library, you come across a unique book at catches your attention because your family name is written on the spine. Intrigued, you open it and see many pages written by different hands in many languages. You start reading it, and gradually you begin to understand what it is. It is the story that each generation of your ancestors has told for the sake of the next, so everyone born into this family knows where they came from, what happened to them, what they lived for, and why.

As you turn the pages, you reach the last one, which has no text except a title. It bears your name. According to the intellectual conventions of modernity, this shouldn't make any difference. There's nothing in the past that can bind you to the present, no story that can make a difference in who you are and who you are free to be.

Yet, this cannot be the whole truth. If I found myself holding a book like that in my hands, my life would already have changed. Seeing my name and the story of my ancestors, I couldn't read it simply as another story among many; it would be, for me, a form of self-discovery. The moment I knew it existed, I couldn't put it back on the shelf and forget about it, because now I would know that I am part of a long line of people who journeyed toward a certain destiny and whose journey is still incomplete, depending on me to carry it forward.

With this new knowledge, I could no longer see the world simply as a library. Other books might not have a special mark on me; they could be interesting, inspiring, captivating, but this one is different. It is very existence implies a series of questions asked not of the universe, but of me. Will I write my own chapter? Will I be a continuation in the story of those who came before me? When the time comes, will I be able to pass the book on to my children, or will I be able to pass the book onto my children, or will I have forgotten it, or handed it over to a museum as a relic of the past?

I don't recall the story describing what the father's teenage son did. Probably these words had some effect on him that made his story and tradition consider him as the new protagonist in the period of life he had to intervene in a possible future book for generations to come.

However, this is more than an exercise of imagination.

That book really exists, and being Jewish is being a life, a chapter, in it. The fact that any of us is born Jewish is not just a fact. It happened because more than a hundred generations of our ancestors decided to be Jewish pass on that identity to their children, thus writing the most impressive story of continuity known. This was not mere chance either. It flowed from the basic conviction that the Jews had entered into a covenant with God which would lead them on a journey whose destiny lies in a distant future, but whose outcome was of great consequence for humanity.

This definition of responsibility and continuity, or responsibility FOR continuity, brings me to the leitmotif of this month of June that has just begun: Shavuot.

Shavuot is a festival with many traditions and meanings. Although it is over 3,000 years old, its messages and values are still relevant in our time.

Shavuot is also called Chag HaKatzir (Festival of the Harvest) and Chag HaBikurim (Festival of the First Fruits). In the times of the Beit HaMikdash, the Great Temple of Jerusalem, the arrival of summer and the harvest season after spring were celebrated. On Shavuot, in addition to harvesting the first fruits, we went to the Beit HaMikdash to make sacrifices. We were connected to the land of Israel, and this was reflected in our festivals and customs.

With the Galut (Diaspora), this changed. There was no longer a temple to make offerings, nor a Jewish capital in which to gather. We replaced these traditions with study and prayer, hoping to return someday. Moreover, we were expelled and stopped working the land. Zionism turned hope into reality. After two thousand years of exile, we returned to the land of our ancestors with a mission: to build a Jewish State. To achieve this, many chalutzim (pioneers) dedicated themselves to doing what we hadn't done in a long time: working the land. Shavuot became a central element of Jewish life in the early days of the State of Israel and the kibbutz. The kibbutz's first fruits were presented, and a celebration full of food, music, and dance took place.

In the words of Aaron David Gordon, one of the pioneering fathers of Zionism, we read: "We who were uprooted from our roots must know the land and prepare it, the land to which we come to absorb ourselves, to know and understand the climatic conditions... we who were uprooted from nature, we who foergot the meaning of natural life - we must, if we want to live, demand a new relationship with nature, to begin anew with it." -A.D. Gordon, Avodateinu me'ata (1920)

Today, Israel's economy is not based on agriculture, although it once was. Israel is one of the most technologically advanced countries, also in agriculture, and remains the only democracy in the Middle East. It has turned Am Israel from a homeless people into a people that can find its identity and self-fulfillment. On Shavuot, let us celebrate that w are once again connected to the land of Israel, Eretz Israel.

Another name for Shavuot is Zman Matan Torateinu (The Time of the Giving of Our Torah). According to tradition, we recieved the Torah for the first time on Shavuot. Why for the first time? On Shavuot, we must not only remember the giving of the Torah but receive it year after year, generation after generation.

אַ תם נִצָּבִִ֤ים הַיּוֹ ם כֻּלְּ ך ם לִפְּ נֵ֖י יְּהֹוָָּ֣ה אֱלֹ הי כֶ֑ ם רָּא שי כָ֣ם

שִבְּ טי כם זִקְּ ני ך ם וְּשָֹ֣טְּ רי ך ם כֵֹ֖ל אִִ֥יש

יִשְּרָּ אֵֽל׃ טַפְּ כָ֣ ם נְּ שי ך ם וְּ גָ֣ רְֵּ֣ךֶ֔ אֲ שֵ֖ר בְּ קָ֣ רב מַחֲ נֶ֑יך מחֹ טָ֣ב ע ציך

עֵַ֖ד שֹ אִ֥ב מי מֵֽיך׃ לְּ ׇ עבְּרְּךֶ֗ בִבְּרִִ֛ית יְּהֹוִָּ֥ה אֱלֹ הֵ֖יך וּבְּאָּלָּתֶ֑וֹ אֲ ש ר

יְּהֹוָָּ֣ה אֱלֹ היך כֹ רִ֥ת עִמְּךֵ֖ הַיֵּֽוֹם׃ לְּמַָ֣עַן הָּקִֵֽים־אֹתְּךָ֩ הַיֶּּ֨וֹם ׀ ל֜וֹ לְּעֶָּ֗ם

וְּהִ֤וּא יֵֽהְּ יה־לְּ ך לֵֽאלֹהִֶ֔י ם כַאֲ שֵ֖ ר דִ בר־לֶָּ֑ךְ וְּכַאֲ שִ֤ר נִשְּבַ ע לַאֲבֹ תיך

לְּאַבְּרָּהִָּ֥ם לְּיִצְּחֵָּ֖ק וֵּֽלְּיַעֲקֵֹֽב׃ וְּלִ֥אֹ אִתְּ כֵ֖ם לְּבַדְּ כֶ֑ם אָּנֹכִֶ֗י כֹ ר ת את ־

הַבְּרִָ֣י ת הַזֶ֔אֹ ת וְּ את־הָּאָּלֵָּ֖ה הַזֵֽאֹת׃ כִ י את־אֲ שר ישְּנ֜וֹ פה עִ מָּן וּ

עֹ מָ֣ד הַיֶּ֔וֹם לִפְּ נֵ֖י יְּהֹוָָּ֣ה אֱלֹ הֶ֑ינוּ וְּ את אֲ שִ֥ר אי נִ֛נּוּ פֵֹ֖ה עִמִָּ֥נוּ הַיֵּֽוֹם׃

"Today, you are all standing here before the Lord your God - your leaders, yoru tribes, your elders and officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, and the foreigners in your camp, from the woodcutter to the water carrier - to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, and the oath that the Lord your God is making with you today, to establish you today as His people, and that He may be your God, as He promised you and as He swore to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I am making this covenant with its oath, not only with you w ho are standing here with us today beforte the Lord our God but also with those who are not here with us today." (Deuteronomy 29:9-14)

At Mount Sinai, each one of us received the Torah. A true understanding cannot just be given but also must be received. Therefore, to appropriate and learn from the Torah, we must know it as a part of who we are. If we let the Torah be mrerely something taught to us, it would not be ours. The Torah belongs to all Jews; it was not given only to some to pass on to others. The Torah is relevant to us because it is part of our identity as a people; it belongs to both the religious and the secular, to women and men, and to the children who have just begun to study it as much as to their grandparents.

Israel served and serves as a refuge for Jews worldwide who have been persecuted throughout almost all history. We should feel blessed to have grown so much in such a short time. However, we cannot say we are perfect. We want an egalitarian, democratic, and just society that reflects our Jewish and humanistic values. We must aim for a united, peaceful, strong, and just society.

Why cite Israel so much when holding onto and committing to the Torah? Because in the history and tradition of our People, they are inseparable. There is no Torah without Israel, and there is no Israel without the Torah, and as the link between the two, sustaining and realizing the continuity of both, we are here, the People. The protagonists of this chapter in history.

We are the Jews because, knowing our people's history, we must heed its call to write the next chapter and continue its journey. We cannot allow ourselves to be the missing letter in the scroll.

The Torah is not just a book of the past. Our history, culture, religion, traditions and customs come from it. If we believe in the continuity, strengthening, and development of Judaism in our days, we cannot neglect our most basic source nor support and sustain the State of Israel, even when we disagree with political actions within it. On the contrary, we should support those with whom we agree, to achieve the Israel we can belong to proudly.

Im tirtzu, ein zo hagadah. In the words of Theodore Hertzl, always relevant: "if you will it, it will not be just a dream."

Am Israel Chai vekayam! The people of Israel LIVE and exist!

Rabbi Gustavo Geier


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