Day Nine: 25 Tammuz
Never Abandon Zion
Each day in our prayers, we ask that our eyes should return to Zion, “Veteĥezena einenu beshuvekha leTziyon.” It is not only about being in Israel in body – it is also about a focus towards Israel, an enduring, directed vision. No matter what our eyes look at, they should return their gaze to Zion. When we contemporize these ancient sentiments, we think about what it means for us to direct our hearts and souls to Zion at a time of rampant, global delegitimization of the State of Israel.
In the words of Gil Troy in his book, Why I Am a Zionist:
I am a Zionist because I am an idealist, and just a century ago, the notion of a strong, independent, viable, sovereign Jewish state was an impossible dream – yet absolutely worth fighting for – so, too, today, the notion of a strong, independent, viable, sovereign state living in true peace and harmony with its neighbors appears to be an impossible dream – yet absolutely worth striving for.27Gil Troy, Why I am a Zionist (Montreal: Bronfman Jewish Education Centre, 2006), p. 3.
The Three Weeks is a good time for each of us to consider the relationship we have with Israel, not as a political entity or a tourist site, but as Zion, the biblical name that signifies the unique spiritual homeland. Many of the travails bemoaned by the prophets that are read in the Three Weeks point to the growing abyss between the dream of Zion and the dystopia that has evolved because those living in Zion have lost their moral compass.
Open to virtually any page of Eikha and you will encounter the image of a beautiful Zion laid bare. “How has the Lord covered the daughter of Zion with a cloud in His anger, and cast down from heaven to earth the beauty of Israel” (Lam. 2:1). Zion is compared to a mother bereft of children, a maid walking aimlessly in the streets, a woman vulnerable to hostilities. Imagining Zion as a woman is a way to trigger compassion. “How does the city sit solitary, that was full of people! How is she become like a widow, she that was great among the nations” (ibid. 1:1).
One particularly painful image is that of the lonely and isolated Zion described in the first chapter of Isaiah – which is one of the haftarot read during these weeks:
And the daughter of Zion is left like a shelter in a vineyard, like a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, like a besieged city. If the Lord of hosts had not left us a very small remnant, we should have been like Sodom, and we should have been like Gomorrah. (Isaiah 1:8–9)
That Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned here as examples of places that have lost their way is not surprising. The story of these immoral cities is told in Genesis 19 as a cautionary tale of what happens to an area steeped in illicit behavior. Throughout the Bible, these cities are held up as paradigms of poor real estate choices. Wicked neighbors have influence. To illustrate, in Deuteronomy 29:22, we read: “The whole land is brimstone, and salt, and burning, that it is not sown, nor bears, nor does any grass grow on it, like the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah.” Cities that are barren of those of good deeds are locations to avoid. Isaiah states that Zion has not yet reached that point but is on its way. There are still some surviving people of integrity, but Zion is becoming like these places of ill-repute.
Then the prophet uses a confusing image: Zion is a booth in both a vineyard and a cucumber patch. Not being farmers, most modern readers will be perplexed by this comparison. Sodom and Gomorrah is understandable; a cucumber garden seems a little too tame for what the prophet is trying to achieve with his language.
If we were readers from the past living in an agrarian society, the image would be immediately meaningful. Booths were placed in vineyards and fields that were usually far away from the owner’s home. At the time of harvest, predators and thieves would often steal crops. Booths were places where farm hands and workers could seek refuge from the hot Middle Eastern sun and were a base for guards posted to scare away animals or potential thieves.
A booth standing empty in an uncultivated field is a sign of loss and alienation. It means that there is no one to protect the field or vineyard. It means that a place of growth and productivity is lying in waste and desolation. This meaning is backed up by the reference to Sodom and Gomorrah. These cities are not mentioned because of what happened in them; they are mentioned because after they burned down, their remains laid empty and desolate with no signs of renewal. These cities became places with no human habitation or protection.
When we think of Zion, we think of a place flourishing with an ideology, its inhabitants driven by a mission. That homeland, the prophet says, should never be abandoned and desolate. It is our job to protect it. This ancient message for the farmer is just as relevant for us today. We cannot abandon Zion at this time. It cannot stand alone in the world of nations but must be protected, embraced and supported in every way. Martin Buber once wrote powerfully of the ancient vision of our prophets:
The renewal of the world and the renewal of Zion are one and the same thing, for Zion is the heart of the renewed world…The people of Israel is called upon to be the herald and pioneer of the redeemed world, the land of Israel to be its center and the throne of its King.”28Martin Buber, On Zion (New York: Schocken Books, 1973), p. 35.
Kavana for the Day
There are so many ways to connect to Israel. We can eat Israeli food, call a friend or relative who lives there, buy Israeli music or read a novel in translation. These small bridges mean a lot when we think of them within the larger framework of not “abandoning Zion.”
When is the last time you did something to support Israel? It may be an action that ranges from visiting Israel when tourism is down, to supporting an Israeli charity, or writing a letter to someone in Congress when Israel is isolated in the world or to a newspaper when it is getting bad press. The delegitimization of Israel is one of the great challenges of our age and this is an important season to ask ourselves if we are truly well-informed advocates for the Jewish state. We are blessed to have autonomy and independence, a place of pride and refuge for Jews the world over, for the first time in two thousand years. What are you doing to celebrate Israel?