Throughout history, around the world, national epics are pretty much the same. Some action-figure-type hero—your Odysseus, your Gilgamesh or Green Knight—fights bad guys, gets the girl, and triumphs. Except for one national epic. Ours.
True, in our national epic, we escape slavery, receive the law, and inherit the Land—we accept responsibility for ourselves. But then much of the rest of our epic is devoted to showing how we failed to live up to that responsibility. Many of our leaders fall short of Jewish expectations. Our prophets bemoan our people’s moral shortcomings. We build a Temple and lose a Temple; build another and lose that one, too. And our foundational story doesn’t end with triumph, but with destruction and exile.
Similarly, New Years is celebrated by nations throughout the world with fireworks, parades, and champagne. But we, the Jews, don’t so much celebrate our New Years as commemorate it and we mark it with breast-beating, soul-searching, and begging for forgiveness. We spend long hours listing our most egregious crimes: We have sinned, we have lied, we have been led astray and we’ve led others astray.
We can try playing the blame game on Rosh Hashanah, but, in the end, the game is invariably Solitaire.
No, the theme of our New Year is the same as the theme of our national epic, the Bible. The theme is responsibility. On our High Holidays, we must reflect on our actions, we must stand before the judgment of God but, firstly, most agonizingly, we must pass judgment on ourselves. We must take responsibility for our actions as individuals but also collectively, as a people. "Ashamnu, chatanu," we chant. "We have sinned. We have transgressed."
Taking responsibility for our actions is what we, as a people, are about. That is why we determined to end our exile after two thousand years and create the State of Israel.
That’s what Israel is about—Jewish responsibility. In Israel, we take responsibility for ourselves as Jews. We take responsibility for our streetlamps, for our sewer system, and for our security.
That responsibility is profound, and it is personal.
Just how personal I learned when I first moved to Israel more than three decades ago and joined its Defense Forces. I served in severalwars, but most traumatically, I served in the 2005 Disengagement after the Israeli government voted to evacuate 9,000 Israelis from their homes in Gaza. Our children serve as well. Our eldest son was wounded in action—he’s fine now, thank God, and just got married—but responsibility doesn’t get more personal than that.
Yet responsibility in Israel is not merely personal, it’s also national. We’ve taken on responsibilities rarely assumed by another society.
We’ve welcomed millions of refugees to our state. Since 1948, our population has blossomed twelve-fold, from a mere 700,000 to nearly 8 million today.
We took responsibility for reviving our national Hebrew language and transformed into adynamo of commerce, scholarship, and culture. In four of the last five years, Israeli movies were Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film, and the language was Hebrew. The American TV hits “In Treatment” and “Homeland” are based on Hebrew originals. Works of Hebrew literature have won most major prizes, including the Nobel Prize, and Israel’s Hebrew publishers produce more books per capita than any other country. Incredibly, more people speak Hebrew today than speak Danish, Finnish, or Norwegian. And when you take a Teva pill or shop for fine soaps at Sabon in New York, you, too, are speaking Hebrew. Teva in Hebrew means ‘nature.’ Sabon is Hebrew for, well, ‘soap.’
We took responsibility for our land. It was the Promised Land, sure, but resource-wise itpromised nothing. Sixty-two per cent of the country is desert. As President Shimon Peres has said, “We have two lakes, one is dead and the other’s dying.” We changed that with drip irrigation that today yields as much thirty times more crops per acre than in other agricultural countries. We didn’t have much water so we reclaimed 83 per cent of it, making us the world’s leader in water conservation. We designated 300 national parks and nature reserves, accounting for nearly 20% of our land, and we protect 3,000 species of wildlife and plants.
We took responsibility for harnessing the one resource we had in abundance, our minds. After Canada, Israelis are on average the world’s most educated people. We’re a high-tech giant that pioneers pill-size cameras, solar-powered cities, USB flash drives, and the Intel chip. And, yes, we invented the tomaccio cherry tomato.
We took responsibility for our society. We provide universal and affordable health care. Israel was just now rated one of the healthiest societies in the world. We provide free education beginning at age three. Half of our universities are listed in the world’s top 100, and the total cost of a BA is—brace yourselves—less than $10,000.
We made a resilient democracy. Indeed, we’re one of the few democracies in the world never to have known non-democratic rule, in spite of the pressures that have crushed many democracies.According to Freedom House, Israel is one of the freest countries in the world, with one of thefreest presses. Women have served as our prime minister, foreign minister, and chief justice. We have Arabs in our Knesset, on our Supreme Court, and in our armed forces.
Hanging in my office is a photograph of my Israel. It shows an elite Israeli army unit—men, women, white, black, Jews, Druze, Bedouin, Russians, Americans, together training hard to defend their country. One of those soldiers is our youngest son, an officer in that unit.
We have assumed many responsibilities, but Rosh Hashanah is not about what we have done but about what we still need to do. In Israel, we have a responsibility to uphold the rights of women and safeguard those of minorities.
This year, Israel was the featured nation at the Global Equality Forum, the annual summit on LGBT rights. I spoke there about Israel’s commitment to gay rights, about our policies which are liberal not only by Middle Eastern but by most global standards. But I also pointed out where our own standards need to improve.
We must have zero tolerance for any acts of intolerance.
We have to do more to promote Jewish pluralism in Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu has been personally involved in ensuring that the conversion issue does not become a divisive factor in Israel’s relations with Conservative and Reform Jews. The Prime Minister’s Office is also undertaking undertaking a major renovation of the Kotel area reserved for egalitarian minyans.There will be space for 800 worshipers, with nighttime lighting and full access for the disabled. Still, more can be done.
As elsewhere in the world, young people in Israel and middle class families can have a hard time scraping by. Israel has a responsibility to them as well. On my last visit to Israel, I joined our daughter, a student teacher, trying find affordable housing in Jerusalem. We didn’t succeed.
We have the responsibility to ensure that Israel is the nation state of all the Jewish people, religious and secular, black and white, the well-off and the less so.
As Jewish state we have a responsibility not only to ourselves but to the betterment of the world. And we fulfill that responsibility with organizations such as Save a Child's Heart, an entirely volunteer Israeli initiative to bring young heart disease patients from around the world—including the Arab world—to Israel for expert surgery and continuing care. To date, 3,000 children have been treated. Or IsraAid, which brings disaster relief and post traumatic stress treatment to needy communities in Haiti, Kenya, and Southern Sudan. My wife, Sally, recently participated in IsraAid trauma therapy programs with Japanese children in the areas devastated by the tsunami.
We have the weightiest responsibility of all, the responsibility to defend ourselves. As the Middle East continues to roil around us, we must be ready to defend ourselves against tens ofthousands of terrorist rockets aimed at our homes. We must defend ourselves against the unconventional weapons—those that exist and those being developed—with which our enemies pledge to wipe us off the map. We must defend ourselves against those who would deny us the right to defend ourselves, even our right to exist as the Jewish state. That is a responsibility which we, as the sovereign Jewish state, can’t outsource to any other country.
No less crucially, we have the responsibility to seek peace. We are ready to make the agonizing sacrifices to achieve peace, and to take the risks. We hope that our Palestinian neighbors will accept their responsibility and rejoin us at the negotiating table.
Israel means Jewish responsibility, but Israelis do not bear that responsibility alone. The American Jewish community has always stood with us, sharing in our accomplishments, assisting us in overcoming challenges, and enriching us with its diversity. American Jews are integral to the historic alliance between the United States and Israel which is one of the world’s most multi-faceted, dynamic, and durable friendships.
No, we don’t watch fireworks on our New Years, and we don’t sip champagne. Yes, we search our souls and request forgiveness. We look back at what we’ve done and have not done enough. But, above all, we accept our responsibility both as individuals and as a people. This, perhaps, is a source of our success—our determination to scrutinize ourselves, however painful, and our commitment to improve. And just as we are thankful for our success, so, too, must wecherish our responsibility. We must cherish the miraculous fact that we live in an age in which Jews can take responsibility for themselves—an age in which Jews throughout the world are for the first time in millennia free to be responsible. We live in an age in which taking responsibility for ourselves is no onus. It is, on the contrary, the highest and sweetest privilege.