The Birth of Israel

When I think of childbirth, I usually think of the act itself. Whether it’s the video I saw in 8th grade health class, my family regaling me about the day I was born, or how popular culture portrays childbirth in movies like Knocked Up or Juno, I associate childbirth with the miraculous and excruciating task of going through labor.

Yet, unlike my health teachers or any Judd Apatow movie, the Torah focuses less on childbirth itself and more on the period of time following delivery. God instructs Moses to tell the people, “When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be ritually impure seven days, as in the days of her menstruation” (Leviticus 12:2). On the eighth day, the baby is circumcised, and then the new mother “shall remain in a state of blood purification for 33 days; she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until the days of her purification are complete” (Leviticus 12:4).

The procedure of ritual purification after childbirth suggests that we need a pause after giving birth. These instructions propose that after nine months of carrying a baby and all that entails — the sickness, body changes, pain, and fatigue — perhaps child bearers could use a month or two to recover from bringing a new life into this world before re-entering society. Today, this idea takes form as parental leave.

While humans and other mammals come to mind first when we consider birth, we see that the language around childbirth applied to nations as well. Dr. Orit Avnery from the Shalom Hartman Institute makes a strong case that Passover is the story of a people’s birth — with the moment of birth commencing when the Israelites paint their doorposts with blood, and exit their surrogate mother of Egypt through the birth canal of the Red Sea. The phrase “Birth of a Nation” has been used for at least three movie titles: a racist film in 1915 glorifying the KKK, a film reclaiming the name in 2015 about Nat Turner’s rebellion, and a 1996 History Channel documentary about the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.

We commemorated the events of that History Channel documentary this past week with the celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut — Israel’s Independence Day. On the Hebrew date of 5 Iyar in 1948, Israel declared independence as a modern nation state with the support of the United Nations Resolution 181. Like childbirth, the establishment of a sovereign Jewish nation after close to 2,000 years of diaspora was both a miraculous and difficult process. It was a miracle that the Jewish people established its own sovereign power after millennia of disenfranchisement and violence against Jews in almost every corner of the globe. And it was difficult because this sovereignty has been accompanied by conflict for much of its existence.

The Biblical framework for childbirth offers us a new way to think about how to deal with the realities of birth — the extraordinary and the painful. In the case of the nation-state, including Israel, we don’t have a precedent for taking a period of pause and reflection after what was undoubtedly an arduous process of bringing a new entity into the world. Israel does, however, already incorporate short pauses of mourning and celebration along these lines.

There is a two-minute siren that goes off in all of Israel on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day. During these two minutes, everything stops. I remember standing on a sidewalk of a busy street in Jerusalem, and once the siren sounded, every driver on the road pulled over and exited their cars to stand together in silence. Yom Hazikaron in general is a time of pause, as almost all restaurants, shops, movie theaters, bars, schools, and offices close for the day. Even regularly scheduled television and radio programs stop to honor those who have died defending Israel.

As soon as Yom Hazikaron ends, we transition to Yom Ha’atzmaut, a different kind of pause. We pause on Yom Ha’atzmaut to celebrate Israel — its people, culture, accomplishments, and status in the world. In the broad view of Jewish history, Jews hadn’t had a sovereign nation in more than 2,500 years when Israel was founded. The 24 hours of Yom Ha’atzmaut might not be enough to consider what this really means to each of us and to the Jewish people as a whole. After generations of Jewish history without political power, the last 73 years have been condensed with the triumphs and challenges of state sovereignty.

As the Biblical recovery period after childbirth suggests, what if we had a full month to reflect on what the state of Israel means to the Jewish people? A full month to appreciate Jewish sovereignty in the world; to consider the responsibility that comes with state power; to celebrate Israel’s contributions to the world; to explore the Jewish religious and cultural innovations that come from a Jewish state; and more. The time and space to reflect on these ideas could help each of us clarify Israel’s meaning to the Jewish people and to the world.

Childbirth is a profound human experience, one that brought each of us into this world. The Torah did its best to legislate childbirth as it saw fit, and in the process offered the framework of pause and recovery after going through such an intense period of creation. This framework can inform how we navigate a national birth, such as Israel’s, and give us time to fully appreciate and reflect on all that Jewish sovereignty has represented over these past 73 years. It has been great to acknowledge and celebrate Israel this week, and I hope the Biblical framework of extended reflection around childbirth encourages us to keep Israel on our radars for longer than just its appointed holidays. Chag Ha’atzmaut Sameach!