"Al Kol Eleh" - "For all these things": Thoughts on Israel's 70th birthday
In honor of Israel's 70th Yom Ha-Atzma'ut this week, the organization Koolulam released this video of 12,000 Israelis singing together. In a stadium in Tel Aviv, they learned and performed the vocal parts for the classic song "Al Kol Eleh," "For all these things."
If you haven't seen the video yet, you might want to pause to do so before reading the rest of what I have written about it.
In 1980, to comfort her sister Ruth on the loss of her husband, the Israeli songwriter Naomi Shemer dedicated a song to her sister called “Al Kol Eleh” - “For all these things.” It has become one of the most popular songs of contemporary Israel.
Like many iconic songs, many regard it as hackneyed and cliched. But there’s a reason why it became such a popular song. It reflects powerfully deep wisdom.
The opening words of this song, ‘Al hadvash ve-al ha-oketz, al ha-mar ve-hamatok,’ ‘For the honey and the sting, for the bitter and the sweet,’ have their roots in a midrashic comment on the Book of Numbers (Tanhuma Balak 6).
The midrash pictures a person who sees a bee, and says, ‘Bee, get away from me! I have no use for you. Lo mi-duvshakh, ve-lo me-uktzakh. I don't want your honey, and I don't want your sting."
In its context in the midrash, this phrase cautions against things that look attractive but are actually bundled together with strong negatives, such that the bad far outweighs the good. The prudent course implied by the midrash is to avoid the bee’s honey, because it is accompanied by the bee’s sting.
But Naomi Shemer’s song turns this midrashic phrase on its head. Naomi Shemer realized that as a life strategy, “I don’t want your honey, and I don’t want your sting” is deeply flawed. Such a strategy can lead someone to avoid any endeavor that includes the possibility of pain or failure.
Which is why in her famous song, Naomi Shemer thanks God al kol eleh - ‘for all these things,’ al hadvash ve-al ha-oketz, ‘for the honey and for the sting.’ Shemer says: don’t avoid the honey because of the sting. Rather, appreciate the honey despite the sting.
Today’s 70th anniversary of Israeli independence is an opportunity to take stock of the entirety of the experience of Israel, the honey and the sting, the bitter and the sweet.
It is breathtaking to behold how much Israel has accomplished in its few short decades: reconstituting a Jewish national community; becoming a place where Israeli culture is normative, where Jews and Judaism are at home. Being a place of refuge for Jews experiencing persecution around the world, who otherwise would have nowhere to go. Building a society that is animated by Jewish values, as well as by the values of the democracies that have been the places where Jews have been most likely to to thrive in freedom. Becoming a center for the world-wide Jewish community, and the home to the largest Jewish community in the world. Reestablishing a deep Jewish connection to the land of the Bible, where so much of Jewish history took place. Becoming a leader in worldwide technology and innovation. Granting freedoms to its citizens, of all religions, that are so far beyond the freedoms that they could experience anywhere else in the entire region. Expressing deeply held humanitarian impulses as it responds to crises around the world and endeavors to play its part in making the world better. The list of everything sweet about Israel goes on and on.
But the honey is accompanied by the sting, the bitterness that is often overwhelming. The dream of return to the land of our ancestors has been realized - but the dream of being accepted in the Middle East has not been realized. Every Israeli family and community has experienced the sting of the violent deaths of loved ones, often in the prime of life, in the struggle for the legitimacy of an official Jewish presence in its historic homeland. Enough of Israel’s neighbors have not yet accepted its presence that the spectre of an attack upon Israel - even an attack with nuclear weapons - must be seriously considered and prepared for. Whereas criticism of Israel is not always the same thing as antisemitism, much of the criticism of Israel in our world is thoroughly intertwined with antisemitism.
And the thus-far intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians stings so deeply: terrible losses on both sides, and the corrosive effects on both sides of long-term war and the long-term subjection of a civilian population to military control. Israel is not totally responsible for this predicament, but it shares in both the responsibility and the consequences. Implications of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict also cast thorny questions on the character of Israel’s future: will it be a Jewish and democratic state as it strives to be, as per the vision of its founders? Or will it compromise its democratic character in order to remain Jewish, or compromise its Jewish character in order to remain democratic? If Israel pursues either of these paths, what will be its future and what will be its risks? As I see the children of my Israeli friends reaching military age, and as I see the Israeli friends of my children reaching military age, all these questions are not at all theoretical; they burn with an intensity that nearly matches the sweetness of all of Israel’s achievements.
Some respond: lo mi-duvshakh ve-lo me-uktzakh. Israel, I don’t want your honey, no matter how sweet, because I don’t want your sting.
But I sing along with Naomi Shemer: Al hadvash ve-al ha-oketz. I take the honey despite the sting, even as I do what I can to minimize the sting.
Israel is the most significant Jewish project of the current era. As the Israeli writer Amos Oz likes to say, Israel is a dream come true, which is why it is flawed. Dreams come true are always flawed, and the only way to keep a dream in its pristine condition is to never attempt to bring it into reality. A dream come true, like a milestone birthday, should prompt both celebration and introspection -- both prayers of gratitude and prayers for guidance to chart a wise future. On this 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence, my gratitude overflows - as do my prayers for guidance.
In the words of the Prayer for Israel in Siddur Lev Shalem:
“We pray for God’s blessing upon the State of Israel, her government, and all who dwell within her boundaries and under her authority.
Grant her leaders the fortitude to keep ever before us those ideals upon which the State of Israel was founded. Grant courage, wisdom, and strength to those entrusted with guiding Israel’s destiny to do Your will.
Be with those on whose shoulders Israel’s safety depends and defend them from all harm.
Spread over Israel and all the world Your shelter of peace, and may the vision of Your prophet soon be fulfilled: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)