The National Post (April12, 2008) reported on the "despondency" facing the State of Israel as it gears up to celebrate 60 years of independence. I have learned long ago not to take at face value anything read in a newspaper and while the messianic utopia hoped for with the establishment of the State is as far away as ever, the accomplishments of the State of Israel and the Jewish people as a whole over the past 60 years are nothing short of miraculous.
Nonetheless, from a monetary point of view the article raised an interesting question. Should Israel be spending millions of dollars celebrating this milestone when budget cuts have been made to such crucial areas such as education, social services and defence? This is not a new question and is asked in one form or another on a daily basis by those who have the awesome responsibility of allocating public funds. While there may legitimately be different responses the most dangerous one is sheino yodeah lishol , one who does not care to ask in the first place. As the issues are extremely complex it behooves those of us who care deeply about our community to emulate the wise son who asks and continues to ask questions so that he can be properly educated on the important issues of the day.
However a general approach to spending money to celebrate important milestones can be derived from the Talmudic discussion regarding the poor and the Seder. The Mishne (Pesachim 99b), rules that all must drink no less than four cups of wine, even the poorest of the poor, who do not have enough food for two meals. This ruling is actually quite astonishing. Jewish law states that one may not spend more than 20% of one's income to perform a Biblical command. One who truly can not afford the expense is under no obligation, and in fact may be prohibited from purchasing tefillin (one can always borrow from a friend), an etrog or even matza. Surely regarding a rabbinic mitzva, such as drinking the four cups of wine, the poor should be exempt. Is it not a waste of communal funds to provide for such "frivolities" with so many greater communal needs?
Yet Jewish law made an exception in this case. Pesach celebrates the forming of the Jewish nation. While the State of Israel celebrates 60 years of independence, the Jewish people are approaching 3,400 years of glory, with our independence celebrated at the seder. While financially ensuring that all have four cups of wine may not seem to be the best use of communal funds, nation building is about a lot more than money. Our Sages declare the obligation of pirshumei nissa (publicizing the miracle) requires that one go to extraordinary measures to fulfill this rabbinic law. The miracle of Jewish survival and prosperity is dependant on ensuring that rich and poor alike are able to publicly celebrate moments of great historical importance. It is no coincidence that we begin our seder, meant to be the most elaborate meal of the year, with an invitation to the poor.
The great genius of the Jewish people is demonstrated in our ability to celebrate despite the many hardships that remain. Despite the great suffering and persecution throughout our many Diasporas, we continue to celebrate the great accomplishments of the Jewish nation. The State of Israel may have much to be concerned about, but there is much more to celebrate. The cost of such celebrations may not appear to be the best use of funds but it is an investment that should pay dividends for years to come.