Yom Hazikaron, Yom Haatzmaut: Who Are We?

The question – and its answer – must be weighed against the awesome backdrop of our history.

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran

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Rabbi Safran new
צילום: INN:RS

As Jews, history is our everyday companion.  The past is not just prelude.  It is present.  It is today.  It is now.  To forget our history is to… it is a thought that is anathema to an engaged and aware Jew seeking to live a meaningful and spiritual Jewish life. 

To be such a Jew is to ask, Who am I? and to know that the question – and its answer – must be weighed against the awesome backdrop of our history.

I feel the power of this burden and gift – both temporal and spiritual – when I daven in Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue on the Yomim Noraim and Sukkot.  There, the tefilot, led by world renowned Chazan Chaim Adler and accompanied by the incomparable choir and maestro, Eli Jaffe lifts my spirit to soaring heights.  Is there any other time in one’s life when one can feel that he is any closer to God’s heavenly chorus?  There are those who compare the experience to what it must have been like to hear the Levi’im in the Bait HaMikdash.  The aura, the dignity, the ruach of Chazan Adler and Jaffe’s musical genius cannot help but to lift one heavenward. 

There are, of course, other magnificent synagogues.  Los Angeles.  Vienna.  Budapest.  Rome.  New York City.  These and other cities around the globe boast wonderful houses of worship, filled too with the voices of angels.  But this Great Synagogue is in Jerusalem.  How can it help but fill one with inspiration?  When Chazan Adler chants the Ribono shel Olam before the open Ark on the Yomim Noraim, I can feel the personal conversation he is having with God.  “Fulfill my requests for good, grant my request, be mindful of us for deliverance and compassion... remember us for a good, long life … give us bread to eat, clothes to wear...”

Every human need is articulated in this bakasha. 

Such powerful prayer.  But so too are the prayers affirming the miracle that saw the rebirth of Israel in 1948, as well as the prayers affirming the ultimate sacrifice borne by those who gave their lives so we can have a rebuilt Eretz Yisrael.   “…shield it under the wings of Your loving kindness and spread over it the Tabernacle of peace…Strengthen the hands of the defenders of our Holy Land… crown them with the crown of victory…” 

How can one not be moved to tears as he reflects on the miracle of every stone and each blade of grass in this blessed land that God has ordained to return to His children after so many centuries of galut? 

I was born just weeks after the State’s own miraculous birth, as the War of Independence raged.  My parents arrived in Palestine on the very last boat to sail from Romania.  They were broken and degraded but they were determined to find renewal in the holy land.  For my family, Galut and Geula are not chapters in a history book.  They are real life experiences. 

How could I not then, stand in the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, and shed tears, tears of joy and tears of pain, tears that bear witness to the wholeness of our history, our suffering and our deliverance?  Yet, even as I cry; even as I listen to the sacred words of thanksgiving, joy, hope, and trepidation I cannot help but think to Brooklyn – where hardly a synagogue even contemplates reciting these sacred words.

How, given the reality of our history, can such a thing be?

For me and my family, Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut have never been mere dates on the calendar but rather days filled with heart-piercing memories that demanded for reflection, remembrance, and, ultimately, by the grace of God, celebration.  So it was for all other Jews I grew up with. 

We came together. 

We gave voice to the belief that We are One.  One people in covenant with One God.  Ultimately, that is the promise of our history.  That is the power of our destiny.  We may disagree – passionately – but when push has come to shove, we have stood as one community, united before God and our forebears.   We are all interconnected with yesteryears, bound and committed to Mesoras Yisrael.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks teaches that, “… despite Judaism’s emphasis on the individual, it has a distinctive sense of what an individual is.  We are not alone.  There is no sense in Judaism of the atomic individual – the self in and for itself.  …Instead, our identity is bound up horizontally with other individuals: our parents, spouse, children, neighbors, members of the community, fellow citizens, fellow Jews… To be a Jew is to be a link in the chain of the generations, a character in the drama that began long before we were born and will continue long after our death.”

It is imperative that we know our history. Otherwise, our lives lose their meaning.  Knowing our history means our lives are not part of a long span of meaningless, ticking seconds.  We are part of time filled with events and meaning, eras, and epochs.  There was the Avos, Galus Mitzrayim, Geula, Midbar, conquest of Eretz Yisrael, Shoftim, Melachim – discreet eras.  Connected, yes, but unique and different. 

Not long before leaving this world, Moshe (Moses) said, “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you.”

Moshe Rabeinu demanded that we know our history.  How does one fulfill the obligation of Pesach – “In every generation, every person should see himself as if he personally came out of Egypt” – if one does not know his history?  Once I was a slave.  Now I am free.

And yet, we live at a time when whole Jewish communities turn their backs to our history!  During the last seventy years – seventy years, not ancient history – we Jews have experienced two monumental historical events, events unprecedented in our history.   Without wrestling with these two events, it is impossible to live as an enlightened Jew; it is impossible to live in the penumbra of God’s miracle.

The Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel are seminal events.  In Rabbi Berel Wein’s words, “…these two cataclysmic events changed the present Jewish society radically if not even permanently.” 

Yet, for a large segment of the Orthodox community these events are not in any way recognized, commemorated or acknowledged. 

A cynic was asked why Jewish history is not studied in yeshivas and hareidi circles. He shrugged and answered, “that way they can write their own.”  But fabricating one’s own version of history does not change the reality.  The Haggadah clearly delineates the bitter exile, galus, we endured, but then demands that we sing the Hallel, recognizing that we were rescued from that galus and crossed the Yam Suf.  Galus ended. Geula, redemption, arrived.

In our own time, when the gates of Auschwitz were closed, the gates of Haifa opened!

Denying the knowledge of these two major events of our collective Jewish history  because they don’t fit into some historical lexicon or theological dictionary is simply absurd.  The God of Galus is the same God of Geula.   It cannot be otherwise.

Denying God’s gift to us, challenging it because many of the State’s founders were  secular or non- religious, characterizing the State of Israel with ugly obscenities, does not diminish its ultimate value and certainly does not excuse not praying for its well-being every minute of every day of our lives. Not recognizing that there is no Jew in the world whose lot in life has radically changed because there is an independent state of Israel – is senseless. 

Those being brought up with a nastiness and antipathy to this our greatest treasures are the poorer for it. 

Worse, this profound ignorance transforms different groups into political enemies when they should not be.  While some still ask, “How could God have established such a ‘secular,’ impure country”? the question and debate should not exist in a vacuum.  The debate must factor in the reality that Israel has the greatest concentration of Jews in the world, the greatest numbers of Torah talmidim in the world, the greatest and largest yeshivas, hassidic communities reborn, the most prolific Torah works, and research in every facet of Torah scholarship.

The State of Israel represents the rebirth and rejuvenation of every facet of Jewish life and lore that Nazis sought to destroy in their crematoriums. Rav Avraham Pam z’l,  renowned and beloved Rosh Yeshiva of Torah V’Daath posited a cardinal rule in Jewish history: following every period of suffering and tragedy, God embraces His children with comfort and goodness, just like a father who hugs and consoles his son following a tragedy. God never allows His children to teeter in pain and agony.  

Rav Pam highlights four such historic periods. The fourth one, he notes, was the period following the worst tragedy ever to befall the Jewish people -the holocaust. Soon after, God hugged and embraced us with “hokomas Medinas Yisroel,” the establishment of the State of Israel.

Perhaps the sorriest result of this willful ignorance is a refusal to see how important the Jewish state is to every Jew everywhere in the world and to see how each and every Jew must be ready to stand up to defend her.

As we prepare to celebrate Yom Ha’Atzmaut 5774, there is a black cloud above us.  These past months have seen ugly arguments and accusations that threaten the always fragile relationship between hareidim and the general Israeli public.  The question of the draft and yeshiva students has roiled Israeli politics like no other issue. 

The hareidim accuse the government of being evil, of being a modern day Amalek!  The accusations are baseless, of course.  But the ugliness underlying the accusations is real.  I understand that, after sixty-five years of exemptions change is wrenching, but were the exemptions ever justified? 

The general Israeli public could not understand why “they” had to defend and secure the land, sacrificing all, without everyone sharing the burden of sacrifice.  The hareidim  talk of the “sanctity of Torah study.” Certainly, Israel is not a nation without Torah! We know that.  

Today’s Torah world is nourished from its source in Jerusalem. And so it will continue forever. For God has given us two gifts, Torah and Eretz Yisrael.  Unlike previous generations who beseeched God daily to return to Jerusalem, we are the privileged ones.  We have returned. 

Yet, the hareidim deride those who seek to defend our great state, the Medina.  And yet, it is nearly impossible to find a precedent in all of Tanach or Talmud where Jews did not defend their country together.  Impossible to find an exemption for a Jew to not fight alongside his brethren because he is learning Torah. 

Joshua, Moshe’s successor and talmid par excellence, the spiritual leader and commander of the first Jewish army in the land of Israel was commanded by God that the “…Torah shall not depart from your mouth day and night…” and then for the remainder of the Book of Joshua, this great leader goes out to battle together with all of his people.  How ironic that those early pesukim in the first chapter of Joshua are primary text sources for the mitzvah to learn Torah! 

And what of David, King of Israel, Melech Yisroel?  The Psalmist himself?  He went out to battle throughout so much of his tormented life with a Torah scroll at his side.  He personally and consistently led his men in battle.  The Maccabees were kohanim in the Beit Hamikdash, Matityahu was the Kohen Gadol and his son Judah was a Kohen as well.  Yet before they could serve their role in the Temple, both of them led the military revolt against the Greek onslaught in the days of Hanukkah.  And who was a greater sage than Rabbi Akiva?  Didn’t he lead his students – yes, his students – to war under the leadership of Bar Kohba against the Roman occupation of Israel?

Never in Jewish history have religious Jews remained in the study hall,Bais Midrash, evading defending Jewish lives on our own land.  Tell me, are we any less threatened today than we were during Bar Kohba’s times? Is there any less to defend today in Israel, where the greatest Jewish population lives and thrives, than in the days of the Maccabees?

History teaches us, no! Indeed, our modern experience teaches us, no!  Just a few weeks ago an elite group of Nachal Charedi went on a most dangerous mission to eliminate a terrorist cell group ready to wreak havoc on Jewish lives.  Yes, this Nachal Charedi group demonstrated as many others have over the years that Torah and Eretz Yisrael not only can, but must simultaneously be preserved, protected and consecrated. 

Would that all the hareidi-religious take note – whether they live in Jerusalem, Brooklyn, Monroe, Monsey or Lakewood!  God did not gift his people with the “holy land of” Brooklyn.  He gave us the Land of Israel and it is there He expects us to find the means to live peacefully and respectfully together.

History demands that we do at least that much.  For our God is a God of history.  Knowledge of history is essential, as is a knowledge of Torah and prayer. 

How do we know we are one?  Because we know what we share.  Even with the divergence of our practices, we share a history.  The modern thinker, George Santayana, said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  We Jews, for whom history is present and future, should heed his words.

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author and lecturer. He can be reached at e1948s@aol.com

(The Rabbi notes: The views expressed are mine, not necessarily of any organization with which I am affiliated)