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Thoughts on Yom HaAtzmaut – Israel’s Independence Day


 

Earlier this week, on Tuesday, we observed Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.  As always, it was preceded, on Monday, with Israel’s Memorial Day, Yom HaZikaron, a solemn observance, recalling all those from the beginning of the struggles to establish the State to the present, who have died on behalf of Israel.  We recall not only fallen soldiers, but also civilian victims of terror who have been killed through the years.  The number exceeds some 25,000 individuals.  This year the transition from the national day of mourning to the celebration of independence was particularly difficult from all accounts. Not only were there so many more names to be added to the long list of the fallen, but the pain and loss is still so fresh.  Young men and women who have been called up to serve in the Israel Defense Forces have also given up their lives on behalf of their beloved homeland during this ongoing war.  So many thousands  have been forced from their homes and many have no home to which they can return.  We all live with the anguish and uncertainty regarding those taken hostage on October 7th whose fate is still unknown and for whom we continue to pray that they may return to their loved ones very soon.

 

As the war continues in Gaza, Independence Day observances were necessarily muted this year as Israel reached its 76th birthday.  How can one celebrate at a time like this?  As on the earlier spring holidays of Purim and Pesach, people are conflicted over the proper way to mark past days of joy and redemption in the midst of ongoing sorrow,, anxiety, and uncertainty today. How can one say “Chag Sameach!” “Happy Holiday” at such a time?  The fact that earlier generations managed somehow to celebrate in the midst of terrible persecution and suffering, does not make it any easier for people today to do the same. Yet for others, the celebration of holidays in the midst of warfare and uncertainty, while the nation is under attack, is considered an act of defiance, a way of reaffirming Jewish resilience and faith in the continuity of Jewish life in spite of every attempt to crush us.

 

Last Shabbat, I shared with our congregation a story from a recent sermon by my colleague in Toronto, Rabbi Phil Scheim.  He told of an artifact from the Shoah that is on display at the Holocaust museum in Lochamei HaGetaot, the Ghetto Fighters kibbutz in Israel. It is a hand-written siddur, produced by a Jew named Moshe Borochowitz while hiding alone in a bunker. Moshe’s family were among the millions murdered and he feared he could be the last Jew left alive. His most precious possession was his worn out Siddur, his prayerbook, and he imagined that the world could be left without such a work that was so important to him.  So, painstakingly, in a ledger book, he copied the prayerbook with the materials at hand interspersing the names of his family members who had been murdered among the prayers.  Moshe himself did not survive, but his siddur is still on display in the Ghetto Fighters’ museum as a memorial to his family and to the undying spirit of the Jewish people.

 

Moshe did not live to see, just a few year later, the rise of the State of Israel and the beautiful green fields surrounding the building in which his Siddur is displayed.  Thankfully, his siddur was not the last volume on earth, He could not know that in Israel there would be more Hebrew publishing houses producing prayerbooks than in all of Jewish history until now. At that moment of despair, he could not have imagined one would follow.

 

Three years after this prayerbook was copied, a kibbutz was established directly on Israel’s border with Gaza, Kibbutz Be’eri.  As a major source of revenue, back in 1946, the founders of the kibbutz chose to open a print shop which eventually became one of Israel’s most significant printing houses, where all of Israel’s currency, credit cards, drivers licenses, and countless other official documents would be produced.

 

On October 7th that all came to crashing halt when Hamas’s brutal assault occurred.  Kibbutz Be’eri, on Gaza’s border, sustained devastating losses, more than 100 kibbutzniks were horrifically murdered, thirty were kidnapped, others terrorized, and much of the kibbutz was destroyed.  Rabbi Scheim spoke of his visit with a delegation to the area since that brutal attack.  I need not review once more all of the horrible events that took place.  As Rabbi Scheim wrote, “We yearn for the day, hopefully very soon, when normalcy, peace, and tranquility will have been restored.”

 

But why mention Moshe Borochowicz and his hand-written siddur? As part of the unimaginable losses that Kibbutz Be’eri suffered at the hands of the Hamas terrorists, their thriving publishing house came to a halt.  Yet, just ten days after October 7th , on October 17th, D’fus Be’eri – Be’eri Printing reopened and was back in business, attesting to the resilience of Israel in the face of extreme challenges. This year, the Be’eri Press published Haggadot for Pesach in multiple languages, including many post-October 7th readings, among them a fifth question at the seder, posed by Rachel Goldberg-Polin, a hostage mother: “Why are our loved ones not sitting at the Seder table with us?”

 

Recognizing the resilience of Israeli society, the refusal to be crushed by such horrible circumstances, every year of Israel’s independence is a time to celebrate the survival and flourishing of Jewish life not only in Israel, but throughout the world. We are grateful for the continuing gift of the modern state.  It is a time to say “Shehecheyanu” praising God for bringing us to this season once more.

 

Our sages prescribed a blessing to be recited on viewing a large assembly of Jews.  We are to praise God who is Chacham HaRazim, who knows all secrets.  The commentators explain that among all those people there is an endless diversity of opinions and only God knows them all.  Nowhere does one experience that phenomenon so thoroughly than in Israel. In our country we are used to there being two political parties and we get concerned when a third-party candidate pops up. In Israel, in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, a couple of dozen parties are represented and those are only a partial list, since not all parties gain sufficient support to meet the threshold for Knesset membership. Thus it is not surprising when we hear various individuals in Israel and among Jewish people around the world voicing diverse views on the government coalition, the strategy of the ongoing war, the future of the Palestinian people, and every other topic under the sun.  However, we have witnessed once again that when Israel is under attack, the arguments are temporarily set aside, a unifying force brings our people together.  There is time afterwards to critique the failures of the government and the army and military intelligence.  There is time to argue and debate, to investigate and to judge.  However, on Yom HaAtzmaut, we all come together to celebrate the ongoing and flourishing State of Israel.  We give thanks for reaching this day and pray that the day of peace and tranquility for Israel and its neighbors, and for all the world may not be distant.

 

 

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