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Israel's Independence Day in the Face of Adversity

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash


Israel's Independence Day in the Face of Adversity

By Harav Yehuda Amital


Adapted by Yisrael Wollman and David Greenberg

Translated by Yonah Berman





We, the Jewish People in the Land of Israel, have experienced many rough periods, and recent times certainly have been no exception. As we enter Yom Ha-atzmaut, two questions arise.


            First, has it all been worth the price we have paid? Have the challenges we continue to face and the losses that we continue to suffer been worth the gains that we have made as an independent nation in its own land?


            Second, assuming that we answer the previous question in the positive, how do we allow ourselves to celebrate when the human losses have been so great? Perhaps there is a difference between recognizing the value of our independence, and the actual celebration of it despite its great costs.


            Let us examine each of these two questions, and attempt thereby to gain a greater understanding of the celebration of Yom Ha-atzmaut.



            On the 5th of Iyyar, 5708 (May 14, 1948), there occurred a major historical shift. This change can be appreciated on three different levels, namely: the Nation of Israel, the Land of Israel and the Eternity of Israel.


            First of all, for the first time in two thousand years, a self-governing Jewish country was established in – and as – the homeland of the Jewish people. Am Yisrael, to paraphrase Israel's Declaration of Independence, "has taken up its rightful place as a sovereign entity among the nations." The fact that a Jewish regime now governs almost half of the world's Jews is a clear step towards the Redemption. That Jews can be killed in a war in which they are fighting in a Jewish army, rather than at the mercy of anti-Semitic thugs, is something worthy of recognition, as it shows our rise to the status of a sovereign people on its own land.


            On a second level, the Land of Israel is now in Jewish hands. We have not taken up statehood in Uganda or anywhere else, but rather at the site of our former temples, religious courts and of the vast majority of Biblical history. Just as importantly, this land has become the refuge and aspiration for so many Jews around the world, who recognize the value of Jewish independence in the Jewish State. We are no longer the subjects of the Turks or the British who happen to control Eretz Yisrael; we are, with God's help, the rulers of our land.


            Third, we find a change in the fate of Jews worldwide. Many people expected – if not outright wished – that the end of the Jews was near, and felt certain that the Holocaust would be one of the final nails in our national coffin. However, just the opposite occurred only three years after World War II ended, as the Jews – albeit scarred and decimated – assumed their place as an independent group on their own soil.


            The Jewish people were thus transformed from a group which was often treated worse than animals, through imprisonment, beatings and murders, into a nation that could be proud of its peoplehood, its country, and its accomplishments therein. This downtrodden people were quite similar to their ancestors who, upon leaving Egypt, were experiencing the first steps of redemption, ge'ula. 


Of course, it is important to remember that Israel's Independence Day occurs between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot. Clearly, for it to constitute a step in a process of redemption, it must also strive to lead to kabbalat ha-Torah. Yet, the reality of an incomplete redemption should act as a motivation for us to continue this process, rather than to impede our recognition of the miracles involved therein.


            These three aspects of the current redemption all indicate a clear message from God to His nation: "For the first time in two thousand years, I am giving you the ability to control your national destiny. You, the Jews, are now responsible to make decisions of national importance, with all of the ramifications that entails."


            Clearly, there are many gifts from God which call for celebration and thanks to Him.




            Our tradition frowns upon the notion of holelut, "empty" celebration. However, celebrating on Yom Ha-atzmaut is far from empty, in any sense of the word.


            Unfortunately, however, many people on both ends of the religious spectrum are unaware of the deeper values and reasons behind Yom Ha-atzmaut. Some have turned it into a celebration devoid of religious meaning, instead creating what could better be called Yom Ha-barbeque or Yom Ha-tiyul. While there is nothing wrong with hiking and other forms of recreation, this displays a lack of understanding of the depth and ramifications of Israel's independence, and of the celebration thereof. On the other extreme, many individuals refuse to acknowledge the reality of the thriving State of Israel. For them, Yom Ha-atzmaut is a regular workday at best, and an opportunity to mourn the results of Zionism at worst. The Religious Zionist community is called upon to recognize the value of this day from a religious perspective.


            Many years ago, there was an elderly European Chasid who worked in the Yeshiva. He was not raised on the values of Zionism, yet he danced with tremendous fervor on Yom Ha-atzmaut. He would say, "After what I went through in Warsaw, how could I not dance?" This idea of spontaneous and obvious celebration of the State is certainly easier for those who immigrated to Israel, or for those who have experienced the horrors that not having a Jewish State has caused over the years. However, even those who were born into a world in which the Jewish State is a reality should be able to appreciate its significance and the importance of rejoicing over its existence.


            One of the results of the destruction of European Jewry has been the loss of a culture with values and traditions. This multi-faceted society has been replaced by the more uni-dimensional world-view of "Halakha only," in which one seeks not to evaluate and understand different phenomena within the larger world, but rather to determine how things fit into the framework of the halakhic system. Although this change has allowed for a flourishing and continuation of Jewish learning despite the fragmentation following the Holocaust, it has also limited a more holistic understanding of Judaism. We examine questions solely from a halakhic perspective, largely forgetting or ignoring broader societal issues.


            The attitude to Yom Ha-atzmaut is a prime example of this phenomenon. Orthodox Jews find themselves asking if it is appropriate to make a blessing over Hallel, rather than asking, "What is the long-term religious and social significance of the return of the Jewish People to their homeland?" These are not the questions that are discussed in the Shulchan Arukh and other books of Jewish law, yet they must be examined by Jews today.


            It is not easy to espouse a doctrine of Judaism that factors in both Jewish law and Jewish thought regarding our national independence in our homeland. This requires a certain paradigm shift from two thousand years of exile, during which many of these questions were both painful and largely irrelevant. Nonetheless, we must rely on our instinct to dance when it seems obviously appropriate to do so, and to appreciate the tremendous blessings bestowed upon us by God. Let us remember Yechezkel's prophecy:


For I will take you from among the nations, and gather you out of all the countries, and will bring you into your own land,

And you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and you shall be My people, and I will be your God. (Yechezkel 36:24, 28)



[This address was originally delivered on Yom Ha-atzma'ut 5743 (1983).  The translation first appeared in Milin Havivin, vol. 1, published by YCT Rabbinical School.]