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Yom Haatzmaut 5766

By: Rav David Milston

As we approach Yom Haatzmaut this year, I find myself in a predicament that in all honesty I never imagined I would be in. I am old enough to know that nothing in this world is for sure, and that outlooks and ideologies can certainly change, given developing events and stages in ones life, but nonetheless I find myself grappling with issues that I have never really had to grapple with before, assessing realities that I never believed would develop; so I would like to take this opportunity to share my inner most thoughts with you; questions, dilemmas, and conclusions.
Since I was a youngster, I have lived and dreamt the idea not only of Eretz Yisrael, but also of Medinat Yisrael. Anyone who has read my articles or heard me speak, knows only too well that I see Israel as a central, essential, irreplaceable part of who I am.
>From my early teens, I knew that there was only one place for a Jew to live, I knew that if one really believed in Torat Hashem that there was only one location in the world that one could truly realize a genuine life of Avodat Hashem – Eretz Yisrael. In our heart of hearts every Jew knows this to be a truth, even if we are not always able to realize that truth.
But in addition to the centrality of Eretz Yisrael, I also recognized the miracle of the State of Israel. I recognized that after two thousand years of pogroms, crusades, massacres, culminating in the most unimaginable Holocaust – the fact that against all the odds we returned as a people to our Biblical homeland, was so wonderful, so unique, it was simply a miracle of miracles, to suggest otherwise by rationalizing away, was and is, to my mind ludicrous. I was unperturbed by the fact that the secular, if not anti-religious atmosphere pervaded, this was simply a stage in the final redemption of Am Yisrael. We are told always to be seeking redemption, to be eagerly awaiting it at the doorsteps, many of our Chassidic masters tried almost ‘forcibly’ to bring Mashiach, and here and now we were experiencing the realization of prophecy after prophecy. So many of the latter chapters of Yeshayahu seem so relevant when relating to the last sixty years of our Nations history. When I came to live in Israel in 1989, I was not only fulfilling what I believe to be the Mitzva of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael, but I was also becoming a part of the National movement of ‘Shivat Tzion’ – I was no longer one of those who passively sat awaiting Mashiach, saying annually ‘next year in Yerushalayim’ with no real practical intent, but now I was listening to God knocking at the door, I was actually getting out of my bed, changing my clothes – my aim being to get that door opened, before the opportunity once again passed us by; before, Heaven forbid, my Beloved would once again ‘leave me’ due to my lack of interest – due to the lack of conviction in my beliefs.
For close to 17 years I have grown in my love for Eretz Yisrael, today more than ever before I cannot begin to imagine a religious reality for myself outside of Israel. I am infinitely grateful to the Almighty that I am able to bring up my children in our Homeland. Any moment I spend outside of my homeland is a ‘bedieved’. Indeed for the last 17 years I have felt an unparalleled pride as we approach Yom Haatzmaut; a pride at being part of Shivat Tzion; a pride at doing what I believe in - putting ‘my money where my mouth is’ so to speak. As we all know only too well, these past 17 years have not been so easy; suicide bombers have attacked us, snipers have shot at us, stone-throwers broken our car windows, only for us to be continually indicted by the hypocritical moralists of the western world. Yet throughout this period, even when they were shooting at us on our road, even when they were shooting at us almost ‘meters’ away from our front doors, never did I doubt the miracle of Medinat Yisrael, never did I doubt my place in Israeli society and in truth I still don’t, but at the same time I would be lying if I said that this Yom Haatzmaut is the same as all other Yemai Haatzmaut.
As we approach Yom Haatzmaut 5766, I recognize the miracle of the State of Israel more than ever before; I am fully aware of our geographical location; countries that would ideally like us to disappear surround us. In truth, as I said last year, to my mind the question is not as to whether we should say Hallel on Yom Haatzmaut, the question is rather as to why we don’t say Hallel every day of the year! When one remembers where we were 65 years ago, when one considers the predicament of Am Yisrael in the winter of 1945, one simply cannot believe today’s reality. As survivors of the atrocities of the second world war began to realize the full extent of ‘the final solution’ one could have been forgiven for predicting the end of our Nation – that we survived, nay flourished in the aftermath of the Holocaust is a phenomenon too incredible to ignore; but that only three years later we were an independent Nation amongst nations, is bordering on the unbelievable. The fact that only another 19 years passed by before we returned to our Capital – Yerushalayim - after 2000 years of exile can almost make one drunk with redemption fever. Yet whilst I myself have no doubts regarding the need to celebrate Yom Haatzmaut, there are many people, who this year, for the very first time feel differently, and it is extremely important that Am Yisrael recognize this fact, and contemplate it, to ignore it, in the hope that ‘time will be the great healer’ could have terrible long term ramifications.
The events of last summer will remain with many of us for the rest of our lives, to see 8000 men women and children forcibly removed from their homes, with little real compassion, and almost no alternative accommodation and occupation offered, is a reality that is proving hard to swallow. I know that there are different ideologies in Israel, I have after all been voting here for 16 years; I also know that my objectives are as of yet not the objectives of the secular majority, and in the same way that I cannot force people to observe Shabbat, I cannot force them to hold on to land that they do not wish to hold on to for whatever reason – whether I agree with them or not. But my belief has always been that we are one people; that our unity is the key to everything – and it is that belief that has bred within me a genuine tolerance and acceptance of my fellow brothers and sisters in Am Yisrael. I have spoken out whenever possible to ensure that our battle be an ideological one and not a personal one, yet there is a feeling amongst some today that that ideal is not mutually held, that morals of human decency and mutual tolerance seem to be null and void regarding a substantial section of our people, freedom of speech and truthful presentation is apparently no longer the most important value when it conflicts with ones political agenda. To this day the vast majority of Gush Katif evacuees are looking for jobs, are without real homes, and are still seeking the reparations that they were promised; yet this issue is simply not on the National agenda. The settlers have been almost totally de-legitimized; generalizations, misinformation has practically led to the alienation of an enormous part of the Israeli community (it would be na?ve to suggest that the settlers are entirely blameless for this alienation, but equally unjust to place the total responsibility for the current social reality upon these wonderful pioneers). People, who have been encouraged both financially and ideologically by successive Governments for the last thirty years to do what they have done, are now being described as extremist law-breakers, peripheral components of the society – ‘unwanted lepers’. On the one hand we hear politicians speaking of compassion, helping the poor, rehabilitating the unfortunate, whilst at the same time there is almost a tangible lack of concern for an entire community, their families and their well-being; why are the 8000 refugees of Gush Katif not worthy of compassion? Tolerance and unity is not a populist slogan, it is a fundamental value and it has to be mutual, it should be irrespective of political view points; religious people cannot and should not coerce their irreligious brethren, right wingers should not taunt, ridicule, and disregard left wingers – all this is true – but it works both ways – it must work both ways. People may disagree with a certain ideology, and if that is the real democratic consensus then so be it – but there still needs to be care, compassion, worry – for the losers of this democratic dual! We are dealing with human beings, with our very own brothers and sisters, how can there be so little care? How can human beings be used so blatantly as political pawns in a Jewish society?
In the last few months I have heard many saying: ‘how can one feel pride in the State when one feels that the State does not have pride in you? When the State has almost declared you as ‘enemy number 1’? Why should we celebrate Yom Haatzmaut? Why should we say the prayer for the State of Israel? Why should we be part of an army that throws us out of our homes? Many will not say Hallel with a bracha this year; in fact many will not say Hallel at all!
It would be deceitful to pretend that I have not contemplated these issues, but in truth it did not take me that long to reach my conclusions:
I will celebrate Yom Haatzmaut this year; I will continue to say the prayer for the State of Israel (on the contrary, now more than ever before we need enormous help from the Almighty – what would be the logic in not praying for the State when one feels that things are not as they should be?). I will pray with the same energy and conviction thrice daily for our soldiers, and for those missing in action, as well as for our current prisoners of Zion. If called upon, I will serve in my army; and I will say Hallel with a bracha just as I always have done!
But what can we say to those who feel differently, to those who feel alienated, sidelined, victimized?
Indeed if I were a secular Zionist whose celebration on Yom Haatzmaut was fundamentally based on the human achievements of Am Yisrael, then perhaps I would consider celebrating differently this year, however as Religious Zionists there has always been an inherent distinction in the way in which we have chosen to honor Yom Haatzmaut, this difference is so clearly highlighted by the fact that Yom Yerushalayim is a ‘celebration’ that is almost only observed by the religious Zionist communities in Israel, it is not even recognized as an official public holiday.
For me Yom Haatzmaut is a religious holiday, a day that I thank God for the merit of being able to return to my homeland after 2000 years of exile. It is a day where I recognize that the events of the last sixty years are miracles directly sent from Shamayim. On this day I say Hallel, I turn to the Almighty with all my strength and I show my infinite gratitude not simply for the fact that as an individual I live in the Jewish homeland, but that I have an Israeli passport, that I live in a Jewish country, that I serve in a Jewish army. These are not matters that can be ignored, not historically, and not philosophically. On the days of Independence and Yom Yerushalayim, I recognize an extremely positive pattern in the fate of Am Yisrael. In the terms of Shir HaShirim, I recognize the voice of my Beloved, I hear the knocking on the door. As religious Jews who are always trying to follow in the footsteps of Avraham Avinu, we are charged with the challenge of seeing God in the world. Human achievement should be celebrated, but our real rejoicing is in God and His mercy.
Our rejoicing should be a celebration of Malchut Yisrael, we must rejoice our independence – we may not be ‘over the moon’ with the way in which we are currently realizing our Malchut, but Baruch Hashem after two thousand years of exile and subservience we should be eternally grateful that these are our issues. We have begun to take the matter of Malchut Yisrael for granted; we have perhaps momentarily forgotten what an honor and privilege it is to have our own army, to be twenty-first century ‘Maccabim’. Perhaps this week we should take a step back out of the woods and see everything in perspective, perhaps we should be looking more at the forest and less at the trees. Battles have to be fought, issues resolved, but we must never lose our perspective – Malchut Yisrael is a two thousand year old dream, now that we have it, let us make sure that we appreciate it; no on would argue that it doesn’t need refining, but on this day let us show our gratitude to the Almighty that we are part of an era that has merited Malchut Yisrael.
Indeed, why should this year be any different from other year? We have always accepted that we have not reached our final destination. Working in the Old City of Yerushalayim, I am reminded on a daily basis that the Bet Mikdash has not yet arrived. We have always known that though we have Jewish Government, we do not have a Halachic State, that though we have a Jewish army it is not totally observant. These facts have never stopped us before from recognizing Chasdei Hashem, from acknowledging the more than half-cup that is full. Indeed, the events of last year, at least to the naked eye, could be perceived as regressive, but did we cease to say Hallel on Yom Haatzmaut in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war? Was everything so marvelous in 1995, when we were suffering suicide bombings on a weekly basis? Why is this terrible crisis more definitive than previous ones? Who decided that specifically now because of these events this period in the history of AmYisrael should no longer be considered as the beginning of redemption? Why was the breaking of Shabbat on a weekly basis not the last straw? Why was the desecration of graves something that we could deal with? What of the early aliyot, and the religious children and families who were placed in inappropriate surroundings intentionally? Somehow in the past, we knew that we were dealing with secular ideologues, we were fully aware that the situation was far from perfect, yet we battled on with conviction and determination, we continued to dig our well in search of sweet water, refusing to despair. How can we lose heart now after having achieved so much? Can we really stop believing simply because as far as we are concerned ‘things are not going to plan’, if so, then we must ask ourselves the hardest question of all – did we ever really believe in the first place? What kind of ideology dissipates the minute the wind blows in the ‘opposite direction’? How long would we have lasted in Mitzrayim, when we become disillusioned so quickly, when we are so easily discouraged from reaching our goals?
In previous sichot I have alluded to the fact that Yom Haatzmaut and the seventh day of Pesach fall on the same day of the week. As we know only too well, these matters are more often than not, not coincidental. Am Yisrael, left Egypt, walking into the wilderness with no clear plan; they had a leader with an objective, but this does not in anyway detract from the initial statement of faith that was made de-facto by their sheer willingness to leave the known, however bad it may have been, and wander into the unknown, with little to no food or water supplies – with the full knowledge of how long a human being can last in the midbar without the right equipment. In truth with pillars of cloud and fire accompanying them there was every reason to believe that their leap of faith was intuitively correct, and that their redemption was finally realizing itself, the groundwork had been solidly set – and so far, everything had seemingly gone to plan – there was no real reason for doubt. But, the real test of faith came on the seventh day of Pesach, when facing the sea, with the Egyptian foe rapidly advancing towards them, the people could well have been forgiven had they begun to voice doubts, indeed according to certain Midrashim there were those with doubts. Nonetheless, the people entered the sea, the sea may well have been splitting, but the weather was stormy, the prospect must have been ominous to say the least.
Pesach cannot be complete without the splitting of the sea, not only because this is the end of Egyptian rule as we know it, but because faith is defined on the seventh day of Pesach, in its most total form. As we leave Egypt we enter into an eternal covenant with the Almighty, there must be willingness on our part to walk into the water, to have that faith, even when the wind is blowing, when the seas are stormy, when the enemy is approaching imminently. The essence of the seventh day of Pesach is the definition of our relationship with Hashem. Is that relationship only there when things are happening the way we want them to happen? Are we to dictate to the Almighty how redemption should unveil itself?
The inherent danger in philosophically evaluating history in a definitive form is that we become so confident in our own interpretations of events that the minute that matters appear to regress we lose faith, we become shaky in our convictions, the very foundations that we had established seem to crumble around us. We learnt at Yam Tzuf that things are not always as they seem to be, we must walk into the water with conviction and belief, and the water will split, but it may not split when we want it to, and it may not create the path that we assumed it would – but we still believe, on the contrary this is belief. A relationship is defined not by how we handle the good times, but rather by how we fare when the going gets tough. We know the end of the story but we really don’t know how we will arrive there. We hope and pray that the developments of the last sixty years are signs of the final redemption of Am Yisrael, they are indeed the most encouraging signs that we have had by far over the last two millennia, but this categorically does not give us the right to dictate how matters should develop, that is not belief in God, that is not a legitimate religious response – where is our humility? Do we have a copy right on the process of redemption? We can question we can cry, but we continue to celebrate. We do not just see black and white, some developments are good, and some in our eyes are bad, but because there is ‘bad’, one should not refrain from rejoicing in the good, to do so would undermine everything that we stand for. The Talmud in Pesachim (117a) speaks of Hallel and its origins. There are a number of suggestions as to who originally sang Hallel: the first opinion proposes that Moshe and Am Yisrael initiated it after having passed through the split sea but prior to the drowning of the Egyptians (see Rashi there). The second idea offered is that Yehoshua and the people instigated Hallel when they fought the Canaanite Kings. The next submission is that Devorah and Barak said Hallel when they fought Sisera. There are numerous other opinions offered; yet almost every view specified reflects a scenario where these joyous verses were chanted even before the salvation had been completed. The message is clear, we praise the Almighty even when we are unsure of exactly what is happening – there is plenty of apparent negativity in the air, but to deny the enormous good that is surely prevalent would be grossly unjust, incredibly ungrateful, and totally inconsistent with our religious norms.
The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 474:1) refers to the four cups of wine that we drink on seder night. The Mechaber is of the opinion that we do not make four separate berachot on each cup of wine, only the initial bracha made at kiddush on the first cup of wine, and another beracha after bircat hamazon on the third cup of wine. Berachot for the second and fourth cups are exempted by the first and third berachot respectively. In contrast the Rema, is of the opinion that we make a beracha for each and every one of the four cups of wine.
The Mishna Berurah explains that there is no real fundamental halchik dispute taking place here; both the Mechaber and the Rema, are of the opinion that each of the four cups of wine represents a mitzvah in its own right, the Mechaber simply exempts the second and fourth cups because he feels that there has been no real deviation of thought since the previous beracha made. The reading of the hagada does not constitute a disturbance, and hence the second cup is covered by the beracha of the first, and the fourth by the beracha of the third. The meal divides between the second and third cup and hence there is a need to make a beracha on the third cup. The Rema, on the other hand feels that there is enough of a gap in between each cup of wine to constitute the deviation required that would necessitate a new beracha.
Yet as we already stipulated, both the Mechaber and the Rema agree that each of the four cups constitutes a separate rabbinical mitzvah. We also know that the four cups of wine run parallel to the four phrases of redemption mentioned at the start of parashat Vaeira (Shemot 6:6, 7). There are four stages to redemption being celebrated on Pesach, each constitutes a station on the path to total redemption, yet each is worthy of a cup of wine, in fact according to the Rema each is worthy of a beracha.
Redemption comes in stages, the Chozeh of Lublin, saw the Napoleonic wars as a crucial stage in redemption, the Chafetz Chaim speaks repeatedly of the beginning of redemption, and many of us today see the events of the last sixty years as the most positive steps towards the final ingathering of the exiles and the building of the Third Bet Mikdash. Is the redemption complete, clearly not; in perspective of the last two millennia, is Am Yisrael in good shape? Are there more Jews in Israel today than there were during the time of the Second Bet Mikdash? What is our predicament today when compared with our situation as a people in January of 1945? Surely the stage of redemption that we have merited to see is worthy of ‘a cup of wine’ surely it is worthy of a ‘beracha’? Isn’t each stage of geula worthy of celebration? Isn’t each step that we make, a step closer to our final objective? Is Malchut Yisrael and Tzvah Haganah LeYisrael not worthy of celebration? We are not condoning particular Governments or political parties, we never were – we are rejoicing in the reality of Malchut Yisrael – the fact that we have independence, that we are no longer subservient to the Nations of the world.
My parents taught me at a very young age (by example), that the world could be split into two types of people – ‘the sayers’ and ‘the doers’. The former have much to say, advice to give, criticism to pass on. They know exactly the way that things should be, and they know exactly why everything is wrong. The latter are no less wise than the former, but they actually do something positive about it. No one is living on cloud nine, suggesting that we have achieved all that we have to achieve, no one is blind to the reality of Israel today – but we all know only too well that that reality will not change on its own. If we feel so strongly about the situation, then we must analyze it, come to our conclusions, and work day and night to make things right. Indeed Joseph’s brothers threw him into a pit, they hated Yosef, the lack of communication was total, but this did not deter Yosef from searching for his brothers. Yosef went to Dotan in search of his family, and even when they rejected him, he never stopped wishing and waiting, and when given the opportunity he did not avenge himself, quite the contrary, he never forgot but he certainly forgave.
We have to find the way to unite our people, we know exactly how and why we went into exile in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Bet HaMikdash, we must not let history repeat itself – it is not about being right it is about doing the right thing. We are one people, this is not the time for bitterness and hate, but the time for forgiving and love, the only way that we can take the miracle of Am Yisrael Beeretz Yisrael further is by going in search of our brother. We must be as determined in this mission as we have been in settling the Land. If we are prepared to live in caravans on the top of deserted mountains in the most difficult of realities in order to settle the land, then we must make the same sacrifices in order to unite our people. We cannot simply blame the press, blame the Government – we must introspect, reach conclusions essentially about ourselves, and move forward. We are all part of the same people, we cannot disown those who disagree with us, we must find ways to bridge the gap – this does not mean compromising our beliefs but it does mean changing our attitude – tolerance and understanding must be our flagship, irrespective of whether our brothers choose the same derech. I must always aim to do the right thing in life and that must be my guideline, what others choose to do, and how they choose to behave is absolutely irrelevant to me.
This Yom Hazikaron, we will once again remember ‘the doers’ who have fallen, those who stood up for their principals and paid with their lives. We will remember their families, their wives and children, who constantly feel their irreplaceable loss – for them every day of the year is Yom Hazikaron. We will remember that we have our homeland because of the incredible messirut nefesh of so many individuals. And as the sun sets on Tuesday evening, I will once again, bezrat Hashem, put on my Shabbat clothes and celebrate the miracles and wonders that have brought about the State of Israel – Malchut Yisrael; that joy will be accompanied by a sadness that things are not the way I would like them to be, but that will not retract in any way from my celebration of the Almighty – on the contrary it will only make me more determined to ensure that I play my part even more actively in Shivat Tzion and Geula Sheleimah.
Chag Atzmaut Sameach


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