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Yom Haatzmaut 5770

By: Rav David Milston


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' - "" "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage" (Shemot 20:2).

Many of our commentators have questioned this opening statement of the Ten Commandments. Why does the Almighty choose to introduce Himself as the redeemer from Egypt, and not as the Creator of the Universe? Surely initial and global creation itself overrides specific miraculous events, even if they were essential for Am Yisrael?

The most obvious answer, to my mind, is that the lessons resulting from the exodus from Egypt teach us fundamental principles in faith that cannot be derived from the creation of the world. But how so?

Let us begin by suggesting that the exile to Egypt was not just the physical exile of a people, but also the exile of an idea. If that were true then we could equally propose that the redemption of the people also served as the redemption of that idea.

When Avraham Avinu discovered the Almighty, the novelty of his theological thesis was not only that God created the world, but that the very God who created continues to create. Fundamental to Abrahamic belief is an ongoing actively involved God, who was, is, and will be a constant creator; as we say every morning immediately prior to Kriat Shema " ".

When the descendants of our founding father were enslaved and oppressed in Egypt, the theological essence of who they were and what they stood for, to a large extent, went into hibernation. Even if the people believed in themselves, the aggressive education of the masses as perpetrated by Avraham is conspicuous in its absence. It would appear that the main aim was to survive slavery, to get out alive; if they could achieve that they could then revive their ideology, and spread the word.

As the Almighty, through the medium of Moshe Rabbeinu, prepared to redeem the nation, he simultaneously organized the revival of their philosophy. In truth the two objectives are interdependent (see Shemot 3:12 the people are being freed in order that they formally accept the ideology at Har Sinai).

The fact that the theological principles of Am Yisrael were hardly known whilst they were in Egypt is plainly evident from the first meeting between Moshe and Pharaoh. When Moshe initially approached Pharaoh as a representative of God and the nation, Pharaoh's immediate response was to question Moshe regarding the Almighty: Who is this God that I should adhere to His directives (see Shemot 5:2)? Either Pharaoh denied the existence of God period, or he was of the opinion that the Creator indeed exists, but He is not in the slightest bit interested in the comings and goings of this world.

It seems pretty clear that the objective of at least nine of the ten plagues was not to free the oppressed masses - that could certainly have been achieved in a miraculous moment - but rather to redeem the Abrahamic idea from its exile as scripture itself testifies: "In order that they know that I am God in the midst of the land" (Ibid, 8:18). Indeed, both Maharal and Abarbanel concur, though in different ways, to this notion, in their respective commentaries to the Haggadah. Specifically when explaining the three simanim that Rabbi Yehuda gives for the ten plagues both understand that at least nine of the ten plagues had the objective of educating Mitzrayim and the World about the Almighty.

Once we accept that there are two parallel liberations taking place the freedom of a nation, and the revival of Abrahamic theology, we can perhaps suggest that Pesach is in essence a celebration of the former, whilst Shavuot is a celebration of the latter, remembering, of course, that you cannot have one without the other.

If this is the case then it is clear that the opening words to the Ten Commandments are not simply referring to the physical freeing of Am Yisrael, but rather to a fundamental definition of God Himself. God did not simply create the world, He is actively involved in everything that transpires in the world too it was the Lord Himself who freed the nation from slavery! - 'I am not simply God the original creator; I am God the active ruler of the universe'. Thus the exodus represents a further definition of God the creator.

Though there are differences of opinions within Jewish philosophy regarding the demarcation lines that distinguish between the free choice of man on the one hand and Divine Providence and active involvement of God in the world on the other, all are agreed that ongoing Godly involvement in the world is fundamental to Judaism.

In days of old, when our nation was spiritually worthy, we had prophets and prophetesses, who would pass on the word of God. We knew what was going to happen (if we chose to ignore our prophet's directives) at least on a national level, and to a large degree, we knew why we had been punished in the aftermath of disaster. Once prophecy ceased, however, our already limited understanding of the Almighty became even more diminished. Of course the fact that we now understand close to nothing, does not mean that God is not involved, neither does it mean that there is no reason - we simply have no clue, because we have no prophecy.

And in these seemingly endless years of exile, the believing Jew, bereft of divination, is required to totally trust in the Almighty without a true inkling of why things are happening, and as to when our final redemption will come.

This reality has led many a believer to fall by the way during the last two millennia. When the harsh truisms of exile have expressed themselves in every way possible, the demand for the regular Jew to simply keep going unconditionally, when nothing even remotely makes sense, has become increasingly more difficult. Perhaps if Yeshayahu was physically alive today, preaching to us publicly, it would make it easier for us all to keep the faith despite the eternal unanswered questions that plague us. We do, of course, have the Tenach, and we are enthused and encouraged by the prophets therein, but the onus is now totally upon us to somehow understand their message in a contemporary context, internalize and move forward relentlessly.

But where do we draw the line? There are those who have presumed for themselves the role of the prophets, and never hesitate to explain why things have happened, what is happening now, and what will happen at any moment. This is, in my humble opinion, a very dangerous and often hurtful and insensitive approach to life. Even when the turn of events seems to logically fit with our theories, it does not mean that our explanation is the correct one. We can, perhaps conjecture to ourselves about ourselves (though obviously not in definitive terms), but who are we to declare in absolute terms why things happened in the past and how the path of redemption will develop in the present and future?

So we have a paradox: On the one hand, Gods ongoing activism in our world is fundamental to our belief, whilst on the other hand we have no real tools to definitively understand what is happening and why it is happening.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I would like to speak about Chag Ha'atzmaut:

When we look at the events of the last hundred years, certainly in the context of the past two millennia, we can see that something very special is going on. I know that in the past there have been false messiahs, but nothing in our exilic history remotely compares to what has occurred over the last ten decades, for good and for bad.

To ignore these events, seems to me, to be ignoring the Almighty Himself.

The Holocaust is an unparalleled tragedy not just in the annals of Jewish History, but in the history of the world. I have been studying this terrible period for over twenty five years, yet the more I delve the less I understand. Each time I visit Poland, I leave even more astounded by the absolute evil of Nazi Germany and her more than willing allies, and even more in awe of the spirit of the victims that were murdered and the survivors that somehow overcame the seemingly impossible. I cannot accept that this man-made hell can be fully explained, it is not just another historical event. Even if we can perhaps research and certainly learn things about human nature in an attempt to try and ensure that history does not repeat itself, to even endeavor at philosophical and theological comprehension in this sphere, is at least to my mind pointless, maybe even forbidden. The enormity of the Holocaust ultimately leaves it beyond our grasp. I humbly accept my limitations; glean what I can glean with the knowledge, that for as long as I live in this world, I will never really understand. Remember - yes, honor definitely, learn specific lessons that too, but fully comprehend never.

I cannot understand the Holocaust and the evil therein, but I must not, and will not ignore it. There are no legitimate human theological answers that can possibly explain these terrible years, so I look up to the Heavens, understanding my limitations, and strengthen my religious resolve through prayer and supplication. I do not understand but I believe. I am at least honest enough with myself to keep believing even when I don't understand. I immerse myself in Holocaust not with the objective of philosophical comprehension, but because I never want to forget the millions of my brothers and sisters who were savagely destroyed, because I truly believe that God is involved in the world, and because I know that there is something massively significant taking place even though I don't know exactly what it is and what it means.

And when we move from the incomprehensible evil of the Second World War, to the unbelievable wonders of 1948, 1967, and the here and now, I have the exact same fundamental feelings, though they understandably trigger a very different response.

The emergence of the State of Israel, in the context of the years that precede independence, is equally beyond my comprehension. I understand how politically, in the aftermath of Holocaust, the United Nations would feel it necessary to grant the Jewish people a homeland. What I cannot understand is how, realistically, that decision materialized. How does a small unarmed nation pick itself up after a third of her people have been murdered, and establish independence when all of the surrounding neighbors without exception deny her right to exist? How do unarmed civilians wage war against established armies who attack her from the North the South and the East? How does a country on the verge of destruction in the late spring months of 1967, in five and a half days, overcome the enemy and return after two thousand years of exile to the holy cities of Jerusalem and Hebron? To this very day I am astounded by our existence. There are 150 million people in and around the Middle East who don't want us here, yet we are here. The ongoing miracle of Israel is a phenomenon that I live and breathe every day. Yet once again I don't understand it. On the one hand I can see the prophecies of Yeshayahu and Zecharia realizing themselves at every juncture, but I can also see that we are a long way from complete redemption.

Surely to ignore the events of the last sixty-two years is verging on heresy?! Can a believing Jew, after two thousand years of exile, after the unparalleled destruction of the Holocaust, ignore the reality that is the State of Israel?

I do not understand the Holocaust, but it demands from me, as a believing Jew, to turn to God in prayer and supplication. I also don't understand the wonders which we continue to experience daily, but can I ignore them?! Surely every believing Jew must acknowledge and turn to God with eternal gratitude and joy! How can this day, after all we have been through, not be a festival for everyone? Do we not believe in the God who brought us out of Egypt? Do we not believe that the Almighty is involved at all times? The same God who brought us out of Egypt has brought us back home after two thousand years, so how can we not acknowledge this? The facts are facts, they are undeniable; we are back home, despite everything. Even if we do not know for certain that final redemption knocks at the door, who can close their eyes to the obvious?

Those of us who just two and a half weeks ago sang: 'Next year in Jerusalem'; those of us who pray three times a day for the return to Zion; those of us who are constantly waiting for mashiach - true we don't understand the ways of God, but when a miracle like this stares us in the face, how can we possibly turn a blind eye. As the Almighty knocks impatiently at our door, are we really going to tell Him that we are too tired to get dressed and open up? Are we going to let this window of opportunity disappear? How can we continue to chant next year in Jerusalem as we did a hundred years ago Jerusalem is ours it is not a dream anymore, neither is it an unanswered prayer, it is for real!

There is a midrash (Pesikta Rabbati - parasha 36) that Yaakov Shwekey has made famous:

"Our Rabbis have taught that when the Messianic King reveals Himself, and is standing on the roof of the Bet Mikdash he will say to the gathered people: Oh humble ones, the time of your redemption has arrived, and if you don't believe me, see my light that shines upon you."

On the last day of Pesach this year, I attended a Seudat Mashiach, at which one of the speakers, Rabbi Karov of Karnei Shomron, noted something extraordinary about this midrash:

The midrash describes a reality where the mashiach is standing on the roof of the Mikdash, yet from his message, we can see that there are still many people who don't believe. How can that be? The mashiach himself is standing on the roof of the Mikdash, how can they not believe?

Perhaps the Pesikta Rabbati is alluding to the reality that we ourselves live in today. After years of exile, we have come home, we have won wars that we should never have won, we have seen Jews return from the Soviet Union, from Morocco, from Western Europe, from the Southern Hemisphere, from North America are these not prophecies being fulfilled? Can a religious Jew who believes in God's involvement in this world just turn a blind eye? Have we not been waiting for this forever? True, as I said before, we have no prophets today, but we have the prophets of Tenach. We cannot be sure that what they describe is what we are seeing, but surely there is a very good chance that they are. We should at least try and make this work - we have never been so close. Surely there is ample reason to celebrate after all we have gone through? Is this not the most powerful way to recognize the God who brought us out of Egypt, the active God? Surely there can be no better time to mark renewed redemption than in the holy days that fall between Pesach and Shavuot. Indeed it seems to be no coincidence that our contemporary physical liberation of Yom Haatzmaut is juxtaposed to the festival of Pesach, whereas our celebration of the liberation of our holy city Yerushalayim falls just a week before the spiritual climax of Shavuot.

We must remember that the mourning phase that coincides with this time in our yearly calendar cannot fundamentally override the festive theme that always existed, a period of time that Ramban referred to as the Chol Hamoed that separates Pesach from Shavuot. This is perhaps why it is much more acceptable to say "Shecheyanu" during this time, despite the numerous customs of mourning that we do apply, as opposed to the Three Week period of mourning.

These days are essentially festive and I have often wondered as to whether there is something fundamentally wrong with a religious approach that suggests that to celebrate this day is forbidden because it falls in the mourning stages that coincide with the omer? Do we honestly think that Rabbi Akiva (whose students were the ones who died in the epidemic that is the original source of our mourning during this period) who at the end of Massechet Makkot (24b) refers to the verses in Zecharia (8:4-6) with hope, would mourn on this day if he lived here and now and saw those very same prophecies that he quoted coming true before his eyes?! If we suspended mourning on Lag Baomer because the epidemic ceased surely there is ample reason to suspend mourning on Yom Haatzmaut?

I acknowledge that we do not know for certain, but we have the Tenach, we have our reality, and we have two thousand years of suffering and hope behind us if we are not to stand up now, realize what we have, and ultimately act on our beliefs then when?

I ask of you all as I ask of myself, do not let this day pass without deep introspection. What is happening in the world and in Israel is the work of the Almighty. If we truly believe, we must surely act on those beliefs. If we truly await Mashiach, then surely what we see are the best signs that we have seen since the destruction of the second Temple. It is time to act!

As I wrote just before Pesach: let us remember the words of Motta Gur: "Har HaBayit BeYadeinu" "Temple Mount is in our hands!" Redemption is in our hands. It appears that the Almighty is knocking at the door; the religious community must lead the people to the door. It is up to us - there is simply nothing more important.

Next year in Jerusalem, need not be a prayer, it should be a plan of action!

Chag Atzmaut Sameach!
Rav Milston

 

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