On Yom HaAtzmaut
by HaRav Shlomo Aviner
[Other articles of HaRav Aviner at:
The sanctity of the State derives from the sanctity of the mitzvot.
In a previous essay we detailed how the Ramban and other Torah Giants of the past and present determined that establishing Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel is a commandment of the Torah which applies at all times and in all ages. We can conclude that it is a mitzva to establish the State of Israel and consequently, this State has sanctity. Sanctity is the state of being which results from the performance of a mitzva. Sanctity is not an exalted, intangible concept; rather, it is precisely defined by the formulation, “who sanctified us through His mitzvot.”³¹ This certainly does not imply that everything that takes place in the State of Israel is holy, but rather that the establishment and continued existence of the State is a mitzva, the fulfillment of which constitutes its sanctity.
Therefore, on the fifth of Iyar 75 years ago Am Yisrael as a whole fulfilled a wondrous mitzva by establishing a Jewish State in Eretz Yisrael. Although we do not declare a holiday on every day in which we fulfill mitzvot, the day on which a mitzva is performed for the first time is considered a joyous occa sion. In a similar vein, a young person celebrates his or her bar/bat mitzva because it is the first opportunity to fulfill mitzvot in an obligatory, rather than a voluntary, manner.³² Thus, Yom HaAtzmaut is celebrated as a holiday, as it is the day we first fulfilled the mitzva of renewing our sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael.
The Sanctity of Yom Ha Atzmaut
Why is Yom HaAtzmaut celebrated as a holiday? Because this is the day the State was declared. Consequently, the Arabs declared war at once and tried to wipe us off the face of the earth. The war was fought under extremely difficult conditions: enormous enemy forces, armed and experienced, attacked our small fledgling army, which was unskilled and without much ammunition. Am Yisrael was in great danger, but with the help of God, and with unflagging dedication, we triumphed. It was a great miracle – we were saved, and the State survived and flourished.
It is a mitzva to thank God for His miracles and to commemorate them.
Therefore, we declared this day a holiday, both to commemorate the mitzva of establishing the State on that day, and to thank God for the miracle of Am Yisrael’s salvation from the mortal danger that we faced during the War of Independence. This day of thanksgiving is sacred, since by observing it we fulfill the mitzva of thanking God for His miracles.
This was the basis for sanctifying Chanuka, Purim, and the other days mentioned in Megillat Ta’anit. Throughout the generations, Jewish communities have enacted many days of thanksgiving and celebration. If even local communities were empowered to establish such festivals, how much more appropriate is it to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, when a great miracle happened to the whole nation. The ordaining of a holiday on which to commemorate this miracle is a Torah obligation. Exactly how to mark the day – whether it be in the form of a festive meal, reciting Hallel, or other customs – is the responsibility of the Torah leaders of each generation to determine.
We may ask why no such “Independence Days” were established in the days of Yehoshua when Am Yisrael first came to Eretz Yisrael, or in the days of Ezra and Nechemia during the Return to Zion before the Second Temple was built? In point of fact, Pesach is the Independence Day marking our first entry into Eretz Yisrael during the time of Yehoshua. Am Yisrael was aware at the time that the Exodus from Egypt took place in order to bring us to Eretz Yisrael. God had promised us, “And I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt…and I shall save you…and I shall redeem you…and I shall take you…and I shall bring you to the land.”³³ This is the ultimate goal: Eretz Yisrael. In Egypt, even before they left, they performed the Pesach sacrifice with their hips belted and their staffs at hand.³⁴ The women took drums with them because they were certain God would perform miracles and they would have the opportunity to sing His praises.³⁵ After the Egyptians drowned, Am Yisrael sang to God, “With Your mercy, You have led this nation whom You have redeemed; You have led them with Your strength to Your sanctified site.”³⁶ They knew with certainty that the Lord, their Redeemer, was leading them to Eretz Yisrael to build the Beit HaMikdash there. The holiday of Pesach celebrates the Exodus from Egypt, the miracles at the sea and in the desert, and also the entry into Eretz Yisrael, for the sake of which all these miracles were performed.
During the period of Ezra and Nechemia, Am Yisrael did not declare a holiday, for they were not yet independent, but rather were subservient to Persia. Neither had they been saved from death. But years later, in the time of the Hasmoneans, Am Yisrael achieved independence and won a tremendous victory over the Greeks.³⁷ They then designated the days of Chanuka as a holiday in commemoration of the miracles which happened to them. Chanuka may thus be considered the “Independence Day” of the Second Temple Period.
The Spiritual Significance of the State
What is the aim of the mitzva to establish a sovereign State of Israel? Isn’t the goal of the Am Yisrael to be a “light unto the nations”? Why should we need our own political entity in order to accomplish this, and why should we be defined within a limited body of territory? Isn’t it preferable that we be dispersed throughout the world? Wouldn’t we have more influence that way?
Mankind as a whole is obligated to develop the frameworks of society, economy, science, technology and culture. These are all important objectives, but they constitute only the external structure of our world. The main goal is to form the inner substance of life – and that is the responsibility of Am Yisrael. It would seem, then, that a sovereign State for the Jews is irrelevant in accomplishing this task.
Am Yisrael, however, can only fulfill its mandate of healing the spiritual illnesses of mankind as a nation. Just as there is always a nucleus of spiritual elite within each nation, so too is Am Yisrael the “kingdom of priests and a holy nation”³⁸ within the family of nations of the world. It is we who, as a people, must become “a light unto the nations.”
In order to achieve this, we must first become a normal, healthy nation. We must be united and independent in our own Land.⁴⁰ Based upon this foundation, we will then truly become “a holy nation,” and thereby sanctify God’s name throughout the world.
Sanctification of the Divine Name is the highest value; desecration of His Name is the most serious transgression. The world was created for the very purpose of sanctifying God’s Name. Sanctification of the Divine Name in the spiritual world is the domain of the angels, while we do the same in the physical world. As we proclaim in the prayer of Kedusha, “Let us sanctify Your Name in this world, as they do in the world above.”
The exile of Am Yisrael from its own Land, and its dispersion in the Diaspora, is the greatest possible desecration of God’s name. It is written in Yechezkel:
“Son of Man, the House of Israel were residing in their own land, and they defiled it…and I scattered them among the nations…and they desecrated My holy Name when it was said about them, “This is the nation of God, and they have left His land.”⁴¹
This desecration of God’s Name must be rectified. How does this come about? The Pophet continues:
“And I shall sanctify My great Name, which has been desecrated before the nations, which you have desecrated in their midst…and I shall take you out of the nations and gather you from all the lands and I shall bring you to your land.⁴²
The process of the ingathering to Zion is a great sanctification of God’s Name – rectifying the earlier desecration of His name caused by the exile – through the fulfillment of the Divine plan to establish “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” in Eretz Yisrael.
The partial participation of Am Yisrael
Why didn’t all Jews, particularly the religious ones, immigrate to Eretz Yisrael immediately after the State was established?
This is, indeed, a good question. We have noted that redemption has always been a gradual process. Even in the time of Moshe Rabbeinu, only one-fifth of the population left Egypt. Most Jews – 20 percent! – had no desire to leave, and died during the Plague of Darkness.⁴³ Later, most of that generation, except for Yehoshua and Calev, and the women, were afraid to enter Eretz Yisrael. They cried and wanted to return to Egypt, and in the end, they all died in the desert, despite all the miracles performed on their behalf, and despite the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu.
In the same way, only a small number of Jews came to Eretz Yisrael in the time of Ezra and Nechemia, even though they knew that the allotted seventy years of exile were up. The prophets Chagai, Zecharia and Malachi called upon them in the name of God to immigrate, but they were in no hurry. This is the meaning of the verse, “I am asleep, but my heart is awake. I hear my beloved knock. Open the door, my sister….”⁴⁴ In exile, Am Yisrael slept, but the prophets (the “heart”) were awake and tried to stir the nation.
The Holy One – the Beloved – knocked on the door, using the prophets as His mouthpiece, but no one answered.⁴⁵ Later, Zerubavel returned to Eretz Yisrael with a few thousand Jews, then Ezra with another few thousand, and finally Nehemia with a few thousand more. Altogether, about 40,000 Jews immigrated to Eretz Yisrael.⁴⁶ Where was everyone else? Thy all stayed behind in Babylonia. Today as well, there is no sudden rush of Jewish aliya. Bit by bit, Jews trickle to Eretz Yisrael – one from this family, two from that city.
Ths is human nature. People find it hard to rise above a way of thinking they’ve grown up with. It takes time to absorb new ideas and to integrate them. It is also hard for people to leave the security and familiarity of their homes, work and yeshivot. Because of these difficulties, people invent excuses to answer the question of why they don’t immigrate to Eretz Yisrael. The plain and simple truth is that it is very hard to do. We understand the difficulty, but we cannot condone it. The challenges of aliya are an explanation as to why so few Jews immigrate, but they are not a justification. We must do everything we can to enable Jews to make aliya.
Sometimes, we, ourselves, are to blame for people not making aliya, because we do not adequately absorb the immigrants. We do not make enough of an effort to help them find employment and housing. We poke fun at them. Each new wave of immigrants, after they become settled, mock the new immigrants as they themselves were mocked: first the Moroccans, then the Georgians, the Ethiopians, and the Russians. We must do more to successfully absorb new immigrants.
It is true that the founders of the State were not motivated by the idea of fulfilling a mitzva. It is true that it is far preferable to fulfill mitzvot out of a desire to perform God’s will, but a mitzva which is done without this intent is still considered a mitzva.⁴⁹
Continuing problems in the mitzva of establishing the State
There are many things amiss within the State of Israel that require attention, such as in the fields of justice, education, and so forth. Do not these flaws thus negate the value of a Jewish State? Isn’t the State supposed to be the foundation of “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation?” Doesn’t the spiritual regression we see in Eretz Yisrael delegitimize the existence of such a State? Ths common misconception has to be corrected. The sanctity of the State does not derive from that fact that it is the means to a spiritual goal. No justification is necessary for the existence of the State; rather, its sanctity derives from its very existence, which is the fulfillment of the mitzva of establishing a sovereign Jewish State in Eretz Yisrael. Performance of any mitzva has sanctity, no matter what happens in its aftermath. For example, we fulfill the mitzva to “be fruitful and multiply” when we marry and have children. Even if our children grow up to be bad people (God forbid), this does not in any way invalidate the mitzva we have fulfilled. Perhaps we have failed in the mitzva of educating them, but we have still fulfilled the mitzva of giving life. It is our obligation to fulfill every mitzva we can, without indulging in convoluted calculations regarding the possible outcomes of our actions. We very act of fulfilling a mitzva contains its own sanctity because our Creator “has sanctified us with His mitzvot.”
Consider the following parable: A person erects a sukka, only to talk falsehood and lashon hara in it all day long. These actions are serious trans gressions, but they in no way invalidate his sukka. This person has fulfilled the mitzva of sitting in the sukka, while incidentally sinning in his speech.
Th mitzva of Eretz Yisrael can be compared in many ways to the mitzva of sukka: “And His sukka was in Shalem, and His dwelling place in Zion.”⁵⁰
The sanctity of the State is expressed through the sovereign control of Eretz Yisrael by Am Yisrael, with the help of the Israeli army. The existence of the State, in and of itself, is a mitzva, and transgressions performed within it do not invalidate its sanctity.
It is obvious that fulfilling the mitzva of sitting in the sukka does not in any way sanction any transgressions committed there. In the same way, one is not permitted to transgress a commandment by virtue of the fact that one lives in Eretz Yisrael. Conversely, sins committed in Eretz Yisrael cannot invalidate the sanctity of the State, just as talking lashon hara in a sukka cannot nullify the mitzva of sitting in the sukka. It is a despicable act, but the person has still, nonetheless, fulfilled the mitzva of sitting in the sukka.
In truth, the spiritual problems we see today in Eretz Yisrael have nothing to do with the establishment of the State.
About 200 years ago, for various reasons which we cannot go into here, there was a universal religious and moral upheaval that affected Judaism as well. The founders of the State, and the waves of immigration that followed, brought their spiritual crises and difficulties with them. The State did not cause them, nor is it responsible for their continued existence within its framework. The same spiritual regression, to a much greater extent, exists in the Diaspora. There, the result is assimilation, whereas here, in the Jewish State, it is possible to overcome the crises and resolve the problems. Saying, “It would be better not to have the State if this is what it looks like,” is like saying to someone eating nonkosher food in a sukka, “You would be better off not sitting in the sukka if you’re going to eat nonkosher food.” Outside the sukka, he would certainly be eating nonkosher food! It has no connection to the sukka. On the contrary, perhaps in time, the sanctity of the sukka will influence him to stop eating nonkosher food.
The prophet Yechezkel said in God’s name, “I shall bring you to your land…and I shall sprinkle you with pure waters…and I shall remove your heart of stone and I shall give you a heart of flesh.”⁵¹ Who are those who immigrated to Eretz Yisrael and built our State? Impure people with hearts of stone, but here, in Eretz Yisrael, they shall be perfected. This will not happen instantaneously. The crisis which began several hundred years ago caused deep wounds. We have not yet succeeded in creating the tools to educate this new personality type towards faith in God. Moreover, many of us don’t even understand what happened and what the roots of this spiritual crisis are. It may take many years to repair the damage, maybe even as long as the crisis has lasted. In any case, not only is the establishment of the State not the cause of this crisis, but it may even be part of the solution.
These are the pangs of birth.
Zionism is at its very beginning. We find ourselves at the start of the Redemption, or perhaps the middle of it, certainly not at its end or after it. We have always known that the Redemption would come gradually, one stage at a time. The Talmud Yerushalmi recounts that several Sages were once watching a sunrise. Said one, “Such is Israel’s Redemption, bit by bit.”⁵² The light doesn’t flood the world all at once. Rather, light and dark are at first mixed, struggling with each other, until finally light is victorious.
Each side seeks the good of the nation, each thinks it is saving the country and the other is destroying it. Precisely when the conflict is so great, we must remember that we are one people. Maharal of Prague, at the beginning of his book Netzach Yisrael, contrasts the natural, healthy situation of a people – that is, a situation of Redemption – with the unhealthy, unnatural state of exile. In exile, we are scattered, lacking independence and a homeland. In Redemption, we are together, independent, and in our own Land. Bringing the nation together, in other words, is the essence of Redemption. For that reason, when the Declaration of Independence was signed by representatives of the left and the right, the Orthodox and the secular, it was a vital stage in the rebirth of the nation.
Today as well, everyone has the right and obligation to stand up for his or her views, but without crossing crucial lines – without violence, hatred or disrespect. This isn’t the first time our people has been torn between opposing opinions – religious Zionists versus post-Zionists, Hagana versus Irgun, supporters and opponents of accepting German reparations. There is room for debate between opposing beliefs – as long as we remember that we are brothers. We must do our utmost to increase the sense of brotherhood in our Land.
Our nation has aspired to great heights, and, through its determination, has achieved great successes. Beneath the external difficulties and despair, we believe there is a tremendous holiness which will overcome all flaws. Beneath the religious cynicism lies hidden faith; beneath the hatred lies brotherhood; beneath the darkness is a great light, which will eventually drive away all the shadows.
Avraham Yitzchak Kook once said to a visitor from America, “You have to make aliya. Can’t you see how terribly dark the situation is for Judaism in your country?” The visitor replied, “And in Eretz Yisrael there are no crises?!” Rabbi Kook replied, “Certainly there are, but your crises are death throes; ours are the pangs of birth.”