Tuesday, May 06, 2014

The Right Approach to Yom Ha’atzmaut

Ben Gurion declaring Israel's independence
When President Obama was newly elected, he made a trip to the Middle East to address the Arab nations. He spoke about Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish nation citing the Holocaust as the reason.

He was roundly criticized for that by many – especially in the religious community. Because as we all know the real reason Israel has a right to exist is because God gave it to us. It is in the bible. Check it out.

But even though that is the primary reason for our rights to the land of Israel, the President’s references were not entirely wrong. In fact it was indeed the Holocaust that motivated many nations in the UN  to vote in favor of creating  a Jewish State – partitioning Palestine into two separate states, one Arab and one Jewish.

One of the things that made me tear a while back is when I heard and saw archival footage of Jewish refugees interred  in a displacement camp post Holocaust singing Israel’s national anthem, the Hatikva. It appears they did so spontaneously upon hearing the announcement of a Jewish State in Palestine.  Until the establishment of the State - they had no place to go. No one wanted these Jewish refugees. Palestine under the British Mandate closed their doors to them. Now – they were finally open. Jews could finally go ‘home’.

I must have seen the archival footage of Ben Gurion declaring Israel’s independence dozens of times. It too makes my eyes tear. I don’t see how anyone with a Jewish heart would not have the same reaction. Especially after the Holocaust. That took place on the 5th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar, returning the land of Israel back into Jewish hands for the first time in 2000 years. That day- Yom Ha’atzmaut - is now celebrated annually in Israel and by many Jews outside of Israel. And it is being celebrated in Israel right now.

Lest  anyone minimize the importance of this day in either the religious context of returning to our own land – or in the humanitarian context of opening her doors to all Jews, I refer you to Rav Ahron Soloveichik. He has determined that it is proper to say Hallel on this day. And not to say Tachanun - which is normally said weekdays during morning and afternoon prayers – but never on Jewish holidays.  

Why no Tachanun on this day?  Rav Ahron's frame of reference is Tu B’Av (the 15th of Av). We do not say Tachanun on that day because the thousands of martyrs of Beitar were brought to burial after the Roman authorities decree against that was lifted. There was cause for great joy in Klal Yisroel because these bodies could now be treated with dignity. So much so - that it was declared a holiday for all future generations. If Chazal could declare a holiday for this, how much more so should there be a festive holiday when the remnant of the European Holocaust came not to Jewish graves -  but to refuge in the Jewish homeland!

What about Hallel?  The Meiri in the last chapter in Pesachim tells us that an individual or community is overtaken by a Tzarah (disaster of any kind or any source) and is miraculously delivered form it – then there is a Mitzvah to recite Hallel at the time of the redemption and on its anniversary each year. That it is a Mitzvah but not an obligation means that we do not recite the blessing for Hallel. But one may indeed institute saying Hallel for himself and saying it is considered the fulfillment of a D’Oraisa – a Torah based Mitzvah!

For survivors, there can be no doubt about the gratitude to God and the founders of the State for giving them a home. There is a famous story of a Chasidic Rebbe who was assigned by the Nazis to sweep the grounds of his Concentration camp. He vowed that if he survives the Holocaust and moved to Israel, he would sweep the streets there. He survived. And he moved to Israel. And on every Yom Ha’atzmaut, he goes outside sweeps the streets near his home in Tel Aviv.

Yesterday, I encountered a friend in shul. He is one of the kindest and nicest people you will ever meet. He will give you the shirt off of his back. He is truly a lovely fellow. But when I mentioned to him that we do not say Tachanun on Yom Ha’atzmaut he scoffed. He said that because of what Israel is now doing to the Charedim, we should say Tachanun twice. He was joking of course. But his sentiments were clear. This fellow is too young to be a Holocaust survivor. I don’t know if his parents were.

But his attitude is indicative of a malaise that exists among the right that refuses to recognize the great miracle that is Israel. They see only the bad and they can recite a litany of ills they say the state perpetrated against religious Jews. Like disabusing the Yaldei Teheran and later the Sephardim of religious practices upon immigrating to Israel. And of course now there is the draft - yet another anti Torah measure by an anti religious state.

I am not going to discuss why I believe this perspective is all wrong. I've done that in other posts and it is beyond the scope of this post. But I can’t really blame Charedi yeshiva students. This is what they have been indoctrinated with. It is not their fault. It is the fault of their educators. They have been teaching their students for decades about what the secular state of Israel has done to religious Jews. All of it bad. And are blinded to all the good Israel did – and does now.

Even by Charedi standards the good far outweighs the bad. The mere fact that there is more Limud HaTorah now than ever in the history of the State of Israel cannot be ignored or minimized. Israel has for decades been the Charedi world’s largest financial contributor. Does anyone really believe that the flourishing state of Limud haTorah that exists there today would exist if there had been no state? Does anyone for a moment believe that without the modern day infrastructure built by the Israeli government that there would be the kind of numbers in the Yeshiva world that we see now?

And yet they see themselves as succeeding despite the state, not because of it. And therefore feel that instead of being grateful, Israel deserves to be put down and disparaged at every turn. For example - just today I read the following story online. It is taken from Nefesh Harav by Rav Hershel Shachter.

The Agudah had a conference in a hotel in Jerusalem. Several representatives felt uncomfortable that the Israeli flag was flying on the roof of the hotel. It wasn’t possible to ask the hotel to take down the flag and instead they came up with the suggestion to the hotel to add flags from other countries so the Israeli flag would not be alone.

The Israeli press heard about the incident and made fun of the Agudah. In particular they were upset that the British Union flag was chosen. During WWII the British (with the Union Jack on the boat) turned away boats of Jews trying to get to Palestine leading to their death by the Nazis. Now Agudah preferred the Union Jack to the Israeli flag.

The Rav, R’ Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik, responded at a Mizrachi meeting saying that he was no a fan of ceremonies but that halachicly the Israeli flag had more Kedusha (holiness) than the Union Jack. At that point he spoke about Jewish soldiers being killed to raise the flag over new land.

The truly great and inspiring Charedi leaders of the past have a different view than those of today. That’s why one of the pioneers of the Yeshiva world in Israel did not say Tachanun on Yom Ha’atzamut and flew the Israeli flag on his building in Bnei Brak, Ponevezh Yeshiva. And it is why that Chasidic Rebbe swept the streets of Tel Aviv on that day each year.

My hope is that things will change and that the Yeshiva world will begin to recognize what the existence of the State of Israel means to them, stop disparaging them; and express Hakaras HaTov  - their gratitude-  accordingly

I believe that there may be some moves in that direction. Yesterday for the first time there were many images of Charedi Rabbonim (like those in Bnei Brak) standing in silence on Yom HaZikaron. They stood in solidarity with their Israeli brothers in public recognition of the sacrifice of those Israelis who paid the ultimate price for protecting their country. There were no recriminations about the moment of silence not being the Jewish way to mourn. They just stood quietly in unity with their Jewish brothers.

This is a good sign. I only hope that in the future there can be some more of that kind of good will spread on days like Yom Ha’atzmaut. When the Charedi world begins to recognize that secular Jews don’t hate them… and they make a move like this – well... there might just be an opening for Moshiach to come.