Yom Ha’atzma’ut: What We Celebrate
Rabbi Reuven Mann
Israel is currently in the midst of celebrating significant and interrelated “Days”. It begins by commemorating the Holocaust with Yom HaShoah which is followed by a Day of remembrance for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism and culminates with Yom Ha’atzma’ut (Independence Day). It is now seventy-five years since the state of Israel was established, after a more than three thousand year lapse of national sovereignty. The question is, should religious Jews view this as a miracle and celebrate accordingly?
When you consider the events of the twentieth century, which witnessed the extremes of destruction and rebirth, it is hard to conclude that everything occurred in a normal, natural manner. Two World Wars had to occur in order to divest, first the Ottoman Empire and then the British Administration, of their control over the Land of Israel. Many things of an apparently miraculous character had to transpire in order for there to be a Jewish State, not the least of which was the emergence of a modern Jewish army.
Remember that Jews had been defenseless victims for most of their arduous exile. Surrounded by hostile Arab States lusting for their destruction, few gave the Zionists a chance in the event of hostilities. Indeed, President Truman warned the Jewish leaders not to declare statehood, for that would trigger a war in which the U.S. would not come to their assistance. The plucky Zionist leaders went ahead and declared a Jewish state and, indeed, the Arabs attacked. And “miraculously” the underdogs emerged victorious.
But not everyone will agree that the founding of modern Israel was orchestrated from Heaven. There were no overt departures from the laws of nature, such as the splitting of the Red Sea. Whatever occurred can be explained and accounted for without reference to a Higher Power. Without the guidance of a genuine prophet, we cannot know with certainty how these things transpired.
I therefore believe that we have to view this event from a different perspective. In my opinion, virtually all of Jewish history is an exemplification of Divine Providence as clearly expressed in the Torah. Hashem warned ample times that the punishment for grievous sins would be exile from the Land.
True to this prophecy, Jewish history has been marked by exile and dispersion to all corners of the globe, with constant expulsions and persecutions. The Jews were universally hated and mistreated. Nobody ever developed a liking for us (except for short periods of time when our economic expertise was greedily solicited). Both of the major world religions were guilty of justifying and encouraging the most egregious forms of anti-Semitism.
Christianity was especially to blame for formulating the basic tenets of Jew hatred and marketing the theology of contempt. The main crime they attributed to the Jews was that of “deicide”; that’s right, the murder of their god. Can you believe such a thing? It’s not certain who killed Jesus, but it is clear that he was an ordinary human, not a deity. The Christians invented the fiction that he was god and thus the crime of killing him was automatically upgraded to deicide. This would be a laughing matter except for the fact on the basis of this absurdity every Jew for all time was tainted by an imaginary sin for which there was no remedy except the gas chambers.
The Islamic religion was not enamored of the Jews either. Religious envy has played a significant role in history. If G-d chose the Jews to be His people as is clearly stated in the Torah (which Islam accepts as Divine), then how can the Muslim religion be the true one? However you consider it, the Jews stand in the way of any religion that puts forth the claim that it comes directly from G-d. You would like to be the “Chosen One” but what can you do about the numerous and unequivocal declarations in the “Bible” (Torah) that Hashem has selected the Jews to be His People and, accordingly, has given them the Land of Israel?
These truths are very painful to many people (including some Jews). It’s a factor which causes them to hate and demonize the Jews. This allows them to solve their theological dilemma by saying that maybe the Jews were chosen once upon a time, but due to their multitude of sins they have been subsequently unchosen. According to this distortion, G-d regretted having selected the Jews and replaced them with either the Christians or the Muslims.
History confirms the authenticity of G-d’s promises to the Jews. We have been exiled, dispersed, demonized and persecuted in the most tortuous manner. We enriched mankind with our moral teachings and scientific discoveries, but the hatred of Eisav could not be dissipated. All of the brutality culminated in the Holocaust, which would have been a fatal blow to any other people except the Jews. Consider that all of the great Kingdoms that arose to destroy us have been banished from the world stage, never to be heard from again.
But the Jews are still here, alive and vigorous and, in the realms of theology, science, technology and the arts serving in their familiar role as a “light unto the nations”. And after roughly three and a half thousand years they have returned to their G-d given land and developed it into a modern, thriving state. This in spite of the fact that in the interim numerous Empires coveted the land and took control over it. All the temporary landlords of Israel could not endure and eventually were displaced. What happened?
In the Book of VaYikra the Torah lists the curses that will come upon the Jews for their failure to observe the Torah. Hashem says that if disobedience persists they will be driven out of Israel and the land itself will be laid to waste. “I Myself will make the land so desolate that it will be desolate of your enemies who inhabit it” (Vayikra 26:32). Rashi points out that this constitutes a hidden blessing so that the enemies of the Jews will not be able to successfully cultivate the land and make it prosperous and never leave.
The absolute desolation of Israel was attested to by no less a figure than Mark Twain, who toured the country in the nineteenth century and saw in this phenomenon the fulfillment of the Biblical prophecy. The connection of the Jewish People to the land of Israel was such that only they could successfully cultivate it, but all strangers would fail in this endeavor. So in spite of the efforts of all the world's major empires to take over the land which G-d gave to the Jews, they were unable to do so. The land remained faithfully desolate until the rightful owners made their return.
To me, the significance of Yom Ha’atzma’ut does not lie in the specific events which attended the establishment of the Medina (State). Rather, the return to Israel represents the great miracle of Jewish survival and the fulfillment of all the historical promises pertaining to the exile and return. This is the time to recognize the existence of Hashem and His mighty Hand in human history via His special relationship with Am Yisrael. It enables all of us to proclaim with renewed confidence, “I believe with a complete faith in the coming of Moshiach–and even though he may tarry, nevertheless I wait for him, on every day that should come”. May this happen speedily and in our time.