This week’s Torah Portion, Emor, covers many topics including the Chagim (Jewish Holidays). Of course the holiest of them all is Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement. The common perception of Yom Kippur is the ultimate “Don’t – Can’t” experience. Don’t eat. Don’t drink. You can’t even wash your face. For most people, Yom Kippur is an ordeal that we have to get through, an exercise in self-denial that is even more constricting than Shabbat. The long synagogue service and repeated emphasis on guilt and sin turn Yom Kippur into a day of awe and anxiety, despair and dread. It certainly does not appear to be a day of celebration.
However, the deeper we delve into the meaning of Yom Kippur, the more it becomes about love and intimacy, not guilt and repentance. It is a sacred day of connecting to the root of roots, to the essence of our soul self, as is asked of us in the Torah’s instruction regarding Yom Kippur (in this week’s Torah portion, Emor) often translated as “And you shall afflict your souls.” ועניתם את נפשתיכם” (Leviticus 16:31), but perhaps should be translated as “And you should respond to your souls“. Which of the two renditions, ‘afflict ‘or ‘respond’ – both of which come from the same root word in Hebrew, we choose is up to us, they are both grammatically and etymologically correct, which leaves us simply with the question: What kind of Yom Kippur do we want? Or better yet, what kind of relationship do we want with God, with Self, with Other? Affliction, or Response? Guilt, or Intimacy? Love, or Fear?
This week we will celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. Exactly 66 years ago, out of the ashes of the Holocaust and after 2000 years of exile, the independent Jewish state of Israel was born and we returned to our homeland.
However, the celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut is combined with two other special memorial days. Exactly one week before Yom Ha’atzmaut we observe Yom Hashoa, remembering the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust; and on the day before Israel’s Independence Day we mark Yom Hazikaron, a day to honor the fallen soldiers who died defending Israel.
The two elements we mentioned before in regards to Yom Kippur also seem to be key elements here too: both affliction (Yom Hashoa & Yom Hazikaron) and response (Yom Ha’atzmaut). They seem to be tightly linked and inseparable.
I will bring one last story which I think bridges these two ‘conflicting’ themes of ‘affliction’ and ‘response’. The great Hassidic Rebbe of Sadigora, Rabbi Avraham Yaakov Friedman of blessed memory lived in Vienna. When the Nazis took over Vienna they sought to humiliate the Jews by forcing the great sage to sweep the streets of the city to the taunts and laughter of Austrian onlookers.
The German soldiers handed the Rebbe a broom, but while he swept, he recited a silent prayer: “Master of the Universe, may I yet merit to sweep the streets of the Land of Israel.”
The Nazis then gave him a large flag and forced him to hoist it over a tall building. This time the Rebbe intoned, “Master of the Universe, may I yet merit to raise the flag of Israel over a high place in the Land of Israel.”
After surviving the war, the Rebbe was determined to fulfill his vision. And so, each year, on Independence Day, he would rise early, take a broom in hand, and proceed to sweep the streets of Tel Aviv in honor of God’s answer to his prayer. And then the elderly rabbi would ascend to the top of Tel Aviv’s Great Synagogue, and raise a large Israeli flag proudly for all to see.
It a lesson for us of how to deal with ‘affliction’ and how to ‘respond’. So, the next time you find yourself complaining about something that is not so great about the country you love (or its leaders) – think back to the Rebbe of Sadigora, with a broom in one hand, a flag in the other, and a heart full of gratitude to God for the miracle that is the modern State of Israel.
And by all means, wave your Israeli flag proudly and CELEBRATE!