While most Israelis celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, sadly, the day has become a glorified July 4th. It’s a day off from work, a day off from school, a day for hikes and the ubiquitous BBQ. A day to spend with family and friends, enjoying the beautiful Spring weather. For many, the day has lost its meaning; it’s religious significance.

What is the religious meaning of Israel’s Independence Day?

In one of his seminal essays, Kol Dodi Dofek, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explores the religious significance of the founding of the State of Israel. First delivered as an address in May 1956 to celebrate the eighth anniversary of Israel’s independence, Rabbi Soloveitchik draws upon the theme of missed opportunity in the Song of Songs. He describes how the Beloved, God, was knocking on the door of history – in the political arena, on the battlefield, and in the religious world. All which led to the founding of the State. Rabbi Soloveitchik charges us with the task of hearing those knocks, and seeing God’s Hand guiding history.

Is the State of Israel just a series of political machinations and aspirations that took place over that last hundred years? Or, were all of the Herzls, Ben Gurions, San Remo Conferences, Balfour Declarations, British Mandates and Partition Plans – part of God’s plan – an answer to two thousand years of yearning?

Zionism did not begin in the nineteenth century. For two millennia the Jew has dreamed of a return to Zion; a return to the Land of Israel. Three times a day we turned towards Jerusalem in prayer and asked God to “speedily gather us together from the four corners of the earth to our Land.” We asked Him to “return in compassion” to Jerusalem. Never did we relinquish the deep bond with our historic homeland. Never did we stop yearning. We continued to dream.

And in 1948, that dream became a reality with the establishment of the State. For me, it is the quintessential modern day miracle. Like the fiery phoenix, rising from the ashes of gas chambers and crematoria, the Jewish People arose and returned home. The dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision came to life, and returned to their land. As Zechariah prophesied, “Elderly men and women once again sit in the streets of Jerusalem…and boys and girls play in her streets.” These are my children! The world witnessed the restoration of a Jewish State and a Jewish People. A nascent nation fought for its independence and, with God’s providence, persevered.

God was smiling down on us at that moment.

When I think about Yom Ha’atzmaut, I think of God’s smile.

And while things are far from perfect here in the State of Israel, we are living at a unique moment in history. We recognize that it is “Reishit Tzmichat Geulateinu – the First Flowering of our Redemption.”

The establishment of the State of Israel is no less of a miracle than the Exodus from Egypt, or the Splitting of the Sea. And it is a miracle that deserves to be a celebrated, just like we would any festival.

While there is rich discussion among legal authorities if a new holiday may be added to the Jewish calendar, Rabbi Moshe Sofer, the revered “Chatam Sofer” ruled that it is indeed a Torah obligation to celebrate a miraculous salvation (Teshuvot Chatam Sofer, YD 233; Ibid., OC 191). In fact, over the centuries, tens of communities have established
“Purims,” to commemorate and celebrate miraculous events.

(For an exhaustive list see Yom Tov Levinski, “Purim Sheni,” published in his Sefer ha-Moadim, Vol. 6 (Tel Aviv, 1959), pp. 297-321).

Not without controversy, following the establishment of the State of Israel, the Chief Rabbinate, together with leading authorities, looked to these precedents in establishing Yom Ha’atzmaut (and later Yom Yerushalayim) as a religious holiday, with recitation of Hallel and other festive prayers.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 94a) describes how King Hezekiah could have been Messiah, but for the fact that he failed to give praise upon the downfall of Sancherev, the Assyrian King. Hezekiah failed to give this profound experience religious expression.

Let us not make the same mistake.

So have your BBQ. Go on a hike with friends and family. But remember the religious significance of the day. Hear God knocking on the door of history. Remember God’s smile.