Not for the first time, my thoughts on Israel’s Memorial Day and Independence Day turn to the remarkable teaching of Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch regarding the counting of the omer – both the measure of barley we once brought to the Temple after Passover, and the counting of the days between freedom from Egypt and receiving the Ten Commandments at Sinai. In 2014, I suggested that this text should be a permanent fixture of our liturgy for Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day):
You shall count seven complete weeks from after the Shabbat (interpreted as the first Day of Passover) – from the day you bring the barley sheaf of elevation. (Leviticus 23:15)
“You have already celebrated the festival of your freedom. You have already given thanks to God for the independence that you have been privileged to receive, dwelling in your and eating from the bread of the Land. You already achieved the freedom and the wellbeing of independence, that generally are thought of as the ultimate goal all national aspirations. However, you are to see yourselves as only at the outset of your national purpose; Now you must begin to count towards the achievement of another goal. As it is stated differently in Deuteronomy 16:9, “Start counting the seven weeks when the sickle is first put to the standing grain. Where others finish counting, you must begin your counting.”
In other words, there is no independence from responsibility. The purpose of the freedom we achieved on Passover was to arrive at Sinai and take upon ourselves the yoke of the commandments. The fact that we count the omer when we are already enjoying the grains we planted in Israel after arriving, and that Yom HaAzmaut takes place during the counting of the omer, teaches us that, although we have arrived in the Promised Land, we have not yet made it to Sinai.
Recently I heard Rabbi Ariel Picard remind us that, while Maimonides believed that the prophecy that “The wolf will live with the sheep and the leopard shall lie down with the lamb” (Isaiah 11:6) is “a parable and a riddle, he concludes his Mishna Torah by stating, “The Sages and the Prophets did not long for the days of the Messiah because they wanted to rule the world or because they wanted to have dominion over the non-Jews or because they wanted the nations to exalt them or because they wanted to eat, drink and be merry. Rather, they desired this so that they would have time for Torah and its Wisdom. And there would be no one who would oppress them or force them to be idle (from Torah)… …At that time there will be no hunger and no wars, no envy and no competition. For the Good will have great influence. Mishna Torah Hilkhot Melakhim v’Milkhamot12:7-8)
We still have work to do – a lot of work – each and every one of us.
We are not expected to complete the task alone, as we learn from Pirkei Avot during the counting of the omer, but neither are we free to desist from doing our part. (Pirkei Avot 2:16) We must not be defensive about our human failings, but honest with ourselves. We have far to travel through the desert until all Israelis enjoy security, equality and well-being. We have much to do so that we cease to be a curse to many of those who live among us and around us, and witness the fulfillment of the promise made time and again to our ancestors, “Through you shall all the peoples of the earth be blessed.” (For example, Genesis 12:3) We have much Torah to learn, and must work hard on ourselves individually and collectively to banish envy and competition from our hearts.
So, this Independence Day, let us remember all we have to celebrate—just how far we have come after two thousand years of statelessness and oppression, and reeling from the Holocaust. But, let us also recommit ourselves to how far we have to go until we fulfill our God mandated national purpose. Keeping our “eyes on the prize,” let us remember that Sinai, and the Zion our eyes are focused on in our national anthem, is a better world for all humanity in which heavenly and earthly Jerusalem (Yerushalayim shel ma’alah and Yerushalayim shel mata) are united.
Wishing a Meaningful Memorial Day and a Khag Sameakh-A Holiday of Joy, and Rededication to Responsibility