On solemnity and celebration: Yom Ha’atzmaut 2016

This week an Israeli colleague posted on Facebook, “Why are all Jewish holidays celebrated in the Diaspora with the exception of Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day)?  While I reject the premise of his question, since I have been a part of such observances in America my entire life, I understood that what he meant was whether or how the two modern Israeli holidays might be experienced as Jewish holidays as much as they are Israeli days of commemoration.  It’s a particularly relevant question as the Jewish calendar marks these two days this week, only a week following the other modern addition to the Jewish holiday cycle, Yom Hashoah v’Hagvurah (Commemoration of the Holocaust and Heroism).

These three holidays were added after the founding of the State of Israel on May 1948, for the 5th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar, immediately preceded by Memorial Day.  The Knesset (Israeli Parliament) formally set the commemoration of the Holocaust in 1953, and Jewish communities around the world mark these days with solemn ceremony and celebration, respectively.

I know that synagogues, Jewish Day Schools, and other Jewish organizations promote and mark these days in many ways, and at the same time, living outside of Israel can further distance Jewish communities if there aren’t points of engagement and connection with Israel the rest of the year. Yet, I believe that this isn’t inevitable.  Twenty years ago, I learned from Avram Infeld, one of the most unique and compelling teachers with whom I have ever had the chance to study, how these modern holidays infuse our current holiday cycle with added identity formation.

Infeld called the nine days in between Yom Hashoah and the 24 hour Yom Hazikaron lead into Yom Haatzmaut, “the nine days of redemption.”  If the ten days in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur represent days of personal introspection, these nine days are of Jewish communal commemoration. This combination of days helps create the “I-we” relationship that underscores Jewish peoplehood.

The Jewish holiday cycle is not just a series of individual holy days and festivals.  Holidays are linked to one another to constitute a process of ritualizing, thereby strengthening the connective tissue of the Jewish people.  The holiday of Passover celebrates the Exodus from Egypt and is made more powerful in its link to Shavuot, which celebrates our freedom to receive Torah. Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of Av) is preceded by three weeks of mourning, from the moment when Jerusalem was attacked in 70 CE. The celebration of the New Year at Rosh Hashanah, is deepened by the process of teshuva (return, repentance) that culminates on Yom Kippur.

Sacred time in the Diaspora is experienced as the sacred time of the Jewish people as a whole, as it is in Israel.  Since the founding of the modern State of Israel, this modern holiday cycle of Yom Hashoah – Yom Hazikaron – Yom Ha’atzmaut may be more deeply embedded in the Israeli psyche, but I believe can also deepen and expand Jewish identity formation for the Diaspora as well.

In Israel this process is felt most profoundly by the two-minute siren sounded all over the country both on Yom Hashoah and on Yom Hazikaron. Everything from the traffic on the highway to people shopping in stores comes to a halt to stand with respect for Jewish communal life that was nearly destroyed by the Holocaust, and then for those who have given their lives so that the Jewish people and the State of Israel could remain a strong and vibrant homeland. In the Diaspora, we don’t have a communal siren, but we have communal gatherings that bring together Israelis and Americans to share in the grief and honor of our collective communal past.  The celebration of Yom Haatzmaut can and should be an opportunity, in Israel and the Diaspora, to reflect and celebrate the existential yearnings of the Jewish people: to be like all other countries who yearned to breath free and independent, and the particularistic nature of Jewish identity that demands Israel be worthy of the memory of the past, and create a vibrant and peaceful future for all its inhabitants.

As we celebrate Israel’s 68th birthday, the legacy of our past and the challenge of our future remain deeply connected to these feelings. I pray that Jews all over the world might connect with the notion of these “Nine Days of Redemption,” in that the message is timeless, and demands all of those who love Israel to engage and contribute to that redemption. May the celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut in Israel and the Diaspora lead the Jewish people beyond bitterness and despair, bring an end to suffering, and may we continue to work for a future where the “I-we” connection is all of our responsibility.

About the Author
Rabbi Yael B. Ridberg serves as the spiritual leader of Congregation Dor Hadash in San Diego, California. In addition to her congregational responsibilities, Rabbi Ridberg serves on the Board of The San Diego Jewish Academy. She lives in La Jolla with her husband and four daughters.
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