When municipalities across Israel start to decorate the main streets with blue and white ribbons and the Israeli flags ahead of Passover, my heart skips a beat. I get tears in my eye whenever I look at the Israeli flag. Whenever I hear the singing of “Hatikva”, Israeli’s national anthem, I never manage to hide my emotions. As an observant Jew, I attend synagogue on a daily basis, including on all of the Jewish holidays and fast days. But no day are my prayers as heart-felt as on Yom Ha’atzmaut, the State of Israel’s birthday.
I am often asked about how I turned out to be such die-hard Zionist. I always reply that “I read Leon Uris’s ‘Exodus’ before God’s ‘Exodus’. Although it might sound heretical, Leon Uris’s Exodus had a bigger impact on me than any of the other 24 books in the Hebrew Bible or vast array of Rabbinic literature.
While there have always been waves of Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel over the past two millennia, it’s only the movement that started with the “1st Aliyah” in 1882 and continues to our generation that has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. Perhaps the strongest symbolism of the unprecedented period in which we live is the juxtaposition of the greatest trauma in Jewish history and the subsequent fulfillment of all of the prophecies that speak of our people’s massive return to Zion. Former chief Rabbi Meir Lau has even compared the return to Zion and establishment of the State of Israel in our generation to the “Splitting of the Red Sea”.
If this isn’t convincing enough, one needs only to read an excerpt of Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad” in which he records his impressions of his 1867 visit to Israel. Anyone familiar with today’s prospering Israel finds it hard to believe that he’s describing the same location.
“Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince. The hills are barren, they are dull of color, they are unpicturesque in shape. The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with a feeble vegetation that has an expression about it of being sorrowful and despondent.”
Rabbi Shalom Gold once made the following statement: “If you want to talk to God, go to the Kotel (Western Wall), but if you want to see him, go to Mahane Yehuda”. (Jerusalem’s largest fruit and produce market). The reference is to a vast array of sources that speak of a reality that anyone who has ever stepped foot in modern Israel cannot avoid seeing and tasting. Most famously, the Babylonian Talmudic tractate of Sanhedrin 98 which states: “There is no clearer sign of the End than this, as it is said ‘But you, O mountains of Israel, you shall shoot forth your branches and bear your fruit for My people Israel’. There is something about the taste of Israeli produce, especially tomatoes and cucumbers, that doesn’t even compare with that of the Diaspora. When travelling abroad, my young children become aware of this from the moment they eat their first salad.
The incredible blessings of the past 69 years are undeniable. When I recite the 10th blessing of the ‘Amidah’ three times per day, “Blessed are you God, who gathers in the dispersed of his people Israel”, I get a tear in my eye because I realize that our prayers have finally been answered. Although some 600,000 Jews had already made it here in time for the establishment of the State of Israel, the Turks and British at times severely limited Jewish immigration. It was only with the the founding of the state that we once again took control of our destiny. On May 15th, 1948, when the State of Israel was less than one day old, the first 1,000 Jewish refugees arrived on three ships. No, these were not “refugees”, but rather the State of Israel’s first 1,000 “olim” (immigrants)! 69 years later, there are more than 6 million Jews living in Israel, likely more than at anytime. The massive return to Zion was only possible as a result of Ben Gurion’s 33-minute declaration of independence, an event that opened the gateway to the outpouring of blessings that were to follow.
But yet, many observant Jews who are ostensibly deeply connected with our heritage still do not celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut or even recite a prayer for the Israeli soldiers. How could this be? Instead of acknowledging all of the blessings that surround us, much of the Ultra-Orthodox world still sees the State of Israel as a symbol of the “secular heretics”. This blinds them to the undeniable objective reality. But it’s not only the ultra-Orthodox world that has this problem.
Recently, I had a conversation with someone who wears a knit-kippa and attends a religious Zionist synagogue where Yom Ha’atzmaut is celebrated. Nonetheless, he said “I’d rather live in the Diaspora and be called a “Jid” (derogatory term for a Jew in many European languages) than to deal with all of the problems here”. He proceeded to complain about a long list of problems in today’s Israel, from the economic situation, corruption, security threats and tensions between Ashkenazik and Sephardic Jews. He himself had made Aliyah to Israel as a child. “For every complaint that you have about Israel, I can give 100 blessings”, I challenged him. Surprisingly, he agreed with me.
No sooner than the Israelites were saved from the Egyptian army with the splitting of the Red Sea, they started to complain and even longed to return to the land of their persecution and slavery. The fact that many Jews today have lost site of the miracles and blessings that surround us is not surprising. We have gotten lost in the forest and only see the individual trees. Only when we remove our spiritual blinders will we truly appreciate what Yom Ha’atzmaut is all about! Hag sameach!
Eric Grosser is a native of East Liverpool Ohio, and received his B.A from the Ohio State University and M.B.A from Bar-Ilan University. Eric is a certified Israel Tour Guide and founder of Holy Land Escape. He lives with his wife Einav Grosser and six children in Rehovot, Israel, and writes extensively, on current events and every-day life in modern Israel.