Yom Ha’atzma’ut 2011: Keeping the Faith

There is a member of my congregation who, at least once a year, complains to me that Jewish tradition seems incapable of letting us have an unqualified good time no matter how happy the circumstances. We break a glass under the marital chuppah, we pour wine out of our cups at the Passover Seder, we recite penitential prayers every day to remind ourselves of just how imperfect we are… why can’t we just kick back and enjoy life like others seem to be able to do?

It seems to be the “Jewish condition,” like the old joke about the telegram that says “start worrying, details to follow.”

And then there’s Yom Ha’atzma’ut– Israel Independence Day-which we marked this past Tuesday.

In Israel, the celebration of Yom Ha’atzma’ut is actually the second half of a two-day observance. The first half is Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for her fallen soldiers. That day is sacred and solemn, marked, like Yom Hashoah, by siren blasts that bring the country to a halt as it pauses to remember what has been sacrificed to get to this point. It is only after that remembrance that it celebrates.

Here in America, Yom Ha’atzma’ut is celebrated differently in different communities. In my own synagogue, we focus on the music of Israel as a meta-political means with which to connect with her from afar. It has, as has been amply pointed out in a variety of media, become increasingly difficult to find consensus on the larger issues of the “peace process,” the evolving Middle East, what the future holds, and America’s role in all this. To find a speaker for Yom Ha’atzma’ut who does justice to the multiple nuances of left and right is virtually impossible. In an effort to keep our communal eye on the proverbial ball, I use Israel’s music as the vehicle through which to enable my community to connect to the Israel that it loves.

Invariably, the music is powerfully evocative. As a rabbi and a Zionist, I thrill to hearing hundreds of people gathering together, after reciting Hallel in our evening service, to sing the songs that make up the classic Israeli songbook. Each song, in its own way, produces the kind of loving connection that transcends left and right and all of those other artificial markers that serve to divide us.

But I must say that it saddens me greatly when I contemplate just how difficult it has become to keep our “eye on the ball” when it comes to appreciating the greater significance of Israel.

The challenge of connecting people to Israel- especially younger people- on the kind of primal level that members of my generation and older have had is the subject of much discussion these days. Those who never experienced the sense of dire foreboding and subsequent exhilaration of the Six Day War, and even more importantly, the horrifying feeling of possible calamity in the Yom Kippur War, or even more, who never lived in a world without Israel, share none of the sense of miracle that correlates directly to Israel’s very existence. They have little if any a priori connection to Israel, no loving framework within which to deal with her flaws.

Seeing past her flaws is absolutely essential to loving Israel. Not ignoring her flaws, but being able to see past them to the greater issue of supporting Israel’s existence and security in a threatening and hostile world.

Each and every one of us does the same with America- don’t we? We read the papers and bemoan the political stalemate in Washington, the difficult state of our economy, our lack of faith in general in the political process and the dearth of politicians with whom we feel comfortable and in whom we feel we can trust… but who among us doesn’t love America?

Who among us doesn’t understand and appreciate how very fortunate we are to be living in this remarkable country just sixty-six years after the end of the Shoah, a place where we feel relatively safe and welcomed? Have there not been times- are there not times still- when certain policies of America cause us concern, even discomfort? And yet we love America nonetheless, where we can complain about all the things that concern us and not worry about being arrested, or threatened, or worse.

Would that all of us could do the same with Israel. Israel needs that kind of over-arching love, and deserves it. I have my share of issues with Israel like everyone else, some of them quite serious, but I have no issue at all with the preeminent importance- to me, and to my fellow Jews- of Medinat Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael– the sovereign State of Israel existing free and secure in our historic homeland of Israel.

Happy birthday, Israel- with love- and here’s to many more.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation, and vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. To read more "A Rabbi’s World" columns, click her

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.