Frederick L. Klein

Yom Ha’Atzmaut:  Mourning and Dreaming in a Year of Uncertainty

As we mark Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Day of Remembrance) and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, (Israel’s day of Independence), I would like to invoke yesterday’s Torah reading, which invokes the commands to “love one’s neighbor as themselves” (Lev. 19:18) and to “love the stranger in your midst” (Lev. 19:34).  Given what is going on in the region, the violence, grief, anger and bloodshed, to speak of love feels completely out of place.  Perhaps this is also why it needs to be said.

I am also very aware that I write this as a Jew living in the diaspora, in spite of the fact I lived in Israel and have children living there as well, one serving in the IDF.  I am both an insider and an outsider.  What I may say understandably will fall on deaf ears.  (I’ll come back to the parashah towards the end of my reflection.)

In truth I have been procrastinating in writing a reflection for Yom Ha’Atzmaut.  Perhaps this is because while chronologically we mark 76 years, experientially it can feel like year one all over again.  Many have noted that the modern independent state of Israel has now lasted longer than any other period of Jewish autonomy; the first commonwealth under Kind David and Solomon subsequently divided in internecine strife.  The Hasmonean kingdom similarly fell to Roman domination following political power struggles.  Similarly, the horrific attacks of Hamas occurred at the height of civil upheaval in Israel.   What does the future look like?  To predict what will be tomorrow, much less next year, is a fool’s game.

This raw and honest sense of upheaval is expressed in Israel’s submission to the Eurovision contest, the most popular song contest in the world.  Israel surprisingly placed fifth, despite efforts to exclude them from the contest altogether.  While often countries submit bubblegum pop songs, Israel submitted a song called Hurricane, sung by Eden Golan.  The song describes dancing in a chaotic storm, and the official video has dancers, clearly alluding to the Supernova music festival While the submitted song contained rays of hope (‘promise me you will hold me again’), the original version submitted to Eurovision was entitled October Rain, alluding to the shower of missiles.  The original version of the song is darker, and ends with lines uttered only in Hebrew, “there’s no air to breathe.’

And today is Yom Ha’Atzmaut, a day to celebrate.  Rabbi Doron Peretz, whose son Daniel was taken captive by Hamas on October 7 and later confirmed dead, shared powerful words at the wedding of another son Yonatan, who was seriously injured.  Still waiting for news from Daniel, the family decided to ultimately go forward with Yonatan’s wedding, a statement of resilience and determination.  He noted that the book of Ecclesiastes teaches ‘there is a time to rejoice and a time to weep.’  However, he added, we need to learn to do both at the same time.  His words have echoed in my heart in the past few months.

On Yom HaZikaron we indeed weep for the many soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the past few months from a war not of their choosing.  We will mark the murder of innocent victims of vicious terror.  Thousands dead. And yet, a minute later we will rejoice.

This year undoubtedly is a turning point in the history of the Jewish people, but we should consider what the world looked like only a little more than seventy-six years ago.  We were a people without a land, a people still grieving for the loss of over six million Jews.  The fledging State established by no means was ensured to survive, and one percent of the population was killed in the War of Independence.  Jews were being uprooted throughout the Middle East, North Africa and the Levant, and communities which had flourished for hundreds of years suddenly disappeared.

Yet, what was the State of Israel, or more properly the people of Israel able to accomplish?  In a short lifetime, we were able to thwart those committed to our destruction and at the same time absorb hundreds of thousands of immigrants.  We were able to birth a rich Hebrew language and culture, opening first rate universities and centers of knowledge.  Israel prints more books per capita than any country in the world.  We were able to become leaders in research and development, to become a ‘start-up nation.’   According to the index of happiness, Israel consistently scores as one of the happiest countries in the world, with strong social networks, spiritual life, and large families.  Given the region in which Israel exists, all of this is truly remarkable.  I might even say miraculous.

And most, despite the events of October 7, we actualized the promise we made to the Survivors.  “Never Again” was not a slogan, but a mission to protect our people at all costs, and while the failures of October 7 will need to be investigated (like America’s report following 9/11), there was an October 8. We could respond as a military, and Jews around the world mobilized together to support Israel in its time of need.  Whatever one’s opinions on how this war has been waged, the very fact that Jews have hard power enables us as a people to choose options.  After Kristallnacht, 1938, what options did we really have?

All of this is Dayenu, enough for us to say praise, that we as Jews have the fortune to live in such an auspicious time, a time in which our ancestors could only imagine in their dreams.  Israel is as much as a reality as is France, or Italy or the United States for that matter.  For those misguided ‘activists’ railing against the very existence of Israel as opposed to seeking a way forward, they might as well rail against the fact that the world is round and should be flat.  Israel is a fact, and we do not need to justify our reason to be any more or any less than any other country in the world.

However, no doubt this year’s holiday will be subdued, as the future course is unclear at this present moments.   We certainly cannot truly celebrate when over a hundred Israelis are still in captivity; indeed, until they come home we cannot truly move forward.  However, we can find meaningful ways to consider the future.  We are a people of hope at our core.

I have mentioned the radical transformation of the Jewish people in under a century.  The Zionist movement in a very real way was anti-messianic; it was an attempt to assert Jewish agency in the real world and no longer wait for Divine interventions.  While the Zionist movement had many different streams of thought, clearly in light of the Holocaust and Jewish vulnerability, at root the movement was committed to undoing the dynamic of Jewish victimhood. (This is the core reason so many Israelis feel rage towards their government; on October 7 they failed in this basic obligation.)  While in religious texts the innocent Jew who died was a martyr, glorifying God’s name, ultimately in the Zionist ethos this was a badge of shame.  A Jew fights back, a Jew has agency.  They build cities, they transform the deserts, they upend what it means to be a Jews.  They do not wait for messiahs or an ideal world.

The Zionist movement has been successful in that it posited the highest ideal was the State, what Ben Gurion called mamlachtiyut.  The price of this radical transformation was to a certain degree to transform the nature of the Jew himself; all his ultimate efforts are to be employed to advance the goal of a vibrant state that could protect its citizens.  The IDF embodied this ethos, a citizen army not only out of necessity, but as an ideal.  More than any other institution, the IDF inculcates among every Israeli that service and sacrifice is the highest ideal in the service of the Jewish people.  Anyone who has ever been to the State of Israel on Yom HaZikaron, visiting the military cemetery on Mount Herzl, understands this value viscerally in a way no Jew outside Israel ever could.   Yom HaZikaron is the holy of holies for Israelis.

In the course of Israel’s history, Israel has tried to absorb many populations from around the world.  These absorptions have not been without their challenges, especially with Jews from the Middle East and Levant.  Similarly, in addition to the very traditional Jews that had lived in the old Yishuv, Israel has absorbed Jews from every background and culture around the world.  Many, like the ultra-Orthodox, never accepted the Zionist ethos, a nationalistic identity separated from religious observance.  Moreover, other populations were absorbed through war and conquest.  While some of these populations, like the Druze, have become part of the tapestry of the State, other populations have had at times a  tenuous relationship with the State, like the Bedouin or Israeli Arabs.  Twenty percent of its citizens are not Jewish, and they too need a sense of belonging.  Finally, there are forces within Israel’s sphere of authority that are clearly security threats, do not have equal rights, and reject the very nature of a Jewish state.  Of course, I speak of the Palestinians.

In saying all of this I do not place blame.  I am simply making a sociological observation that the State of Israel is responsible for a population that has secularists and traditionalists, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Tel Aviv Jews and Jerusalem Jews, Jews and Arabs, and Israelis and Palestinians.  If Israel is ultimately to be a State for all its people, it will need to give voice to the various narratives, the various truths, of all its populations.  Before October 7, the daily social upheaval in Israel at its most basic level was an expression of a struggle of various groups to define the very contours of the State itself.   The very ideology that was needed to build the State itself, will need to evolve to include larger circles of voices in such a way that all feel part of our beloved State of Israel.  This must happen among Jews, among Jews and its non-Jewish citizens, and ultimately with those who see us as their enemies.

Rabbi Shimon Gerson Rosenberg, known in Israel as Rav Shagar, was trained in classical religious Zionist Yeshivot, most prominently Merkaz HaRav, the yeshiva of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook.  Over the decades, Rav Shagar came to the realization that the ideology of Zionism upon which he was reared was not sufficiently flexible enough to build a peaceful coexistence, and for him that ultimately would include the Palestinians in his midst.   Over his 58 years (he died from cancer in 2007), he began to formulate a sustained critique of ideologies in general based in post-modern thought, a topic beyond our concerns here.  However, what is important about post-modernism is the claim that there is no overarching unified truth, but rather partial and subjective truths.  Overarching ideologies are bound to suppress the subjective narratives of individuals and societies.  He notes that when ideology dictates education, it creates ‘people driven by abstract ideas and by alienation from reality.’ Any attempt to impose one framework which denies multiple truths does violence to the subjective experience of others and their lived experiences.[1]

This brings us back to this past week’s parashah, which includes the directive v’ehavta lereacha kamocha, generally translated as ‘love your neighbor as yourself.  Rabbi Akiva called it the great principle of the Torah.   Probably technically the verse does not mean to love your neighbor like yourself, but rather to express love and good will towards the other as you would want done unto yourself.[2]  It is a positive formulation of Hillel’s adage, that the core of all Jewish teachings is ‘do not do to others what you would not want done unto you.”  Indeed, the commandment of love is embedded in verses forbidding hate, taking revenge or holding grudges, which only deepen a cycle of violence. Here, the mitzvah is directed at those who are ‘your neighbor’, those with whom you relate and are within your inner sphere.

However, a number of verses later, the Torah expands the mandate.

When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt

In these verses, like the former, the command to love is prefaced with the prohibition to oppress them.  Indeed, those outside the camp, those who are not our neighbors, are targets of abuse.  How does the verse challenge us to bring these strangers into our circles of concern?  Because they are like us in a very real way.  They are dispossessed strangers just as you have been.

Chacham Chizkiyah Shabtai (1862-1955) emigrated to the land of Israel from his native Salonika.  He contributed to the publication of the Ladino classic Meam Loez, and served in congregations in Aleppo, Britain, and in 1926 became the head of the Rabbinic Court in Jerusalem.  His book Divrei Hizkiyahu contains sermons and halakhic rulings.  He writes the following:

And this matter of loving one another, and coming to each other’s aid, is not needed between a Jew and their friend, but rather also upon their neighbor – who is not Jewish, they must be treated with love, and their wellbeing sought after, and apart from being intuitive behavior, the holy Torah, which advocates acting in ways of peace, commands us to do so as well.

For the wicked Egyptians who worshipped strange gods, who greatly tormented us, and did not refrain from forcing our nation into slave labor. Therefore, the Torah commanded us to rise above and not submit to hate, since we were strangers in their land.

All the more so [we should be kind] to the nations of our times, who do not worship strange gods, and we live in their lands as foreigners and citizens. We must surely act towards them with love and affection. And if – God forbid – they are in distress, we are obligated to share in their pain and feel sorry for them… so it is our obligation to love them, as one loves their fellow person, and that way they will recognize and know that we have an upstanding doctrine which instructs us in the way of truth, and the nations of all the earth will see that we are called by God’s name. [3]

Even the Torah enjoins us not to hate the Egyptians, despite what ultimately happened, because at least initially Jacob’s family were welcomed and given refuge!  (Deut. 23:7)  It is interesting to note this was written before the State of Israel, and probably written while he was outside Israel, and Jews were subject at times to the whims of tyrants. How much truer are his words when we are blessed with autonomy and real power!

Does this mean we do not respond to those who plan to kill us?  Absolutely not. “To fear the Lord is to hate evil” (Prov. 8:13), and this year we have seen people who are truly evil.   We have an absolute right, indeed a moral obligation, to defend our families.  At the same time, the Torah points to an expansive world view, in which our own homelessness, our own suffering, our own dispossession from home, gives us context as to how we must see the others in our midst.  Just as we need to approach those of our family, our ‘neighbor’, with care and generosity, we are enjoined to also go beyond.

As individuals, and as nations, we are embedded in networks of interlocking circles, even those with whom we would rather not.  However, we cannot simply wish their existences away.  At some point in the future, we will need to create a homeland which can create ways to hold multiple identities, both between Jews, between Israeli Jews and diaspora Jews, between and between Jews and other indigenous people in the region that also call this place home.

I do not know how or when that will happen.  I do know that a fatalistic view towards the future, that ‘there can never be peace,’ will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If it took 75 years to build the State of Israel as we know it, the next 75 years we will need to create a dialogue in which diverse groups of people feel a sense of ownership and home.  To do this, we will need to build a Zionism not only focusing on strength and security, but also a Zionism that maximizes the happiness and dignity of all those in its care.  It will probably begin as an internal conversation among the citizens of the State of Israel, as well as between Israel and Jews in the diaspora, but in my view will ultimately need to expand to those who are in our midst.  (President Herzog began an initiative to begin these global dialogues, but they were cut short by October 7. )

The trauma we are experiencing creates fear and mistrust.  This is very understandable, but we need to learn also in time to heal from this trauma.  Thus, while we must defend our rights and out families, we cannot allow those who would destroy us to destroy our sense of  vision and purpose.  If they do, they win.

Rabbi Tirza Firestone in her wonderful book, From Wounds into Wisdom: Healing Intergenerational Jewish Trauma tells a story about a Romanian refugee- he served in the Red Army, suffered in Romania under Antonescu’s Fascists, and survived the Holocaust.  He was moved from place to place until he came to Israel.  In therapy with Rabbi Firestone, who is a psychotherapist, he invoked the adage of Ben Zoma, who opined, “Who is the warrior?  One who can subdue his inner inclinations” (Ethics of the Father 4:1).  However, he begged to differ.  “It is not enough only to subdue ones’ inner rage and anger, but ultimately lehofech oyev l’ohev, to transform individuals and people from an oyev, an enemy, to an ohev, one’s friend or loved one.

Rabbi Firestone, taken aback by his remarkable response, was almost incredulous. “How are you, a person who has seen true evil in people able to believe such a thing?!”

“I came into this world to love and not to hate.  To do this I must inhabit the space of the other, even my enemy.  The Palestinians made a mistake.  They did not see a suffering people, but instead committed to throw us into the sea.  “That was not a good strategy.’  They did not see our trauma.

This Holocaust survivor, and an entire generation, experienced unspeakable tragedy.  Their message is instructive for us in these days.  Many have remarked that “Israel will never be the same.”  For the people who believe in hope, that history is not predetermined, I choose to read these words in a new light.  It is true, Israel will not be the same.  In the same way that the Jewish people caused Ezekiel’s dry bones to reanimate, to make the desert bloom, we will build an even greater future.  From the depths of pain, trauma and anger, we will work and commit to building a new world in which all find peace.  I conclude with the words of the Rabbis:

Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta said: the Holy One, Blessed be He, found no vessel that could contain blessing for Israel save that of peace, as it is written: “The Lord will give strength unto his people; the Lord will bless his people with peace” (Psalms 29:11).[4]

May this be our next great mission, which will also be our great strength.  Not only does the Jewish people need peace, but so does the world.


[1] Just to give one example, he notes how many religious Zionist youth are forced to choose, “Are you Jewish or are your Israeli,” when in fact they have multiple identities. See, “Education and Ideology” in Luchot U’shiveri Luchot.  I thank Mijal Biton for directing me to this source in a lecture she gave at the Hartman Institute in the Summer of 2022.

[2] See the commentary of Nachmanides on the Torah.

[3] Hakham Hizkiyah Shabtai, Divrei Yehizkiyahu, p. 156-7, Full printing of Rabbi Ezra Hayyim of Damas[3]cus, Aleppo (1921). My thanks to Drori Yehoshua for directing me to this source in his curriculum focusing on the humanistic aspects of many Sephardic leaders, produced by Machon Hadar’s Project Zug.

[4] Mishna Uktzin 3:12

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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