Yom Hashoah, Yom Ha’atzma’ut, And The Jewish Condition

My sister in Israel is fond of saying that her least favorite Shabbat of the year (tongue firmly in cheek) is when we recite the blessing in anticipation of the new Hebrew month of Nisan (meaning, of course, imminent Passover and all that entails). Conversely, her favorite Shabbat is when we recite the blessing in anticipation of the new Hebrew month of Iyar (meaning, of course, the end of the Passover season, and imminent celebration of Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day).

By those criteria, this is a good time of year for my sister. We are, as of my writing, just beginning the month of Iyar, and will be celebrating Israel’s independence in just a few short days. Yom Hashoah is behind us, though the Shoah itself certainly is not, and we find ourselves in a time of radical emotional adjustment– the very epitome of transitioning from enslavement to redemption in a uniquely modern idiom.

This state of being– a kind of suspended animation between two significant times in the Jewish calendar– is not unique to the days between Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’atzma’ut. We are, of course, also suspended between Passover and Shavuot as we slowly count down (up?) the forty-nine days of the Omer leading to the anniversary of the revelation of Torah on Sinai. The time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, so critical for our personal and communal acts of penitence, has a number of names. Most know it as the Aseret Y’mei T’shuvah, the ten days of penitence, but it is also referred to as Bein Kesseh Le’asor, between the new moon and the tenth (of Tishrei). We mark the three weeks between the fast of the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, and the nine days between the first and the ninth of Av– Tisha B’Av.

Being suspended between significant time markers on the calendar seems to be our tradition’s way of obliging us to confront the fundamental tensions of Jewish life. We are either between enslavement and redemption, or justice and mercy, hope and hopelessness, the physical redemption from Egypt and the spiritual redemption of Sinai. This is who we are, a people who are rarely either here or there. Existentially speaking, we are somewhere in the middle of forces that are, if not in opposition, then surely playing against each other…

At no time in the Jewish calendar year is this phenomenon more pronounced than right at this very moment, as we find ourselves perched rather uncomfortably between Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’atzma’ut– the utter despair and hopelessness of a genocide perpetrated against us, and the unbridled exhilaration of Jewish sovereignty- a third Jewish commonwealth thousands of years in the making.

We bristle, with good cause, at the suggestion that the State of Israel was created as the response of a guilty world to the horrors of the Shoah. That narrative of the Zionist idea posits that the Palestinians have been made to suffer for the sins of Europe, and Israel’s creation was an act of unfairness visited upon the Palestinian people. President Obama mistakenly characterized Israel in this way when he spoke in Cairo during his first term in office, and he has had to expend a great deal of capital regaining the good will of the Jewish community since then.

In truth, Israel’s creation was a response to a deep-seated yearning that was thousands of years old. From the very moment of our bitter exile, first to Babylonia and then to various parts of the Roman Empire, we have longed to return to our historic homeland, and have suffered mightily for its absence. The cumulative forces of European anti-Semitism, both in the East and in the West, gave rise to a new form of political Zionism that found its first formal expression in the thought and writings of Theodore Herzl, and, some fifty years after the first Zionist Congress in Basel, to the founding of the State of Israel itself. It is fair to say that anti-Semitism like the Russian pogroms of the early twentieth century, as well as the Dreyfuss affair in France, contributed to the growing power of political Zionism, but that was an internal Jewish phenomenon. Israel came into being because the Jews who believed in it willed it into being. And it exists today, still, because of that will.

In this exquisitely nuanced time of transition between powerlessness and power, between the despair of our cataclysmic losses to the Nazis and the glory of our pride in Israel’s accomplishments, it behooves us all to pause and contemplate the incredible arc of Jewish history that we have known in our lifetime. One would be hard-pressed to come up with another period of our people that has known such extremes, such dramatic highs and lows. We have known, to be sure, much more than our share of expulsions and Crusades, but none of them were followed by the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in our historic homeland. That is our time’s unique blessing, and that is what serves to transform the awkwardness of this transition into a cause for great celebration. We have a Jewish state to support and celebrate!

Ashreinu mah tov helkeinu; how fortunate is our lot, and how beautiful our spiritual inheritance. We have mourned for those we lost– as we must. And now we shall celebrate the vibrant reality of Israel, as is our great privilege, and responsibility. Hag Atzma’ut Sameach! A happy, and meaningful, Israel Independence Day to us all…

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