Thursday, April 15, 2010

What is Yom HaAtzmaut?

The Rabbis of the Gemara ask in the Tractate of Shabbat: Mai Chanukkah? "What is Chanukkah?" In regards to Purim as well they ask: "What is Purim?" The Rabbis of the Gemara were certainly familiar with the stories and observances of Chanukkah and Purim. Their question meant: "What is the significance, the purpose and the meaning of Chanukkah and of Purim?" Similarly, today we must ask ourselves: "What is Yom HaAzmaut? What is its essence and its meaning?"

Mai Yom HaAtzmaut? What is Yom HaAtzmaut? What is the significance of the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel after a 2000 year hiatus? What is the meaning of the great signs and wonders, the miracles that accompanied our return to our homeland? What does the revival of a dead language, the ingathering of the Jewish people from North, South, East and West, the blossoming of the deserts of the Land of Israel and the rebuilding of its desolate cities mean? Is this coincidence, haphazard and happenstance, or proof and testament to the existence of the G-d of Israel as ruler and director of history?

Yom HaAtzmaut must be viewed as the atchalta de'Geula, the beginning of our Redemption. How does Redemption come? The Prophet Yishayahu speaks of the Redemption: "In its time, I will hasten it" (60:22). Redemption can come in one of two ways: it can come in the way of "I will hasten it", with incredible miracles, with outpourings of divine kindness and clear revelations, or the way of "in its times", through natural processes, hard work and suffering. As our rabbis teach: "If they merit- I will hasten it. If they don't merit- in its time" (Sanhedrin 98).

The reestablishment of the State of Israel marks the beginning of the Redemption in its time, a redemption hidden and clouded through the forces of nature, devoid of the merit of the Jewish people. If this redemption is not based on our merit, then what is it based on? The Prophet Yechezkel provides us with the answer:

"And I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed through the countries. According to their way and their misdeeds did I judge them. And they entered the nations where they came, and they profaned My Holy Name, inasmuch as it was said of them, 'These are the people of the Lord, and they have come out of His land.' But I had pity on My Holy Name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations to which they had come. Therefore, say to the house of Israel; So says the Lord God: Not for your sake do I do this, O house of Israel, but for My Holy Name, which you have profaned among the nations to which they have come. And I will sanctify My great Name, which was profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord-is the declaration of the Lord God-when I will be sanctified through you before their eyes."

The Prophet makes it clear that the essence of exile is Chillul HaShem, the Desecration of G-d's Name, because the nations said: "These are the people of the Lord, and they have come out of His land." The fact that the nation of G-d are exiled from their land is a desecration of G-d's Name, and makes Him seem to be powerless or nonexistent (c"v). Conversely, the return of the Jewish people to their land before the eyes of the entire world is the greatest Kiddush HaShem, Sanctification of G-d's Name, because it proves that G-d alone controls and rules the world.

Exile is a Desecration of G-d's Name. When Jews are weak, when they are persecuted and oppressed, G-d's Name is desecrated. Every pogrom and Inquisition, every blood libel and attack on a Jew is a desecration of G-d's Name. When the nations of the world mock and curse the Jewish people, the blaspheme and deny G-d. When Jews are beaten, expelled, raped and murdered, G-d's Name is humiliated. This denial of G-d and hatred for the Jewish people characterized the Exile. This terrible Desecration of G-d's Name reached its apex during the dark and unspeakable Holocaust, when the nations of the world banded together to annihilate the Jewish people. The wicked Nazis, during the years of the Holocaust, managed to murder one third of the Jewish people, to destroy entire communities in gas chambers and ovens, to turn Jewish fat into soap and Jewish skin into lampshades. They had no mercy on the young, the old, men and women. Jewish powerlessness was at its ultimate as the Nazi sadists taunted the Jews who were marching to their deaths in Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka: "Where is your G-d? Why doesn't He save you?"

This is when the full measure of humiliation and desecration was reached and G-d could no longer bear it. "Not for your sake do I do this, O house of Israel, but for My Holy Name, which you have profaned among the nations to which they have come." And thus G-d declared the beginning of the Redemption, the end of Exile- of Chillul HaShem. This meant the shaking off of the fear of the gentile, of the helplessness and weakness of the Jewish people, of a sovereign and free Jewish state. No longer would Jews cower in fear before their enemies! No more Auschwitz! No more Crusades and Inquisitions! The dream of Jewish strength, of Jewish hands holding Jewish guns defending the Jewish state was now a reality.

Through the incredible miracles of the reestablishment of the State of Israel, G-d demonstrated that He controls human events and shapes its destiny. The rebirth of the Jewish nation from the ashes of Europe, the revival of the Hebrew language, the return of the exiles from Yemen, Poland, Russia, Morocco, Ethiopia, and the four corners of the earth, the victory of the tiny Jewish state against one million Arab troops committed to its annihilation, are all proof of G-d's guiding hand. Yom HaAtzmaut is a day of Kiddush HaShem, when we celebrate G-d's amazing salvations and kindnesses to His people. Never in the annals of history has a nation scattered around the globe come home from two millenia of exile and persecution to reestablish itself in its ancient homeland.

The Prophet Yechezkel gives us a powerful metaphor through which we can understand Yom HaAtzmaut. In a famous vision, the Prophet describes being shown a valley full of dry bones, as far as the eye could see. G-d commanded Yechezkel to prophecy over these dry bones, and these bones grew sinews, muscles and skin. They stood up, yet they were void and empty of spirit. G-d told Yechezkel to prophecy again, and life was blown into these bones. Astonished, G-d explained the meaning of this to Yechezkel:

""Son of man, these bones are all the house of Israel. Behold they say, 'Our bones have become dried up, our hope is lost, we are clean cut off to ourselves.' Therefore, prophesy and say to them, So says the Lord God: Lo! I open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves as My people, and bring you home to the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and lead you up out of your graves as My people. And I will put My spirit into you, and you shall live, and I will set you on your land, and you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken it and have performed it," says the Lord."

G-d showed Yechezkel the shattered communities of Europe, the smoking chimneys of Auschwitz, the mountain of ashes of Majdanek, the killing fields of the Ukraine. He showed him the terrible destruction wrought against the Jewish people. Yechezkel began to lose hope as he saw the bleak reality of the Jewish people. At that moment, G-d's reassurance came to him: "I open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves as My people, and bring you home to the land of Israel." G-d would bring new lift to the dry bones of the Jewish people. They would be reborn in their own country.

When we celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, we must be conscious of this important message. G-d had mercy on His people and sanctified His name among the nations. "What is Yom HaAtzmaut?" Kiddush HaShem! G-d has begun the process, but it is up to us to finish it, to bring the Final Redemption through our own merits, by a return to Him. We must bring the Redemption swiftly and speedily.

May we soon witness the fulfillment of the promise of the Prophet Yechezkel speedily in our days:

"So says the Lord God: On the day that I will have cleansed you from all your iniquities, and I will resettle the cities, and the ruins shall be built up. And the desolate land shall be worked, instead of its lying desolate in the sight of all that pass by. And they shall say, 'This land that was desolate has become like the Garden of Eden, and the cities that were destroyed and desolate and pulled down have become settled as fortified [cities].' And the nations that are left round about you shall know that I, the Lord, have built up the ruined places and have planted the desolate ones; I, the Lord, have spoken, and I will perform [it]. So says the Lord God: I will yet for this be inquired of by the house of Israel to do for them; I will multiply them-the men-like a flock of sheep. Like the flocks appointed for the holy offerings, like the flocks of Jerusalem on its festivals, so will these cities now laid waste be filled with flocks of men, and they shall know that I am the Lord.""

Amen. Chag HaAtzmaut Sameach!

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