Yom Ha’atzmaut 5771: From Grief to Joy
Bnei Akiva service at Finchley Synagogue
Lichvod hashagrir Medinat Yisrael, lichvod mara d’atra, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, beloved friends. In shul this past Shabbat, we read the words that define the extended mitzvah of this period of the Jewish year: “Us’fartem lachem mimacharat haShabbat”, the command to count the Omer (Vayikra 23:15). And it is clear from the Torah itself what this command was. It was the act of gratitude, of a people in its own land thanking God for its barley harvest, a time of thanksgiving and joy. There’s not a word, not a hint, about the Omer being a period of mourning, a grief observed. Not a word about not having weddings or haircuts, not having occasions of joy. What happened to change these days from a period of celebration to one of sadness? It was three events, three hammer blows of fate and tragedy.
The first is alluded to in the famous statement in the Gemara about the 12,000 pairs of disciples of Rabbi Akiva who died at this period “mipnei shelo nohagu kavod zeh lazeh” because they did not act respectfully towards one another (Yevamot 62b). To those familiar with the Iggeret Rav Sherira Gaon, to those who understand the way the Talmud Bavli deals with history, they know that what the Talmud is telling us in its highly coded way is about the tragedy of the Bar Kochba rebellion and its aftermath, the Hadrianic persecutions in which, according to the Roman historian, Dio, our witness of those events, 985 villages and settlements were destroyed, 580,000 Jews killed – quite possibly one third of the Jewish population of the time – and the entire land of Israel laid waste. It was, in human terms, the worst Jewish tragedy until the Holocaust. And it led to a statement in the Babylonian Talmud, in Bava Batra, daf samech, amud beis, which I find the most terrifying statement in the whole of Jewish literature. It says, from the moment this persecution began, “din hu shenigzar al atzmeinu shelo lisa ishah u’leholid banim”, by rights, there should be no more Jewish marriages, no more Jewish children, “v’nimzta zaroh shel Avraham Avinu kaleh me’alav”, so that the Jewish people come to an end of its own accord (Bava Batra 60b). That was the first echoing tragedy of this Sefirat HaOmer.
The second was on a smaller scale, but was no less traumatic. It began with the First Crusade in 1096 when, instead of going east to Jerusalem as the Pope had ordered, the crusaders went north to France and the Rhine, massacring Jewish communities in Worms, Speyer, Mainz and elsewhere throughout the Rhine, the beginning of what one non-Jewish historian has called a ‘persecuting society’. The beginning of one of the darkest periods of Jewish history in which Jews were accused of poisoning wells, spreading the plague, desecrating the Host, of killing, God forbid, Christian children for their blood, and all this in the name of the God of forgiveness and love. It was a nightmare, and one that lasted for half a millennium.
And because the main events of that story, the opening events, happened at this time of the year, that became the second layer of grief of Sefirat HaOmer. And then, just when one had reason to think that things could get no worse, Europe delivered the unkindest cut of all. In an age of enlightenment and emancipation, in the very land of Bach, and Beethoven, and Mozart, and Kant, and Hagel, and Goethe, and Schüler, was born the deadliest form of prejudice the world has ever seen. Racial antisemitism, far worse than the Christian anti-Judaism of the Middle Ages, because you can change your faith but you cannot change your race. If Jews are a religion, then you can work for their conversion, but if Jews are a race, you can only work, God forbid, for their elimination.
And it was then, in the depth of that dark night, that some wise and far-seeing individuals said, enough! We have shed too many tears. No people in history should shed any more. And whether they were religious, like Rav Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer, and Rav Yehuda Alkalai, and Rav Mohilever, and Rav Reines, or they were secular, like Moses Hess in 1862, Yehudah Leib Pinsker, 1882, Theodor Herzl in 1896, they heard the voice of God, or fate, or history, or plain common sense, calling the Jewish people back to the land of our origins, the one place on earth the Jewish people have ever known. Home, in the sense defined by the poet, Robert Frost, as the place where when you have to go there, they have to let you in.
But too few listened. And so the third layer of grief was added to Sefirat HaOmer: Yom HaShoah, which we observed last week. And then came the day the State of Israel was declared: Yom Ha’atzmaut, 63 years ago, the first joyful day to be added to this tear-stained calendar in 2000 years. The Gemara says “umah me’avdut l’cheirut amrinan shira ” – if we say Hallel in being taken from oppression to freedom, “mimitah l’chaim lo kol shekein”, should we not all the more say it when we were taken from death to life itself (Megilla 14a)? That is what the birth of the State of Israel means to the Jewish people. We were taken from death to life itself, and that is what we celebrate today, the first day of joy to be added to the Jewish calendar in 2000 years.
And we say, “me’et Hashem hayta zot”, this thing came from God, “hi niflat b’eineinu”, and it is wondrous in our eyes (Tehillim 118:23). Israel represents the decisive, irreversible, non-negotiable turning point in Jewish history. When the Jewish people said, enough of tears, enough of the passive endurance of crusades, persecutions, pogroms, forced conversions, inquisitions, expulsions. Enough of dependence on people who, when we needed them, were not there. Enough of lamentations and litanies of grief. Let us be what God called on us to be, am chofshi b’artzeinu, a free people in our land.
And today, other people in the Middle East are fighting for their freedom, in Egypt, in Libya, in Syria, in Yemen, in Bahrain. And Israel, if there were any justice and truth in this world, should be their inspiration. The one genuinely free society in the Middle East, the only society where people can criticise their government on national television and sleep safely at night, the one society with a free press and independent judiciary and rule of law. A Jewish state where a Druze-Arab, Majalli Wahabi, served briefly as acting president of the State of Israel, and where a Christian, George Karra, headed the panel of judges that tried Israel’s president, Katzav. And this, they call an apartheid state.
I await daily the declaration of Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran, as liberal democracies. And though the future is unknown, and though it may sound absurd, ani ma’amin, I truly believe, looking at what is happening in the Middle East today and looking at the whole panoply of human history, that only those nations who respect Israel’s freedom will themselves ever be free. Among the first recorded syllables of Jewish time, God said to Avraham Avinu – and surely those words resonate today – “va’avar’cha mevarchecha”, those who bless you, I will bless, “u’mekalel’cha a’or”, and those who curse you will be cursed (Bereishit 12:3).
Never have those words been more fateful for the future of the Middle East and the world than they are today. Only those nations who respect Israel’s freedom will themselves be free. But as for us, let us turn aside from all such thoughts, and simply thank God, and the people and the State of Israel, for the joy they have brought back to this calendar of grief, for the way they have restored to Sefirat HaOmer what it once was and forever we hope will be: a time of celebration and joy.
Let us thank God and am u’medinat Yisrael for giving back to the Jewish people the freedom which we had lost for so long, and b’ezrat Hashem will never lose again.