Yom Ha’atzmaut 5773: The Everlasting Flame

A Keynote speech at delivered annually at Finchley Synagogue

On 15th April 2013, the Chief Rabbi delivered the keynote address at the Bnei Akiva UK’s annual Yom HaZikaron / Yom Ha’atzmaut ceremony at Finchley United Synagogue in London.

Chief Rabbi Elect – I can't tell you what pleasure it gives me to say those words, and what relief. Rabbi Mirvis, you have led this wonderful Finchley community with such distinction for so many years, and I know you will go on to lead British and Commonwealth Jewry to further distinction in the years ahead. May Hashem bless you and your Rabbanit, and may you be a blessing to Am Yisrael. Amen.

Dayanim, rabbanim, presidents of the United Synagogue, the Board of Deputies, the Federation, Your Worship the Mayor of Barnet, MPs, distinguished guests, friends:

This year, we remember and celebrate and commemorate not only the 65th anniversary of the State of Israel, but we remember the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. And those two events are profoundly interlinked. And I want very simply this evening to explain the connection. And to do so, I ask a very simple question about this period of the calendar in which we stand, Sefirat Ha’omer, the counting of the days between Pesach and Shavuot. We know that we observe a custom during those days of public mourning, without having a haircut, without having a wedding – but why? Nowhere in the Torah is there even the hint of a suggestion that this should be a period of sadness. On the contrary, whether we see Sefirat Ha’omer in agricultural terms as the ripening of the grain harvest, or we see it in historical terms as the journey from Egypt to Sinai, it is a time of expectancy and of joy.

Why then, is it a period of mourning? All the commentators refer us to an oblique and enigmatic passage in the Gemara Yevamot, which says that during this period, 12,000 pairs of students of Rabbi Akiva died, because “shelo nohagu kavod zeh lazeh”, because they didn't honour one another (Yevamot 62b). Now this is a very, very strange passage. Nowhere else is there reference to 24,000 rabbinical students dying. Number two, if it were indeed an epidemic, it would not have only struck the students of Rabbi Akiva. And number three, if, God forbid, it was a Divine punishment, we simply don't hear of any other such precisely targeted Divine punishment in the whole of the post-biblical age. So what does the passage mean? And the answer is given in a very famous and important source for the history of this period, the Iggeret Rav Sherira Gaon.

Rav Sherira Gaon, who was the guardian of many historical facts that the Sages knew and didn't commit to writing, tells us two things: that this event did not happen during the lifetime of Rabbi Akiva, but after his death; and number two, the rabbis died not of a plague as the Gemara suggests, but of sh’mada, of a period of persecution of Jews. And what we have, in other words, is a very fascinating passage of the Talmud Bavli, which is leshitato, which is doing something it does on other occasions, which is when it wants to refer to an echoing, an almost unbearable historical tragedy. It alludes to it not directly, but obliquely, by means of a story. What is clear is that the Talmud Bavli is hinting at, and referring to, the suppression and defeat of the Bar Kochba rebellion by the Roman emperor Hadrian. In human terms, this was the worst tragedy ever to hit the Jewish people to that date, worse than even the destruction of the Temple. According to the Roman historian Dio, 580,000 Jews died directly in the conflict. 985 towns and villages were destroyed. It was the nearest thing to the Holocaust before the Holocaust. And that is what minhag aveilut b’Sefirat Ha’omer, what our custom of mourning during this period is, it is a form obliquely of Holocaust remembrance for that historical tragedy.

No sooner do we understand this, then we understand an absolute fundamental of Jewish history, which is Jews never, ever went like lambs to the slaughter. Whether in the days of David or the days of the Maccabees, they were among the bravest fighters the world has ever known.

But there came a time when divisions within the Jewish people meant that they were no longer able to fight under a united leadership, and the result of that was two disasters. First, the great rebellion against Rome beginning in the year 66, culminating in the churban Bayit Sheini, the destruction of the Second Temple, and then 65 years later, or 60, 70 years later, the Bar Kochba rebellion. There is no doubt whatsoever that during the initial stage of the Bar Kochba rebellion, Jews put up fierce resistance, defeated the Romans, issued their own coins saying ‘Year of the Freedom of Yerushalayim Year One’. And it was only when Hadrian threw all his forces, 12 Roman legions, half the entire military might of the Roman empire, the Jews found themselves overwhelmed by superior numbers. The result is, at that moment, they faced a historical reality of unbearable pain, the reality that twice in a row, armed resistance against a superior force had brought disaster. More than disaster.

We read a passage in the Gemara in Bava Kama , the like of which doesn't exist in any other literature; only once or twice did it ever happen again. When the rabbis said “miyom shepashtah malchut harashah , from the day the evil government arose, the Hadrianic government, and forbade Jews to practice Judaism, “din hu shenigzar al atzmeinu”, by rights we should decree against ourselves that no Jews should get married or have children, and let the Jewish people come to an end of its own accord (Bava Batra 60b). A note of despair, such as we don't find anywhere else in Jewish history.

And that is why, between the Bar Kochba rebellion and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, it wasn't the Jews lacked the ability to resist, they lacked the will to resist. Not because, God forbid, they were afraid of fighting or because they were pacifists, but precisely because they remembered twice before when Jews rose against a superior force, armed resistance proved devastating and almost suicidal. And because Judaism says “uvacharta bachayim”, choose life (Devarim 30:19), “ya’aseh otam ha’adam vachai bahem”, live by Judaism, don’t die by it (Leviticus 18:5), because Judaism is about saving life, choosing life and sanctifying life, they resolved with the most extraordinary courage that they would rather die al kiddush Hashem, for the sanctification of God's name, and give their lives so that other Jews should not die in some persecution of the kind that the Hadrianic persecution gave rise to. And that was the courage of Jews, to be willing to die that other Jews might live. That prevailed for 18 centuries after the Bar Kochba rebellion until the Warsaw Ghetto.

I mentioned on the radio that the Warsaw Ghetto decision by the Nazis to liquidate the ghetto and murder all its inhabitants on Pesach 1943 was no accident. The Nazis clearly chose their worst programmes of mass killing and extermination to coincide with Jewish holy days, because they wanted to kill not just Jews, but Judaism; not just the Jewish people, but, as it were, the Jewish God Himself. At Auschwitz, Mengele said, here it is not God, but I, who choose who will live and who will die. And so, in Warsaw, the Nazis resolved that on the very festival that Jews worship the God Who brought them from slavery to freedom, they would show that Jews could no longer be brought from slavery to freedom, but, rachmana litzlan, from slavery to death.

It was then that great rabbis – among them the saintly Rav Menachem Ziemba of blessed memory, Rav Yitzchak Nissenbaum of blessing memory – said to the people of Warsaw, the Jews of Warsaw, something has now changed. In the past, our enemies wanted us to convert and live. So we showed defiance by refusing to convert and by our willingness to die. Today, the Nazis don't want us to convert and live, they want us to die, and therefore we will show our defiance by fighting for the right to live. And even though a military victory is completely impossible, a moral victory is not impossible.

And by their courage, the Warsaw Ghetto fighters held out for four weeks, longer than entire countries did before the Nazi army. And it was one of the great moral victories of all of Jewish history, which is why in Israel, Holocaust Memorial Day is known as Yom HaShoah u’Gevurah, the day not only of destruction, but of Jewish courage. That act of defiance, the first on that scale since the Bar Kochba rebellion, 18 centuries earlier, lit a flame that became a mighty beacon five years later, when Israel on the day of its birth, even as David Ben-Gurion was holding out the hand of peace to its neighbours, faced on that day the combined attack of five armies, of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria and Iraq.

During the whole of Jewish history, from Joshua to the current State of Israel, the Jewish people showed some of the greatest courage any people has ever shown in history. They showed the courage to be willing to die, but then, and now, to fight for the right to live, uvacharta bachayim. The right to live as Jews without fear, “v’shav Yaakov v’shaket, v’sha’anan v’ein macharid”, to be intimidated by no one, as we seek to serve our God in life (Jeremiah 46:27). Sometimes they fought by passive resistance, but at others, beginning with the Warsaw Ghetto and culminating in the wars fought by Medinat Yisrael, through active resistance. But always and only for one thing: for the right to live as Jews, without fear. For which, rachmana litzlan, the people in the State of Israel still have to fight today, under a shadow that no other nation in the world has to live under. Forgive me if I say, because it is burning in my heart whenever I see Israel criticised, that if only Israel's neighbours would emulate Israel instead of condemning Israel, then there would be peace and hope in the Middle East, instead of strife, and violence, and fear.

Friends, Jews fought – and never more so than in Medinat Yisrael – with the courage that you find only in those whose ultimate aim is not victory, but peace; not triumph, but life. That ability to live without fear. Friends, let us this year meditate on the courage of the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto, of the heroes of Medinat Yisrael; the heroes, not just of military battle, but the heroes of the human spirit who are willing, rachmana litzlan, to die, so that we, their children and grandchildren, their extended family, can live. They lit a flame in the Jewish heart that will never die, and therefore let us, remembering them and their past, and looking today at the Israel they have built, a land of freedom and energy and creativity and liberty and life, and thank God that we have lived to witness this day.

Baruch shehecheyanu, v’kiyemanu, v’higiyanu lazman hazeh.

And let us pray for shalom al Yisrael bimheirah b’yameinu. Amen.