Pluralistic Perspectives The Sacred and Mythic Dimensions of Yom Ha’atzmaut

By Rabbi Ebn Leader

Our Jewish holidays have a complicated relationship with history. On the one hand, they tell a story of occurrences in time from the creation of the world (Shabbat) through the exodus from Egypt (Pesah) the destruction of the temple (Tisha b’Av) and down to the establishment of the State of Israel (Yom Ha’atzmaut). On the other hand, the historical awareness of many Jewish people today negates the possibility of accepting these stories as factual truth. We mostly accept the current scientific description of the universe coming into being, and have mostly been convinced by modern biblical research that raises serious questions about the stories of Pesah and Shavu’ot.

Shavu’ot is also an interesting example of an occurrence (the Sinai revelation) that was associated with a particular date only centuries after it occurred. This is similar to the way that from rabbinic times every major tragedy in Jewish history is associated with the ninth day of Av or another mourning season.

Hannukah is an example of historical vagueness and its impact on the holiday. Many historians today claim that the Maccabees never won a battle in which they were actually “few against many,” their national and political achievements were very short lived, and the Hasmonean rulers essentially prepared the ground for the devastation that followed with the destruction of the second temple. This has often been suggested as an explanation for the rabbinic reframing of the holiday around the miracle of lights. None of this discouraged the early Zionists from reclaiming Hannukah as a celebration of national victory and Jewish independence. On the other side of the ocean, many North American Jews celebrate Hannukah joyously despite the fact that from a historical perspective their sympathies are most likely with the Hellenist Jews who were the main target of Hasmonean zealotry.

We must therefore acknowledge that on our holidays we celebrate mythical history. The term myth in this case is not in opposition to truth. Rather by myth I mean a story that has taken a particular place and meaning in our collective unconscious and thus creates an opening for certain experience for those who invest in it. This explanation is not very far from the Lurianic theory regarding holidays which I bring in the concise summary of an early Hassidic master:

You already know what the Ar”I of blessed memory has written about this. At every [point of] time [in the year cycle] the same awakening that had risen in the past rises again. For example, on Shabbat what rises is the awakening of the light of rest that the holy One bestowed at the time of the first Shabbat. That same light shines now [on Shabbat] as we say [in the Shabbat liturgy] “the One who in holiness gives [in the present tense] rest to the People of Israel on the Holy Shabbat.” On Pesah the same light shines that was shining when the people of Israel left Egypt, and on Shavu’ot the light of giving Torah (Yosher Divrei Emet, 53).

What is most significant in this Lurianic explanation is that the holidays do not commemorate something that happened in the past. There is rather a cycle of divine energy (“awakenings”) flowing through the universe that repeats itself at particular points in relation to the calendar. The same “thing” that happened at this time in the past is happening again today, though its practical manifestations may be different in each life and set of circumstances. The main intention of telling the traditional story is not to remember history. We tell the story in order to awaken our own consciousness to the divine opportunity that is now available, to attune ourselves to a story larger than our individual one. Much of the Lurianic writings on kavnot for the holidays are devoted to precise identification of the energy—light that is available at each point of time, and to practices that help the practitioner connect to that light.

There have been many attempts to add holidays to the Jewish calendar beyond the holidays listed in the Torah. The vast majority have disappeared over time, such as the holidays of Megilat Ta’anit, numerous communal “Purim Katan”, etc. A few of course  have been preserved, most notably Hannukah and Purim, but also Tu B’Shvat, Lag B’Omer, etc. While one could address the difference between these two groups in purely descriptive terms (i.e. which holidays survived?), it has also been addressed as a normative question, which is to ask—which holidays should survive? The topic of adding new holidays has been debated extensively in the halachic literature creating distinctions between holidays oriented towards different groups (from personal celebrations to holidays for the whole nation) and between different celebration practices. Much discussion has focused on responses to two central 20th century Jewish occurrences—the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.

In terms of the Lurianic theory discussed previously, the holidays that survive are those which express and which are created in response to a divine light essential to Jewish/human life that returns every year. Holidays that are no more than a commemoration of a historical occurrence will and should disappear over time. (This is my analysis. I have not found a response to this particular question in the Lurianic texts.) In those terms, is Yom Ha’atzmaut a Jewish holiday that expresses a particular divine energy that we need to return to each year, or is it an Israeli or Zionist holiday that commemorates a specific political achievement?

It may take a century and more before we can answer this question with any sense of confidence, but nonetheless, I would like to offer some thoughts. I think that Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom HaShoa’h that precedes it by a week indeed express as a unit something that is greater than the political reality of the State of Israel and it may be time to begin considering this in our celebrations.

So much has been written about post-holocaust theology, and I have read only some of it. Still I humbly submit that in my opinion, if there is a theological lesson to be learned from the Sho’ah, it would seem to be that it is meaningless to expect God to intervene in the process of history to stop evil. There is no deus ex machina at the end of the play. This is of course not a new lesson. Hazal already taught there is none who can be as silent as our God, who can see the oppression of her children and remain silent (Mechilta, Bishalah, 8). Sadly this is a lesson that is learned and relearned in every generation.

For some people, this is reason enough not to have God in their lives. If God will not or cannot intervene even in the face of such evil, what is the point of a relationship with God? Indeed, the establishment of the State of Israel following the Sho’ah was mostly the work of people who rebelled against the notion of God and of Jewish religion in general. The Zionist critique of religion, which began long before World War II, was tied to the critique of the Golah—exile. From this perspective, Golah and the religion of the Golah created a person who had no sense of autonomous self (personal or national) and who was dependent on other nations and on an other-worldly god in every aspect of life. The Zionist celebration of independence celebrates autonomy in opposition to these other forms of Jewish being.

Yet, it is also possible that this celebration of Atzma’ut—independence—not be a rejection of God. It is possible that the recognition that God is not the power who will step in to solve our problems is akin to the recognition that our parents are not omnipotent and cannot solve our problems for us. The latter recognition is a regular part of maturation and does not necessitate terminating relations with the parent. The opposite is true. This recognition on part of both the parent and child allows for a new phase in the relationship, a relationship of mutual responsibilities and autonomies that does not negate the fact that the child owes its very existence to the parent. There is much to celebrate about this transition, even if the loss of the child’s fantasy is painful and may initially feel like betrayal.

Again, this is an old lesson. We know that “prayer is a Divine need” and that “Israel sustains their Father in heaven.” The people who made those statements did not reject God, they rejected the notion of God as a more powerful parent you can turn to after your own parents have inevitably disappointed you. The meaning of living in conscious relation with a fullness that encompasses all of reality and beyond does not need to be justified by providing for particular needs or even by promising a happy end. (In this articulation I actually approach the great Calvinist of modern Jewish thought – Yishayahu Leibovitz.)

For a secular Zionist who believes in negating the Golah, the sequence of Yom HaSho’ah leading to Yom Ha’atzmaut is a recognition that the Galut was unsustainable and a celebration of the independence from other nations and from antiquated religious traditions. For a religious person, however, that same sequence is a yearly reminder that our relationships with both God and the nations with whom we live must be covenantal. We must be responsible partners in those relationships—neither a child awaiting a parent to give them instructions nor a guest in another person’s home. The fact that we have achieved the level of independence necessary to take responsibility for our own lives is something that should certainly be celebrated by the Jewish communities in both Israel and the United States.

It is important to emphasize again that nationally, moving away from the guest status of Galut, took two main forms after World War II. In Israel, that meant creating a Jewish-dominated political entity. In the United States, that meant taking democracy seriously and being responsible and active partners in the ownership of a political entity that was mostly non-Jewish. Both of these models reject Galut as it was prior to World War II and neither one of them has been totally worked out as a solution to the Jewish situation. Both communities are very much in the process of working through the difficulties that their particular model raises. Both communities can celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut as the move from the painful recognition that Galut in terms of dependency and lack of true responsibility politically and theologically is not viable, into the celebration of independence and taking responsibility for our own lives wherever that is.

The divine light that shines on these days is, I think, the light of God reaching out to her children as adults. It is the light of the transition of growing up, of understanding that the parent will no longer save you from yourself and accepting the terror and celebration that come with that. The political arena is only one facet that reflects this divine light. We can find it in our religious lives, our personal relationships, and in our own identity processes.

It is of course never a completed process. It is, rather, one of those processes that we come back to again and again in spirals hoping to do something this time that we were not capable of doing last time. This is why this particular light is appropriate for a year cycle celebration that we come back to every year.

Like Pesah, Yom Ha’atzmaut is a celebration of an incomplete redemption. We are closer in history to the mythical story of Yom Ha’atzmaut, we know people who are suffering daily because of the incompletion of this redemption, so its deficiencies are much more jarring to us than those of the Pesah story. But like Pesah, the story of Yom ha’atzmaut is the story of opportunity becoming available and taken. The real work actually begins the next day. R Hayyim Vital writes (Sha’ar HaKavanot, Pesah) that this is the reason we do not say the complete Hallel after the first day of Pesah. At the moment of redemption, we can reach everything; but the next morning “mimaharat hashabbat,” we discover that we are actually very far from where we were for a moment the night before, and we have to begin the real work of building ourselves up to the freedom and independence that we felt the night before. On the next day, we and our Hallel are no longer complete. On the next day, we begin the slow process of sefirat ha’omer gradually building ourselves up, hopefully by Shavu’ot reaching through our efforts the same place we reached through the gift of one unique moment on Pesah.

This dynamic of an opening, followed by the work to realize it, is not totally unfamiliar to us. Many of us have fallen in love, felt an unbelievable connection to another person only to wake up “memaharat hashabbat” to discover that years of working towards real intimacy and deep grounded love awaited us.

This may be the dynamic of our mythic story of Atzma’ut as well. The people coming out of the furnaces of Europe were able to grab a moment of Hesed and found a Jewish state. Endless work awaited “memaharat hashabbat” and like the Israelites in the desert many terrible mistakes were made. But that is the real work that needs to be done following the celebration. In Israel, that work includes challenges such as resolving the war with the Palestinians, the pain of marginalized middle-eastern Jews, the religious wars between Jews, and perhaps most significantly at the base of all these conflicts, working through the tension inherent in a state that aspires to be both Jewish and democratic. In the United States, such challenges include working through the difficulties of Jewish identity in an open society, the religious war between Jews, and most fundamentally the struggle with making this land our land as Jewish people and not only as individuals in the melting pot.

One could even imagine that following the Pesah model, we could ritualize the day after Yom Ha’atzmaut as a day dedicated to reflection on the challenges the Jewish community faces as a result of ending its galut status. On such a day, we could reflect on issues facing the State of Israel, issues facing the United States Jewish community, religious challenges born of this process and more.

But however we construct specific practices, the Atzmaut which we celebrate is the independence of responsibility for our own lives, at a personal theological level and at a communal political level. And while the Israeli proclamation of independence gave us the date and the symbolic framework of the holiday, it is no less a celebration for us American Jews who are participating in the great experiment of owning our destiny as partners in a state together with non-Jewish people.

When we sing “B’tzet Yisrael m’Mitzrayim” at the beginning of Hallel, we are celebrating the end of the time when we lived as guests in countries of others, not responsible for our own destiny. And when we cry out “Ana Hashem hoshi’a na” at the end of Hallel, we recognize how far we still are from any resolution of the endeavor of living with responsibility wherever we are attempting that.

Rabbi Ebn LeaderRabbi Ebn Leader is a faculty member at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA.

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