Yom Ha’atzmaut, a day that should bring great clarity for the Jewish people, is instead shrouded in controversy, mystery, and misappropriation1. Is this day nothing more than a Jewish version of America’s July 4th? Is the day nothing more than meaningless BBQ’s and a ballgame? Surely not. Much blood has been spilled to award us this day, yet we seem to spend most of it fighting over whether or not to say hallel. What, then, is the significance of Yom Ha’atzmaut to the modern Jew?
For one thing, it is clear that Yom Ha’atzmaut is not a day in celebration of the fact that Eretz Yisrael exists. Eretz Yisrael has always existed, since the creation of the world to now. Rather, Yom Ha’atzmaut is a celebration of the formation of the modern state of Israel; a celebration of not Eretz Yisrael, but Medinat Yisrael. Everyone concedes to the significance of the former, but what of the latter? It would seem that the typical celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut has little-to-nothing to do with the land of Israel, nor anything else actually meaningful. Can our celebrations of this day be something more?
Israel Is Our Home
There are two country flags that are of great significance to the Jewish people. The first is the red, white, and blue flag of the United States of America. The second is the white and blue flag of Israel. For centuries we were homeless, wandering the streets and living under the bridge of history. The red, white, and blue flag of America symbolizes the first hotel we’ve ever had. And the white and blue flag of Israel? That’s home.
Debates as to whether the modern state of Israel is the beginning of our redemption, the end of our galus, or something in between are all just meaningless exercises in semantics. All the aggadic material upon which they are based are just pliable material that one can mold to reflect what he or she wants to see. In truth, we simply do not know, nor is any such speculation ultimately meaningful. We should not indulge in such games. Let God figure out what He is doing.
We do, however, know that Israel is our home. It is an undeniable fact that God has given us a homeland. Now we have to figure out why He has done such a thing, and what it means for us. We’ve been homeless for so many centuries that when we finally did get a home it has leaky faucets, bad plumbing, cracks in the walls, and noisy, bothersome neighbors. But it’s still home.
Certainly, in the wake of the Holocaust — and throughout much of history — we were a homeless people. Now, though, we have a home once more! Would that we all understand the great significance of this! Thankfully, we don’t much know anymore what it feels like not to have a home. Not too long ago, though, we were homeless. Things run deeper than this, too, for “a man without a land is not a man (TB Yevamos 63).” Having a home is a psychological matter, an issue of mindset. To have a home once more, then, is a radical shift for the Jewish nation that is certainly worth celebrating. Let’s elaborate on precisely what we mean…
What’s So Bad About Galus?
We are, of course, supposed to consistently mourn the fact that we currently live in exile. Yet, the reason why this is the case is not so clear. It’s not just a simple matter of religious observance since, as a nation, we have not become less religious as a result of galus. The opposite is true, if anything. Indeed, during the First Temple the Jewish people were guilty of some of the worst sins, including adultery and murder. During the Second Temple the leaders of the communities were mostly Sadducees. In short, we were in pretty bad shape, especially for a nation not in exile. Since then, things have seemed to only improve for our religious observance. After all, the Talmud Bavli2 was written in exile, as was the Shach, Taz, Ra’avad, Rambam, Tosfos, and so on. All of these massively important works were written in galus. The understanding, interpretation, explication, and development of Torah all took place in galus.
The fact of the matter is that, until the fall of the ghetto walls in the seventeenth century, religion has thrived in galus. While it is true that it has largely failed in its facing of the Western world succumbing to rampant assimilation, this is only a very recent problem in the scheme of things. It is certainly not the definition of galus. The religious issues seen today are not ipso facto the product of galus. Considering the opposite was the case for so long, the great challenge and issue of galus — and what is so terrible about it — is not a more a more lax religious observance.
What, then, is galus really, and what is so bad about it?
Religion As Culture
Real religion is not meant to be just ritual, but a culture and a way of perceiving all things. God did not want His people simply following a religious value system. Rather, religion was supposed to be a language, a perception of reality, a culture.
We, however, see the world as Westerners and, somehow, we also have religious beliefs. Our great challenge nowadays is to square the two, to reconcile one with the other. Thus, we do many things out of religious obligation that we are not necessarily comfortable with. On our best days we work through this discomfort to carry out the act regardless. (I need not even bring up our discomfort with things no longer applicable, like animal sacrifices and the like.) The reason why we have such discomfort and difficulty with so much of religion is because we are Westerners at heart. We struggle because we believe and keep and practice the Judaism of Sinai, but it is not a natural religion, it is not our natural inclination. Quite the contrary, our religious life is very much in opposition to our natural self.
What was lost in galus was this sense of culture, our religious identity. Before galus, each religious act was not some grand calculus as to whether one wanted to end up in heaven, hell, or purgatory, but because it was simply natural, a part of who you were, instinctive. Religion was once natural, the way that you saw the world. Chillul HaShem would make you sad. Kavod Shamayim would make you happy. The Gemara (Menachos 44a), for instance, writes that we are supposed to wear techeiles since its blue color reminds us of the sea, and the sea of the sky, and the sky of the kisei ha’kavod. Rambam similarly writes that the mitzvos of mezuzah, tefillin, and tzitzis exist so that as soon as one sees these objects his heart immediately reverts back to Godliness. All of this, though, takes for granted a certain a priori religious outlook and perspective. Where is such an outlook and perspective in the modern Jew? What has happened to instinctive religion?
The answer is that, sadly, we lost it to galus. A nation cannot exist without a home, and without a home there can be no culture. Thus, instead of being able to live our lives as cultural Jews — with a religious lifestyle being a natural outgrowth of this — we have been raised and inculcated with cultures that are not our own. We have seen tremendous talmud Torah in galus no doubt, but as far as us having a home is concerned, we have instead needed to be as chameleons, adapting to the culture of our various hosts. As a result, Judaism in galus is no longer natural to us, and stands in contrast to who we culturally identify as. The fact, then, that in 1948 God said that He was going to give us a chance once again to recapture out national identity is something we must be tremendously grateful for!
The story does not stop there, however, for now we must see what we do with this opportunity. We must develop a national experience and language that expresses unique words and feelings of our culture. Of course, these things evolve over time. Even the least affiliated Jews often now posses a deep sense of nationalism. Similarly, we are proud of the Jewish flag and state, and while it was always easy to say we are proud Jews in the halls of a shul, that we now say the same in the halls of national politics means something profound. We have indeed, then, recaptured a certain amount of our national identity.
But this is all only the first step. Nationality is simply a tool to arrive at a singular language and shared experiences. Now we must fill that nationality with culture. To be sure, we are developing, slowly, but surely, just such a culture. We are not there yet, but we continue in our quest to make our religious identity our national experience.
In truth, this is what the coming of Moshiach is really all about. The days of Moshiach are nothing more than a kingdom under which religion will be not just policy, but the natural way of seeing things. While such a reality seems distant, thanks to the modern state of Israel it’s not quite so hard to understand: The typical Israeli has little-to-no concept at all of Christmas, for instance. There are no foreign holidays that permeate the culture of Israel. Unlike America, instead of seeing the colorful lights of Christmas trees while driving around at night, one sees the warm glow of menorahs. This is a healthy thing for our religion.
We don’t know how long it will take until Israel is the religious environment we would ideally want it to be, but we see very clearly a process at work. We all must be able to take a step back and look at things on a larger scale, and see the modern state of Israel as a gift from God in an effort to help us regain our national identity.
God gave us a home on Yom Ha’atzmaut. It might be shabby, and broken, next to noisy neighbors, and you might not agree with all your roommates, but it is now our duty as Jews to work to fix these issues. The modern state of Israel means that we are a nation again. We might not all know how to live as a nation yet — we might all be too stubborn still — but we are a nation now once again all the same. Imagine a life in which religion means the conscious and careful incorporation of only the best of culture into your life, rather than having to jam the square that is religion into the circle that is your life. That is the potential of Medinat Yisrael, a potential to which we are indeed slowly working towards (and that some there experience at some level already). So whether Yom Ha’atzmaut is celebrated with a bracha during hallel, without a bracha during hallel, or with no hallel at all; whether it is seen as the beginning of our redemption, the end of our exile, or the act of Satan, it matters not. God gave us a home and we are a nation capable of our own culture once more. This is a day to be very happy about indeed, and a day of major religious significance for us all.