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The Significance of Yom Ha'atzmaut

By: Rosh Hayeshiva Harav Mordechai Greenberg, shlita

I. Israeli Nationalism

We have been celebrating Yom Ha'atzmaut for over fifty years, and still many ask, "What are we happy about?" This day is supposed to express our political independence and our security, but independence and security are still far from us! We are still faced by terror attacks, threats of war, and other vital national concerns as in previous generations, when we were in galut. If so, what is the special significance of this day?

The root of the dispute about Yom Ha'atzmaut is in one's outlook on nationalism. The basic question is, is there a concept of "Israelite" nationalism in the Jewish world outlook? It is possible that the main characteristic of Judaism is the connection with G-d through the observance of Torah and mitzvot, without any connection to nationality. A Jew can be a citizen of another nation -- America, England, etc. -- observe all the mitzvot of the Torah, and lack nothing. Why is it important to have a Jewish state?

There was an argument about this in Hungary many years ago. In the national census form there were separate sections for religion and nationality. The Rabbanim of the time argued how to fill in the space for nationality -- Jewish or Hungarian? One Rav, Rav Glazner, maintained that to enter the religion as "Jewish," but the nationality as Hungarian or German, is heresy and is "yehareg ve'al ya'avor" (one must give up his life rather than transgress). This is opinion of most Rabbanim, that Am Yisrael is, indeed, a "nation," and its members cannot belong to another nation.

In the second half of the 19th century, as the sense of nationalism began spreading through Europe, the Poles lifted their national flag as a sign of rebellion in 1863. One of the grandchildren of the Chiddushei HaRi"M related that the following Shabbat, before the Ri"M took the cup for kiddush, he sighed and said that he is concerned that there will be a big "kitrug" (Heavenly allegation) against Am Yisrael. The Poles care so much about their nation and willing to sacrifice their lives for it, while we are complacent to stay in galut.

What is Jewish nationalism? Some understand that it is fundamentally just like all other nationalism -- to have a land of our own and to want to live there. We differ from other nations in that we have, in addition, Torah from Sinai. Others argue that Jewish nationalism is something different and unique. As Rav Kook defined it, Jewish nationalism is not dependent on the state; the basis of our nationality is G-dly, spiritual. "G-d does not designate His Name on the individual, because the individual, without the connection to the klal, is not the ultimate purpose." (Meshech Chochma, Parshat Acharei Mot)

We can explain this based on the contrast to a phrase in the New Testament, "What is for god is for god and what is for Caesar is for Caesar." This is essentially the concept of "separation of church and state." Religion is a private matter, not for the state to involve in. In America, for this reason, there are problems teaching religious values in schools. But this comment has a deeper implication, that only an individual can be religious. He can separate himself from society and then live ethically. But a state has problems of social issues, relations with other nations, politics, wars, etc. Politics is not ethical. The world feels that a state cannot survive without breaching moral conduct, and thus political issues cannot be based on religious foundations.

The antithesis to this idea is a pasuk in Melachim (10:5), "The queen of Sheba saw all the wisdom of Shlomo; the palace that he had erected; ... and the "olah" (burnt-offering) that he ascended to the Temple of Hashem -- and she was overwhelmed." What about the "olah" overwhelmed her? Some explain that Shlomo offered 1,000 sacrifices daily. However, the Malbim and others refer to the parallel pasuk in Divrei Hayamim (9:4) -- "aliyato" -- a ramp or passageway leading from his palace to the Beit Hamikdash. She was impressed by the link between the king and religion. The Jewish outlook is that nothing is divorced from spirituality; everything must be based on Divine ideals and morality. That is why Chazal stress so much the importance of judging based on Jewish law. Because the other nations lead their lives based on human considerations, their laws are transitory. One parliament passes a law, while in the next election the coalition changes, and it overturns all the laws.

Rav Kook writes, "There exist in the world righteous people, philosophers, holy and G-dly people, but there is no nation whose inherent soul cannot be fulfilled other than through the goal of the Divine Plan in world -- other than Israel." Individuals are everywhere, but an entire nation that represents G-d does not exist. This is our uniqueness.

What is the goal? To take humanity out of its misconception, as we say in Aleinu, "to destroy idols from the world and perfect the world with the reign of G-d." The way to do this is not by having the Israeli ambassador get up in the UN and give a "mussar" speech. Every contention has an answer. The only way to achieve this goal is for Jews to have a state of their own and demonstrate that things can be different -- to run their agriculture, their economy, their army, in an elevated way. What is the difference between a man and a dog? One could say that the body itself is essentially the same, as we do operations on dogs and apply the techniques to humans, just that man has a brain in addition. However, this is not so! This difference of intellect causes that everything that man does takes on a new aspect; a speaking being vs. a mere living one.

So, too, on the national level, we are not same as all other nations, just with the addition of Torah. This additional aspect leads us to be a nation above all, and the Divine ideal directs everything in the state. This is to demonstrate that not only individuals can live morally, but even an entire nation -- a modern one, with scientists and technology -- can do so, and yet be different. The entire structure of the nation, from the highest levels to the lowest, must be different. To achieve this it is not enough that the English rule, and we deal on a personal level with Torah and religion, but all elements of the government -- the Prime Minister, the police, and the soldiers -- must take on a Jewish aspect to achieve the goal of showing that a state can be different.

B. The Destruction of Nationalism

Why was Israel punished specifically with galut (exile)? Punishment comes in direct consequence of sin, and with the purpose of rectifying it. How does galut rectify the sins of the generations of the First and Second Temples? Based on what we said, it is possible to explain that Am Yisrael failed to fulfill this mission during the thousand years of the two Temples. Although there were prophets and nazirites, the State and the kings did not succeed in leading a G-dly manner of life. Thus, the punishment of galut is saying that perhaps, at the moment, this mission is too high an ideal. First start with the details; it is easier to achieve a moral, Divine, existence as individuals. Galut comes to dismantle the national framework -- the nation and the land. It breaks the nation into individual communities and families -- a nation of individuals -- who can deal with only religious issues, so as to "charge their batteries," and thereby have enough strength to rejoin and fill the Divine goal at a later time.

This was done by the destruction of land. The Land of Israel became desolate; it became impossible to live there. In addition, the nation was dispersed throughout the world. But this step includes both external dispersion and also internal destruction; people no longer had the motivation to be a nation, to go to Israel. The sentiment was that it was better to remain in exile under the shelter of the nations. The Haskala took this outlook to the hallmark of the "Galut Jew." However, this is not the true form of the Jew, only a temporary one.

Rav Kook explains that before the destruction, while we were still a nation among nations, we were negatively influenced by our neighbors to concern ourselves only with material concerns of State. During galut, however, we were a nation "floating in the air," and dreamt only about the perfection of world. This is not a normal state, though, as the Maharal writes that every nation needs a country. But this respite was good for us; we strengthened feelings of moral good, of spirit, of religion. (Orot p. 52)

This explains the statement of Chazal, that G-d bound Israel with three "oaths," among them not to return to Israel with force. The Satmar Rav wrote a book called "Vayoel Moshe" on this topic. He chose this title (besides the allusion to his name, Yoel), since Chazal interpret this phrase to mean that Moshe swore ("alah" = oath) to Yitro not to leave Midian without asking permission. Just as Moshe swore and couldn't leave without permission, so too, the nation of Israel was bound by oath to remain in exile until they received permission to leave. However, the halacha is that a person cannot take an oath against the oath of Har Sinai, such as to eat non-kosher food. Thus, since the Ramban writes that aliya is a mitzvah from the Torah, how can Am Yisrael swear not to return as soon as physically possible?!

The answer is that Chazal never intended that Am Yisrael took an actual oath. In Parshat Nitzavim it says, "Not only with you alone do I seal this covenant and this "alah" ... but with whoever is here, ... and with whoever is not here today." (Devarim 29:13-14) The Baal Akeidah asks, how can G-d bind those who were not there? He explains that the idea of this covenant, or oath, is that Divine Providence arranges historical circumstances to cause us to behave in a certain way against our will, as if we were bound by an oath.

So, too, the Hashgacha arranged history that Israel could not rebel against the nations and return to Israel because the land was desolate, the ruling nations didn't allow it, and the Jews were afraid and had no motivation. Circumstances themselves didn't allow us to hasten the redemption. The Rambam also seems to have understood this way, as he writes in Iggeret Teiman, "Since Shlomo a"h knew that the that nation ... would desire to arouse itself prematurely, and would be lost because of this ... he warned them not to do this, and bound then by oath metaphorically."

R. Zvi Yehuda Kook brings an additional proof to this from a letter that the Ohr Sameach wrote in support of the Keren Kayemet (Jewish National Fund). He writes that the Hashgacha arranged that in San Remo (the UN of time), the enlightened nations declared that Eretz Yisrael should be for Am Yisrael. Thus, "since the fear of the oath is removed," the mitzvah of aliya returns. What does he mean that the fear is removed -- are they still bound by the oath or are they allowed to go? Rather, there was no actual prohibition in the first place, just that Divine Providence prevented us from arousing to return to Israel prematurely.

However, the time has come for us to return and to fulfill, in practice, our destiny of establishing a state. How do we know that the time is now?

C. The Signs of the Geulah

Chazal gave us signs for this. If the effects of galut are means to prevent us from returning -- the desolation of the land, the dispersion of Am Yisrael, the opposition of the other nations, the fear of them -- when the reality changes -- Israel is no longer desolate, the Jews begin to band, the nations agree, and the Jews regain courage to return to Israel -- these are signs that we are allowed to return.

This idea is based on a Gemara in Masechet Sanhedrin (98a) that the clearest sign of the end of galut is when the land begins to bear fruit again, as it says, "But you, mountains of Israel, will give forth you branch and bear your fruit for My people of Israel, for they are soon to come." (Yechezkel 36:8) The Maharsha explains that so long as Am Yisrael is not there, the Land of Israel will not bear its fruit properly. Thus, when it begins to do so, it is a sign the time of redemption is close and Israel will return.

If we are to ask, how many people have to be in Israel to be considered, "soon to come?" In Responsa Yeshuot Malcho, about 130 years ago, he proudly exclaims that there are already 130 families in Yerushalayim. On the radio today, the figure is 6.5 million people in Israel. Can we pick a specific number? In "Kol Hator" the talmidim of the Gra asked him how they will manage to overcome the many difficulties of establishing the "yishuv" (settlement) of Israel? He responded that if it were possible to bring to Israel 600,000 people at once, they should do so, because this number has the power to overcome the "sitra achra" (demonic forces) at the gates of Yerushalayim. (At that time there were not even 10,000 people in all of Israel!)

Rav Kook makes a similar comment on the bracha of "chacham harazim" (wise One of secrets) that a person says when he sees an assembly of 600,000 Jews. He writes (Olat R'iyah I:388) that when the proper population, 600,000, will be in Israel, this will be the beginning of the restoration of Israel, and we will then be guaranteed that G-d will fulfill His word to establish us as a nation before Him, and there will be no further destruction. Indeed, in '48 the UN official report listed 625,000 Jews in Israel.

This idea is actually based on a Midrash on the pasuk, "She will dwell there as in the days of her youth, and as on the day of her ascent from the land of Egypt." (Hoshea 2:17). "Just as they left Egypt and entered Israel with 600,000, so too, in the days of Mashiach, it will be with 600,000." (Yalkut Shimoni)

These are signs that Chazal gave us to alert to the time period that we live in. Now is time to bring to fruition the national destiny -- the nations allow it, and we have the motivation.

What is happening now? Is the current reality what we dreamt for these 2,000 years? The galut was to allow us to gather strength to bring out the Divine Master plan, and this did need seem to occur! Rav Kook writes, though, that we should not be disheartened. The confrontation with reality always brings crisis at the beginning of the path, but it will straighten out.

D. The Significance of the Day

What, then, is the significance of Israel Independence Day? Where is the independence and security? The significance of Yom Ha'atzmaut is that we crossed the barrier between galut to geulah; we have passed the turning point. Now we are the owners of the land, and we have the possibility of establishing the kind of government that G-d wants, on that links religion with the State. Although the road it still long, we have passed the barrier and are now on the other side. Now we have the free choice to do as we will. There is much work to do, but the land is ours, and the nations recognize this. The decision in '48 whether to declare the establishment of the State of Israel was not simple. Many Jewish leaders didn't want to, as the American Secretary of State had warned not to. With a small majority, however, the decision was to declare the State. With this move the "fear" was removed, despite the fact that on that very same day the war broke out.

Rav Kook writes (Orot p. 160) that a state is not ultimate joy of person, the realization of an ideal, but rather it is only like large insurance company. It is hard to live by oneself, but when the entire nation joins -- they all have security with an army and police. However, this is not true for us. A state that is fundamentally ideal -- whose very essence contains the ultimate, Divine, ideal -- is the greatest joy of the individual. "This state is our state, Medinat Yisrael (the State of Israel), the foundation of G-d's Throne in the world, whose whole desire is that G-d be One and His Name One. This is, in truth, the ultimate happiness." This passage is the first time that the Jewish State is called "Medinat Yisrael," twenty to thirty years before the actual establishment of the State.

Rav Kook thus defines the State of Israel not merely as a place for security, but a state that is to run in manner that demonstrates G-d's Throne. G-d's holy Name is lacking is the pasuk, "Ki yad al kes Y-H," since His Revelation in the world is lacking. But from this day on we have the possibility to achieve; we have crossed the barrier to the side of geulah. Indeed, we have achieved much in these 53 years. One cannot compare the situation 50 years ago, when people were embarrassed to wear a kipah, to the current situation that there are so many Yeshivot. Years ago there was only one Yeshivat Hesder, Kerem B'Yavneh, and now there are over forty!

"This is the day Hashem has made; let us rejoice and be glad on it!" (Tehillim 118:24)