Yom Ha’atzmaut: From death to life

It is Holocaust Remembrance Day which seems out of place, and wreaks havoc upon our emotional equilibrium.

April 16, 2015 17:06
4 minute read.
Painting by Yoram Raanan

Painting by Yoram Raanan. (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)


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The present-day Hebrew calendar, especially during the post-Passover season, is very much an emotional roller-coaster: we move from the joyous familial experience of our Passover – the freedom of Exodus and birth of a nation (15-22 Nisan), to the gloom and doom of Holocaust remembrance (27 Nisan) on the anniversary of the abortive Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and then to the exhilarating high of Independence Day only one week later, when we celebrate Israel reborn. It would seem so much more logical to push back the Holocaust remembrance to the wintry weather of 10 Tevet (as many Jews do), and enjoy the springtime of Nisan with uninterrupted Passover and Yom Ha’atzmaut gratitude and thanksgiving (except for Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers, which is perforce bound together with Yom Ha’atzmaut, because of the lives lost in our War of Independence). It is Holocaust Remembrance Day which seems out of place, and wreaks havoc upon our emotional equilibrium.

I would add one more question to my quandary with the calendar, this one purely halachic: on what basis do we recite Hallel, the special Psalms of Praise, on Yom Ha’atzmaut? We certainly do have the right nowadays to create a new holiday, an occasion of religious celebration, as ringingly declared by the authoritative Maharam Alshaker (Spain 1466, Responsa, Siman 49): “the Jewish Community (kahal) is empowered to enact upon itself a holiday (Yom Tov) for its constituents.”

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But what about the recitation of Hallel, the Psalms of Praise? The Talmud (BT Pessahim 117a), in defining the reciting of Hallel, seems to give a very specific requirement: “This Hallel, who is to recite it? The prophets (at the time of the Splitting of the Reed Sea) enacted for Israel that at every crucial national turning point, at every tragedy which should not befall them but from which they were redeemed, they are to recite Hallel upon their redemption.” And Rashi interprets (ibid ad loc), “like Hanukka.”

From this perspective, for Hallel to be recited, there must be a redemption of the Jewish community (or of a Jewish community, as in Esther’s Persia) from death to life; Rashi strengthens this point by making the comparison to Hanukka, when the military victory of the Hasmoneans expressed the salvation of Judea from “death to life,” thereby mandating the recitation of Hallel.

But what salvation took place on 5 Iyar, Independence Day? We were smack in the midst of our War of Independence against the Arab armies – and the war was going badly for us. Indeed, one day before the declaration, 4 Iyar, Gush Etzion fell to the Jordanian Legion, killing many innocent Jews, and portending the fall of the Old City of Jerusalem, which the Gush protected just by being where it was (and is), overlooking Jerusalem.

The fifth of Iyar merely happened to be the expiration date of the stewardship of Britain as the controlling power in our region of the Middle East; David Ben-Gurion seized the opportunity to declare the Jewish state. But there was still no victory and certainly no salvation. So on what basis do we recite Hallel? A festival yes, but Hallel perhaps not! Enter our perceptive and prescient Hebrew calendar, with Yom Ha’atzmaut falling at the very heels of Holocaust Remembrance Day. The incomprehensible and inexplicable Holocaust was the worst possible conclusion to our 2,000-year exile. And although Hitler’s war seemed to be a war mainly against the Allies – the United States, Britain and Russia – Lucy Dawidowicz titles her history of the Second World War The War Against the Jews.

Yes, Hitler wanted to conquer the world (“Today Germany, tomorrow the world”), and he believed he could do it. After all, his was the master Aryan race, he led the “übermenschen,” and – in his twisted mind – the most powerful deserve control: might makes right, to the victor belong the spoils.

However, he was obsessed with the Jews, the most powerless of peoples (without a state, without an army, not even a police force) but still managing survive as a separate, ethnic people despite so many centuries of persecution and pogrom. He was all too aware of the Jewish claim to be the chosen people, the witnesses of the God of morality and love, the prophets of the teaching that compassionate righteousness will ultimately triumph over godless immorality and venal corruption, that right will trump might. And he was frightened to death that the Jewish faith might be vindicated; if so, he would be eternally damned.

And so a Tractate Pessahim was found amongst his few personal effects in the Berlin bunker where he committed suicide, the Talmud dealing with our Festival of Freedom and Redemption; he had probably been told that it was the last remaining Jewish text by one of his sycophant lackeys (the American State Department gave it to the chief rabbi of Israel, at that time Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog); and so, even as his war against the Allies was going from bad to worse, he remained hell-bent on murdering more Jews in Auschwitz, on annihilating the last vestige of the Hungarian Jewish community. You see, his real war was against the Jews and Jewish moral doctrine was against the Jewish people and Jewish culture, against the last Jew.

And so you see Hitler lost his war against the free world on May 8, 1945; and Hitler lost his war against the Jews on 5 Iyar, 1948. And so we make a festival after Holocaust Remembrance Day; and so we recite Hallel, on our victory from death to life.

Shabbat shalom and Hag sameach

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone institutions and the chief rabbi of Efrat. His acclaimed series of parsha commentary, Torah Lights, is available from Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem.

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