Israel's Independence Day: How to appreciate the miracles - opinion

Indeed, I eagerly looked forward to – and still do – Lag Ba’omer, the day on which the devastating plague ended and mourning-related activities are suspended.

 People watch the military airshow during Israel's 74th Independence Day celebrations in Jerusalem, May 5, 2022.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
People watch the military airshow during Israel's 74th Independence Day celebrations in Jerusalem, May 5, 2022.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

I’m not the only one, I’m sure, who finds Independence Day to be somewhat unsettling and confusing. And not because it falls immediately after we mourn for and remember those who have fallen in defense of our country. I can think of no other day in the year when the sacred and the secular are so inexorably and wonderfully entwined. As a result of this unintentional intertwining, I find myself in a bit of a quandary each year – either in the evening or morning of the holiday – when I pick up my Philips electric shaver and stare into the mirror.

But then, inevitably, I shrug and return the shaver to the electrical socket in which it recharges. Today, I’m asking myself if this year will be different and if I will acknowledge the miracle of Israel’s independence by removing the stubble that has been growing since Passover evening. I’d like to say yes, but somehow I doubt it.

The modified mourning practices associated with the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot – the period in which some 24,000 students and disciples of Rabbi Akiva died as a result of a plague – are an integral part of the rites, observances and celebrations associated with the Jewish calendar. And for many observant males who have passed the stage of puberty, shaving and taking haircuts during this period, too, are postponed.

Indeed, I eagerly looked forward to – and still do – Lag Ba’omer, the day on which the devastating plague ended and mourning-related activities are suspended. Cheeks, chins and throats breathe a collective sigh of relief as shaving is again permitted and 32 days of itchy whiskers are flushed down the toilet.

Truth to be told, Independence Day was not an overly important or significant aspect of my Jewish life prior to making aliyah. Until I was in my late teens, the synagogues I went to with my father did not in any meaningful way recognize the day as particularly special. There was, in other words, no change to the liturgy or modification to the rituals. 

Israeli soldiers dance during the 73rd anniversary Independence Day ceremony, held at Mount Herzl, Jerusalem on April 14, 2021. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)Israeli soldiers dance during the 73rd anniversary Independence Day ceremony, held at Mount Herzl, Jerusalem on April 14, 2021. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

And while I did, later on, attend a synagogue that acknowledged the sanctity of the day, the air of celebration was, for the most part, subdued and rushed. Indeed, until I arrived in Israel, the fifth of Iyar was, for the most part, just another day. The thought of shaving on Independence Day never once crossed my mind.

Here, of course, Independence Day celebrations are anything but subdued. In just about every city and town, musical performances featuring major stars go on through the night, puppet shows and children’s theater bring smiles of delight to both the young and young at heart, and midnight danceathons are routinely scheduled. All, by the way, with the acquiescence if not total acceptance of both the national and local rabbinical authorities. Independence Day is an acknowledged time for the expression of joy despite the fact that it falls within the seven-week period of mourning.

Which, perhaps, is the source of the confusion I speak of. There has not been – and will likely never be – any formal and authoritative declaration that Independence Day has the same status as Lag Ba’omer and that in honor of celebrating the independence of our country, weddings can be performed and hair can be cut. From the perspective of Torah observance, Independence Day is, as they say in Yiddish, nisht ahin, nisht aherr (neither here nor there).

THE EVENING and morning prayers of the day, reference to the miracle that took place some seventy-four years ago and the revelry that goes on through the day truly reflects the completion of a two-thousand-year longing, but the restrictions that are set aside by Lag Ba’omer largely remain in place. Something, in other words, is off center.

Adding to the confusion, I suspect, is that there are two relatively large components of Israel’s population that neither participate in the celebrations nor concur that the day is imbued with a degree of holiness. My hesitation to shave has absolutely nothing to do with how these two groups choose to spend – or ignore – the day, but I cannot overlook the fact that over 20% of the Israeli population feels no pride in our achievements as a sovereign nation.

The haredim, for one, believe that any recognition of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) without the arrival of the Messiah is premature and pretend that the merry-making surrounding them on Independence Day doesn’t exist. This, of course, is a theological position that is very much part of the foundation upon which their lives are based. And, as the saying goes, though I may disagree with that point of view, I’ll defend with my life their right to have it.

Israeli Arabs, similarly, see little reason to celebrate. But, for political and historical reasons that have little if anything to do with religion and theology. They might, though, consider comparing Israel’s Declaration of Independence with the more famous one that was read on July 4, 1776.

The declaration read by David Ben-Gurion in 1948 promised unrestricted freedom and democratic rights to all citizens of Israel, regardless of gender, race or religion. Those Arabs who became citizens of the new country would in no way be treated differently than Jews. And Israel, to this day, has never reneged on that promise, despite accusations of racism and vile, unfounded charges of apartheid.

The declaration that Thomas Jefferson penned, too, states unequivocally that all men are created equal. And yet, among the grievances against King George that were included in the Declaration of Independence is one that address the Native Americans rather bluntly: 

“He [the king] has excited domestic insurrections among us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

As a result of this crude and unfair assessment, more than a few tribes have little interest in July 4th barbecues and fireworks. And while it’s unfair to compare the viewpoints of today with those that were prevalent nearly two-and-a-half centuries ago, it is not all that difficult to understand why there is a lingering bitterness.

All this, of course, matters little. I eagerly await Independence Day and will embrace the day with pride of being both a Jew and an Israeli. And, no, despite the contradictions that the day involves, I have no problem singing “Ani Ma’amin” (a prosaic rendition of Rambam’s “Thirteen Principles of Faith”) together with “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem. On this day, the two are complementary and in perfect sync with each other.

Now, if only my dilemma with shaving was as straightforward.

The writer is a retired technical communicator currently assisting non-profit organizations in the preparation of grant submissions and struggling to master the ins and outs of social media.