Israel Independence Day: A Jewish spring

Taking the long view of Jewish history can help us navigate our current crisis and restore some of the luster of Jewish independence.

 Jewish history is resurgent, and so is its calendar (photo credit: PIXABAY)
Jewish history is resurgent, and so is its calendar
(photo credit: PIXABAY)

As we prepare to celebrate Israel’s 75th anniversary, we are consumed by a swirl of confusing emotions. We continue to suffer internal strife, as our country is badly split over the future shape of our democracy. In the wake of social unrest, both our economy and our international standing have been destabilized. Believing that we are vulnerable, our numerous enemies have become emboldened to attack us. Worst of all, a recent wave of terrorism has taken dozens of lives.

It hasn’t been an easy two months in the Land of Israel, and this is certainly not how we envisioned the celebration of a major national milestone. Our 75th Independence Day was meant to be more joyous and less fraught. Life is never as neat as we imagine it to be.

History provides perspective. People of faith take the long view of Jewish history and are less distressed by momentary lapses or setbacks. Jewish history is a long and protracted course, requiring faith and patience. Taking the long view of Jewish history can help us navigate our current crisis and restore some of the luster of Jewish independence.

Throughout Jewish history, the current phase of our calendar has undergone massive shifts, which themselves reflect the revolutions of Jewish fate. The bittersweet spring segment of our calendar has been repeatedly modified and is still under construction.

Joy and triumph

Initially, the months between Passover and Shavuot were a festive period, as we recalled our liberation from Egypt and counted down the days to Shavuot and Sinai. Twice, within a two-month period, we pilgrimaged to Jerusalem for national celebration. The weather was mild, and the national mood was cheerful as we celebrated successful harvests by delivering tasty bikkurim fruits to the Temple. It was a period of national solidarity and historical pride. 

The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Francesco Hayez (credit: Wikimedia Commons)The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Francesco Hayez (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Even during our 70-year exile in Babylonia, this period remained jubilant, as the dramatic Purim miracles unfolded during these months. The initial face-off with Haman occurred during Passover, while the ensuing Jewish recovery took place in the weeks leading up to Shavuot. In the first stage of Jewish history, this joyous period was punctuated by glorious milestones of Jewish triumph. The Counting of the Omer was a tally of pride and of optimism. Tragically, things would quickly turn sour.

Exile, chapter 1 

As Jewish exile commenced, these months changed their complexion. In the second century, the Bar-Kochba uprising offered a last-ditch effort to restore Jewish sovereignty, after the vicious Roman conquest of Israel. Rabbi Akiva, the supreme Torah scholar of his day, supported this insurrection, believing in its messianic potential. Suddenly, during the interval between Passover and Shavuot, 24,000 of his students died from mysterious causes. Perhaps they were killed by a contagious pandemic; alternatively, they may have been brutally massacred in battle by the Romans. Either way, their jarring deaths signaled that Jewish history was about to shift. The sudden deaths of these prominent scholars became a dreadful milestone, indicating that the long night of Jewish exile was about to begin. 

These two months of spring, which had been designated for celebration, were now scarred by death and darkness. Jewish history was spiraling, and with it, these months became marred with Jewish blood.

Exile, chapter 2 

For approximately the next 1,000 years, we were scattered in exile but enjoyed relatively calm and stable conditions. By and large, we lived in peaceful coexistence with our hosts, first in Persia and ultimately in various Muslim countries. We had been dislocated from our homeland and robbed of our sovereignty, but institutionalized antisemitism had yet to rear its ugly face. Once again, conditions were about to change, as a bloody tragedy would launch 1,000 years of hatred and persecution against our people. 

In 1096, the First Crusade was launched, aiming to recapture Jerusalem from Muslim occupation. Jewish communities, primarily in Germany and France, were savagely attacked by the rampaging Crusaders. Jews were brutally murdered or forcibly baptized. That year was merely the opening bell. Over the next three centuries, at least four additional Crusades subjected defenseless Jewish communities to further atrocities. Ultimately, various legal decrees were legislated against Jews, leading to their eventual expulsion from Western Europe. Jews were expelled from France in 1181, from England in 1290 and, most infamously, from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. 

The springtime Crusades of 1096 marked the emergence of institutionalized Christian antisemitism, a historical monstrosity which would hunt us and haunt us for the next millennia, culminating in the gruesome horrors of the Holocaust. 

These two springtime tragedies became grotesque milestones of Jewish exile. The deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students announced the start of our long exile, while the Crusades launched 900 years of discrimination, hatred and bloodshed. 

These dual traumas converted a season of joy into two months of grief. The customs of mourning during the Counting of the Omer are a sad reflection of the ironic and tragic transformation of this period. Thousands of years ago, spring was our happiest season, but the ravages of Jewish exile had smothered our happiness with sorrow and misery.

Renovating history 

Jewish history is resurgent, and so is its calendar. Over the past century, a revitalized Jewish spring would restore the luster of these two months.

In 1948, on the fifth of Iyar, David Ben-Gurion declared Jewish independence and renewed Jewish sovereignty. The proximity of our modern Independence Day to Passover, our ancient Independence Day, isn’t coincidence. Nothing in Jewish history is. Thousands of years ago, during this month, Jewish soldiers and scholars perished, but now Israelis were dancing in the tree-lined streets of Israel.

History wasn’t finished with this month, and 19 years later we were given even greater reason to celebrate in it. God created His natural world in six days, and He recreated history in six days of June 1967. After the Six Day War, we returned to Jerusalem and to the hinterland of Jewish history, restoring Jewish pride and reaffirming Jewish destiny. These miracles unfolded one week before Shavuot, again an overlap that isn’t coincidental. A thousand years ago, during this pre-Shavuot week, Jews were being slaughtered in the Rhinelands of Germany, but in 1967 paratroopers were blowing the shofar standing under the Western Wall, the last vestige of our ancient Temple. Joy and celebration had been restored to the Jewish spring after 2,000 years of sadness and horror. 

As we begin this month of renewed Jewish celebration, don’t ignore the long and frustrating odyssey of Jewish history. Our journey hasn’t always been comfortable, and these iconic months have been a microcosm of our convoluted journey. We have now returned, and, as we renew our destiny, we are also revamping our calendar. Short of supernatural divine intervention, nothing historical happens immediately. This reconstruction project will take time, and we may suffer setbacks. 

These months continue to be complicated and bittersweet. However, for so many years they were only bitter. Now they are bittersweet and are more sweet than bitter. Taste each flavor of the Jewish spring but maintain proper proportion between the two. 

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.