Fundamentally Freund: A broom and a flag

The Sadigora Rebbe would relive the humiliation of Nazi Austria as a redemptive Independence Day ritual .

michael freund 88 (photo credit: )
michael freund 88
(photo credit: )
I'm no psychiatrist, but as Israel turns 60, we seem to have developed an acute case of schizophrenia. You can almost sense the contradictory impulses at work, as many Israelis wonder whether to celebrate the country's numerous accomplishments, bemoan its agonizing disappointments or some combination of the two. Whether it is the various corruption scandals involving political figures, the latest child-abuse cases that rocked the nation a few weeks ago, or the ongoing assault on traditional Jewish and Zionist values, there would seem to be plenty of reasons to scratch our heads and speculate about where this country is headed. Add to that the continuing Palestinian rocket attacks against Sderot, the growing threat of a nuclear Iran, and the Hizbullah arms buildup north of the border, and it is no wonder that some of our fellow citizens would prefer to hide under the nearest bed until the storm passes. Quite frankly, it seems hard to blame them. But then there is the other side of the coin. Look at Israel's various triumphs in fields ranging from computer science to agriculture, note the optimists. Our ability to survive in a hostile neighborhood is an achievement in and of itself, they say. They, too, have a point. So which is it, then, on Israel's 60th Independence Day? Doom or delight, glee or gloom? Or perhaps some mixture of the two? The very question, I think, is remarkable, if only because it betrays an utter lack of appreciation for historical context and perspective. After all, in the life of an individual, a span of sixty years may represent the bulk of his productive days on this earth. But for a nation, it is an infinitesimal period, a mere episode or interlude in the great sweep of history. Nonetheless, look at what we the Jewish people have managed to achieve here since 1948. We've brought millions of immigrants from around the world, made the desert bloom, and built a free country amid a sea of tyranny, all in less time than it took to construct the Leaning Tower of Pisa (177 years), the Great Wall of China (centuries), or even Washington's National Cathedral (83 years). Not bad, don't you think? CONSIDER, FOR example, where today's great superpower, the United States, was in the 60th year of its existence. Back in 1836, large swathes of the North American continent remained untamed, as Arkansas became just the 25th state to join the Union. Americans living on the periphery faced frequent Indian attacks and great uncertainty. In May of that year, Comanche Indians slaughtered five members of a family in Texas and then proceeded to abduct their 9-year old daughter, who was later forced to marry the tribal chief. Twenty-five years would pass before she was rescued from her captors. And then, of course, there was the Battle of the Alamo, where Mexican troops massacred hundreds of valiant American defenders in Texas, including folk hero Davey Crockett. Incidents such as these must surely have sent a chill down the spine of every citizen. Even America's democracy was struggling at the time, as the dispute over slavery continued to fester. In 1836, the House of Representatives went so far as to pass the infamous "gag rule" as a means of suppressing debate on this contentious issue. Nonetheless, despite the great challenges which America faced at the time, that did not dampen their sense of optimism or detract from their appreciation for what had been accomplished in the period since the nation's founding. Indeed, in his annual address to Congress in December of that year, President Andrew Jackson started off by saying, "it is a source of the most heartfelt satisfaction to be able to congratulate you on the high state of prosperity which our beloved country has attained." "With no causes at home or abroad to lessen the confidence with which we look to the future," he continued, "the general condition of our affairs may well excite our national pride." This, too, must be our approach as we mark Israel's 60th annual Independence Day, and as we face the future. Sure, there are still plenty of swamps left to be drained in this country. Swamps of Jewish ignorance, swamps of poverty and unemployment, swamps of callousness and despair. But that should never detract from our appreciation of the fact that we finally have a Jewish state, even with all of its faults. A moving story about the great Hassidic Rebbe of Sadigora, Rabbi Avraham Yaakov Friedman of blessed memory, bears this out. When the Nazis took over Vienna, where the rebbe lived, they sought to humiliate the Jews by forcing the great sage to sweep the streets of the city to the taunts and laughter of Austrian onlookers. The German soldiers handed the rebbe a broom, but while he swept, he recited a silent prayer: "Master of the Universe, may I yet merit to sweep the streets of the Land of Israel." The Nazis then gave him a large flag and forced him to hoist it over a tall building. This time the rebbe intoned, "Master of the Universe, may I yet merit to raise the flag of Israel over a high place in the Land of Israel." After surviving the war, the rebbe was determined to fulfill his vision. And so, each year, on Independence Day, he would rise early, take a broom in hand, and proceed to sweep the streets of Tel Aviv in honor of God's answer to his prayer. And then the elderly rabbi would ascend to the top of Tel Aviv's Great Synagogue, and raise a large Israeli flag proudly for all to see. So the next time you find yourself down in the dumps, wondering about this country and its leadership - think back to the Rebbe of Sadigora, with a broom in one hand, a flag in the other, and a heart full of gratitude to God for the miracle that is the modern State of Israel.