"As If He Had Gone Out Himself:" Integrating Past, Present and Future in Observing Yom Ha'Atzmaut

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion


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BOOKS BY RAV AHARON LICHTENSTEIN:

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YOM HA-ATZMA'UT

SICHA OF HARAV AHARON LICHTENSTEIN SHLIT"A

 

"As If He Had Gone Out Himself:"

Integrating Past, Present and Future

in Observing Yom Ha-atzma'ut

 

Translated and adapted by Rav Dov Karoll

 

 

Yom Ha-atzma'ut has been integrated into the calendrical cycle of the Jewish people and of the State of Israel.  It is therefore fitting to compare and contrast it with other festivals, especially Pesach, which is the holiday most connected to the history of the Jewish people.  By examining three levels of our observance of festivals, we may learn about the nature of Yom Ha-atzma'ut.

 

We observe every festival in accordance with its inherent nature, and in accordance with our current situation.  Clearly, there are specific halakhic and philosophical aspects that remain constant.  Nonetheless, there is an aspect that relates to the circumstances of each era.  In the Haggada, we proclaim that "In every generation there are those who rise up against us, and the Holy One saves us from them." Even when one drinks the same four cups, eats the same matzot, and reads the same Haggada, one should relate, at some level, to the salvation and dangers that exist in that specific year, in that generation, in the particular historical context in which one finds oneself.  This is one aspect: the contemporary, the existential, celebrating in light of one's current situation.

 

On the opposite extreme, we do not look at our current situation, but rather at the events of the past, at the beginning of the journey, the roots of the process.  We examine the source of the holiday's significance and message.

 

Chazal have taught us through the contents of the Haggada that one must relate to two historical aspects of the holiday.  On the one hand, there is the original situation of servitude, suffering, and hardship, and on the other hand, there followed redemption, salvation and upliftment.  The Mishna (Pesachim 116b) teaches that "In every generation, one must see himself as if he has gone out of Egypt."  But in order to experience the salvation from Egypt, one must first feel the experience of the servitude and the suffering that our forefathers experienced, to internalize the notion that "Had God not taken us out of Egypt, we and our children and grandchildren would still be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt" (Haggada).  One must imagine – and it is not easy – that one is enslaved in Egypt, with the mortar and the bricks.  Once one has done that, striking the proper balance between the "matza aspect" and the "maror aspect" of the seder night, having experienced some of the suffering, one can properly appreciate the magnitude of the Divine salvation. 

 

The Rambam's formulation of this law (in his Haggada at the end of Hilkhot Chametz u-matza) sharpens this aspect even more.  Unlike the usual version, in which each person must "see himself as if he went out of Egypt," the Rambam writes that each person must "present himself as if he is currently leaving Egypt."  One is not to retell an old memory from previous years, but rather to re-experience the exodus itself, as if one is currently caught up in the tension and shock of the original experience.

 

I believe there is also a third aspect to our observance of the festivals.  The opening verses of Parashat Bechukkotai (Vayikra 26:3-13) describe a calm and quiet period that stands in stark contrast to the two aspects of which we just spoke.  The Egyptian exodus and the birth of the State of Israel, both tempestuous and dramatic periods, presented manifold challenges faced courageously by the Jewish people.  In our time, too, like many other periods of Jewish history, we are constantly called upon to gird our loins to take on the challenges and threats confronting us. 

 

The verses at the beginning of Bechukkotai, on the other hand, describe a world devoid of all these challenges, a pastoral, peaceful existence.  The Prophets portray such an ideal time as one of "Each person under his own vine and under his own fig tree" (Melakhim I 5:5, Mikha 4:4).  I ask myself: in the midst of such a prosperous period as described in these verses, how would one observe the holidays?  Would one emphasize only the original exodus from Egypt, or would the current tranquility become part of what a person is meant to experience and to feel?

 

Since the Torah presents this pastoral scene as a reward for "follow[ing] My laws and faithfully observ[ing] My commandments" (Vayikra 26:3), apparently this scenario is desirable.  Clearly, this parasha does not speak of spiritual stagnation and desiccation; spiritual growth and vitality are the order of the day in such a situation as well.  Rather, the calm is promised with regard to the material aspects of life, relieving the pressure in those areas to allow for greater emphasis on the spiritual.  However, this does not tell us that one should relate to the festivals with less dynamism.

 

Beyond that, it seems to me that this peaceful, pastoral element should remain a component of the festival experience even during more difficult periods.  I do not subscribe to the dream of "normalization" that exists in certain schools of Zionist thought.  We have no interest in the Jewish people or the State of Israel becoming just like the other nations.  We wish to experience that which has characterized the Jewish people throughout its history, namely, growth and creativity despite the crises and difficult times.

 

The State of Israel came into being amidst the tempestuous reawakening and revitalization of the Jewish people, and this renewed energy has contributed to its continued existence.  However, we yearn for stability and want to feel that our existence here is enduring.

 

The Torah tells us, "For God's portion is His people" (Devarim 32:9), and the Ramban emphasizes several times in his commentary on the Torah (Bereishit 17:1, 28:12; Vayikra 18:25; Bemidbar 23:23, Devarim 32:7) that this means we are under God's direct supervision. As such, we have no guarantees for ongoing stability if we do not continue to deserve it.  Yet we do not strive for precariousness, and we learn from the aforementioned verses that we need not strive for it.  Rather, we strive for an element of stability in our existence.  Unfortunately, circumstances demand that we constantly fight to maintain this.

 

This stability and tranquility does not often come to fruition, and is rarely reflected in reality.  How many generations experienced "And you shall lie down untroubled by anyone"?  Nonetheless, we must not feel that our existence is entirely precarious, but should sense an aspect of permanence and rootedness in our land, in our state, in our daily lives.

 

The above considerations and feelings should accompany us in all our celebrations of special occasions, but they have special applicability to Yom Ha-atzma'ut, especially in our current situation.  On the one hand, we should celebrate Yom Ha-atzma'ut in light of our current situation. On the other hand, we ought to develop a strong experiential connection to our history, along the lines of "In every generation one must see himself as if he has gone out…"  In other words, we must grasp the difficulties and suffering we underwent along the winding road of our two thousand years of Exile, as well as the challenges faced here in Israel before the founding of the State.  In light of this recognition, we can then appreciate the magnitude of the salvation, both on a national level, and in terms of the personal salvation and revivification of millions of individuals that came about through the establishment of the State.

 

But it is not physical salvation alone, the deliverance of those who were in peril, for which we are thankful.  To apply the model of the exodus from Egypt, we are not speaking exclusively of the first two "phrases of redemption" from Shemot 6 (verses 6-8), "And I shall set you free…" and "I will deliver you from their bondage."  The State also has elements of spiritual salvation and rebuilding, the aspects of redemption epitomized by the latter phrases: "I will redeem you… and I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God… And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov." 

 

In order to appreciate the significance of this salvation, we must comprehend what came before.  This is especially difficult for those who were born after the founding of the State.  It is hard to imagine what would be if there were no State of Israel, but this thought demands our attention.

 

Another point deserves consideration.  The State of Israel is a unique country.  However, part of what we desire is that there be stability and rootedness in our existence here.  We wish that the arrival of each Yom Ha-atzma'ut not be cause for astonishment.  We wish for a certain measure of normality, and the ability to celebrate Yom Ha-atzma'ut with confidence of our endurance.  While the celebration of Yom Ha-atzma'ut ought to differ from the celebrations of other nations, it nevertheless would be nice to have some parallel, in this regard, to Bastille Day in France and to the Fourth of July in America.  And this despite the present reality, which does not seem to allow for such thoughts.

 

What do our enemies say?  "A state may have risen, but what are fifty or sixty years in the grand historical picture?"  They compare our existence to that of the Crusader state, which lasted a few generations and then was uprooted.  The entirety of our Jewish soul, of our Israeli soul, of our Torah soul, rebels against this notion.  Even when "You lie down" and you are "troubled by someone," we assert that we are set, rooted, firm, in this land.  We will not allow anyone to tell us that we are a relic from the past, or a transient moment in the broad historical picture.

 

Admittedly, viewing Yom Ha-atzma'ut through the perspective of different time periods may be difficult.  It is more complex than focusing upon a single scenario.  However, I believe that if we wish to appreciate the full significance of the event, both experientially and philosophically, we must take all of this into consideration.

 

I have spoken about some parallels between Yom Ha-atzma'ut and the holiday of Pesach.  Regarding Pesach, Chazal emphasize an additional aspect.  The blessing of "Asher ge'alanu," which is pronounced after telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt, opens with thanking God for redeeming us, and for redeeming our forefathers, from Egypt, and concludes by turning to the future, asking that God allow us to celebrate in the redemption.  The Talmud Yerushalmi (Berakhot 1:5, as explained by Tosafot, Pesachim 104b, s.v. chutz), in explaining why the blessing contains "barukh" at both its beginning and its end (while according to the rules of blessings we would expect only one in this case), asserts that this is because the blessing speaks of two different redemptions, one past and one future.

 

This teaches us that our celebration of the Exodus from Egypt is bound up, intrinsically, with our anticipation for the future redemption.  On Yom Ha-atzma'ut, as on Pesach, we must not only consider our past and present, but also exhibit yearning and desire for the future.  This is part of anticipation of the redemption; we are a dreaming and yearning people, with a vision of what will be in the future.

 

This brings us to another point.  I spoke about how difficult it may be for those who have merited growing up in a time when the State of Israel could be taken for granted, to "See himself as if he had gone out…"  It requires more effort, partly intellectual and partly imaginative.  The Gemara (Ketubot 75a) cites a verse, "And of Zion it shall be said, This man and that man [meaning everyone] were born there" (Tehillim 87:5).  Noting the repetition of the word "ish," "man," the Gemara explains, "Echad ha-nolad bah, ve-echad ha-metzapeh lir'otah" - the appellation "one who was born there" applies both to those who were actually born there and to those who yearned to see it.  Each of them has a connection to Zion. 

 

In the continuation of the above Gemara, Abbaye says that if one needs to choose between these two, between those in Israel and those who hope to get there, priority is to be given to those born there. He states that one person born is Israel is worth two born in Babylonia.  The Gemara then cites the view of Rava, who makes the reverse claim: one person who comes from Babylonia to Israel is worth two who were born there.

 

What is the nature of this priority?  In what way is a person who has come from abroad to be preferred over one who was born in Israel?  The answer seems to be clear.  Someone who began his life in Israel, was raised on its holiness and with a deep connection to it, views its existence as entirely normal and takes it for granted.  Someone who grew up with a different reality, however, yearns to come, dreams of living his life here, and sees Israel more as a vision than as a reality.  In one sense, the Gemara says, one who grew up in Israel is preferable, for he is suffused with its existence.  On the other hand, the Gemara adds, one who grew up outside Israel and comes to it has the ability to integrate the yearning and the reality.  Though he is not rooted in Israel, he carries with him the yearning and desire for the land.

 

When we approach this Gemara, we should not view these approaches as mutually exclusive.  Each of us should see it as a challenge to integrate these two elements in his consciousness.  Even those who were born here should strive for the better aspects of both.  If you merited to be born in Israel, you should be deeply rooted in your existence here.  Do not lose sight of the natural and normal existence you have had here, remaining firm and rooted in that existence in Israel.  On the other hand, you should feel wonder and yearning in your relationship with this land, and not only because we still lack so much.  Even if we lacked nothing, the feeling should still be there.

 

Those who were born in Israel should appreciate the naturalness and rootedness with which they were raised, recognizing that it is far beyond the reality of previous generations.  They also should live with the wonder and the recognition of God's great kindness that is inherent in this existence.  At the same time, we should all hope and pray for better days.

 

[This sicha was delivered at the Yeshiva's Mesibat Yom Ha-atzma'ut, 5762 (2002).]