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The Labor of Sovereignty: Remembrance Day and Independence Day

In memory of my beloved brother, Nadav Elad z”l
Who fell on duty on the 18th of Av 5761
With longing that has no end.

After celebrating Pesach and our exodus from Egypt, come the days of fear and trepidation: Holocaust Remembrance day, Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers, Independence Day and Jerusalem Day; the new commemorative days, engraved in the book of chronicles of  our time, days of testimony on the destruction of our people and its revival in Zion.

First to come into our midst is Holocaust Remembrance day. “What task of craziness” – writes Rachel Auerbach in her book “Be’hutsot Varsha (Auerbach, Author, Translator and Publicist from Galicia. She moved to Warsaw in 1933 and served, among other positions, as one of the archivists for Oneg Shabbat, the main archive in the Warsaw Ghetto. Rachel Auerbach, The Streets of Warsaw, Tel Aviv, Am Oved, 1954, p.80) -The Streets of Warsaw”  – “the resolve to mention one after the other of all the Jews who were murdered. The whole nation!” Holocaust Remembrance Day presents to our nation an unbearable challenge, for how can we possibly remember six million?  Prof. Shlomo Breznitz from Haifa University illustrated the task in a conference in 1979, through Jewish language. Take six million names, he said, and write down each one of them in a book. Divide the book to Parashot (portions) according to an average length of a portion. How long would it take to read those six million names if we read one portion a week? 75 years, he answered, a whole lifetime to read names, only names, only once. This “task of craziness” – as Auerbach calls it – is founded on the understanding that we sanctify the lives of our people by commemorating one more name, one more story, one more desecrated human life.

Then comes Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers. As the siren is heard all over Israel at 8pm, our soul delves into the story of individuals who bequeathed us with a land full of longing. “One does not build monuments for Tzaddikim. Their words commemorate them.” (Yerushalmi Shekalim), taught our ancestors. And indeed, most tombstones in the Israeli military cemeteries are homogeneous; but it is the unique deeds of each of the fallen that fill the country with deep sorrow.

Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers are days of deep retrospection and meaning. In schools, in radio and television, anywhere one turns, one finds the feeling of loss echoed in story after story, each fallen and his or her story of life, each one and his story of death.

In contrast to these, stand Independence Day and Jerusalem Day, with their meager customs. Independence Day does hold a unique prayer, a central ceremony, a special reading and the Bible contest. But in light of the evening before, when people all over Israel gather to remember together, what do people gather for on this day? The happiness of the day is poorly celebrated; we have created celebration without sufficient content, when a whole nation barbecues outdoors. Jerusalem Day, too, is poorly celebrated, being less and less relevant to most Jews in the state of Israel. One may assume that this is so, since generations of Jewish education has taught us the labor of remembrance. And so today, we find ourselves not knowing how to commemorate sovereignty.

“Forgetfulness has come upon us” – wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book “Israel: an Echo of Eternity” – (Abraham Joshua Heschel, Israel: An Echo of Eternity, The Zionist Library, Jerusalem, 1973, p. 24) “once established, the State of Israel became an obvious reality…. The wonder became the usual… as if it were no mystery, no secret.” Heschel wrote in 1967 as part of his claim to create a candid dialogue between Israeli and American Jews. Many of his words were directed to the danger that emanates from the establishment of the State. His wonder was mixed with concern that the profoundness of independence would be lost if not filled with a renewed Jewish content based on the human hope expressed in ethics. Thus, Heschel warned regarding Jerusalem too: “When Jerusalem was destroyed, our sages decreed that one would commemorate Jerusalem every day, everywhere…. Now that our legs stand in Jerusalem, what great task weighs upon us now?”(Ibid. p.35).

The new commemorative days of our time demand of us to see them as one unit, destruction alongside revival, both interwoven between Pesach and Shavuot, for a reason.  During Pesach we exercise freedom by speaking the story of slavery and salvation, handing it over to the next generation. But our new commemorative days were fixed after Pesach, within a venacular of freedom whose purpose directs us towards Shavuot. For the freedom of Egypt makes its way to Shavuot, facing the Land of Israel and its newly harvested wheat. And so, our tradition teaches us, freedom with no direction or cause will eventually dissipate and be lost. Pesach leads Jewish freedom toward its destination: receiving the Torah and renewing the Covenant, as it is written by our sages,. On that route our new commemorative days were placed, seeking their final destination: the renewal of the covenant in Zion.

“The Return to Zion is a challenge to the permanent an upheaval to the non-movement, a challenge that calls for new thoughts, new actions” – wrote Heschel (Ibid. p.227) – “people with good intentions used to say, that the Jewish state would be an answer to all Jewish questions, but the truth is, that the State of Israel is a challenge to all of our answers.”  The weakness of Independence Day and Jerusalem Day, which has become evident over the years, indicates more than anything the challenge that the labor of sovereignty presents to us, and the fact that we stand only in its first stage. 63 years since the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jewish nation must ask itself as it draws near to its commemorative days: What is the meaning of Jewish sovereignty? What is its purpose? What have the prophets of our nation prophesied when they envisioned Jerusalem arising from its ruins?  What is needed of us so we can rejoice in the existence of the State of Israel and of Earthly Jerusalem in a deeply significant way? Where is Zion within the State of Israel? Where is Heavenly Jerusalem within the Earthly one? How will we uncover their importance and hand down this legacy to our children and our grandchildren?

We must be cautious, lest the days of Remembrance engulf the days of Revival.

The true challenge of Zionism is to extricate the people of Israel from the challenge of exile and the ability to remember, by immersing them in the challenges of sovereignty, by filling those days of celebration with a significance all their own, by demonstrating the gift to renew. That gift is hidden in the conversations we create between each other, in the dialogue that bonds diverse communities, , in the joy that comes out of diversity of thought, all entering the land of Israel through its many gates and portals, all meeting in their homeland. Only the revival of our people’s soul in Zion, only the renewal of Judaism, will fill this entity called the State of Israel with the content and strength needed to insure its existence. Only spiritual revival will secure the Zionist Project and eventually enable us to decipher the challenge of Peace.

May we never forget the individuals of our nation, neither the dead nor the living. And may we be worthy of forever rejoicing in our independence. “Then would our mouths be filled with laughter; joyous songs on our tongues”. (Psalms 126:2)

Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum is Associate Dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary and Director of its newest program-“Mishlei”- “Schechter Bet Midrash for Jewish Leadership.”

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