The Essence of Yom Ha'atzmaut
By: Rav Avraham Rivlin
R. Avi Chermon based on a sicha given on Yom Hazikaron, 4 Iyar 57
Our service of Hashem on Yom Ha'atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) is difficult. It is clear that any holiday that we celebrate is not merely a remembrance of a previous historical occurrence or of an agriculturally significant time of year. The chagim represent certain spiritual influences which reoccur every year at specific times.
This idea is evident from the mitzvah of matzah, which is supposed to commemorate the fact that when Bnei Yisrael left Mitzrayim their dough did not have time to rise . Yet, we find in Sefer Bereishit that people ate matzot, many years before Yisrael even went to Mitzrayim. Even the mitzvah of matzot itself was commanded to Yisrael before they left Mitzrayim. The Beit Halevi explains that from the time of the creation, Hashem attributed spiritual significance to certain days of the year. This spiritual essence was expressed later in history by historical occurrences.
Because we are physical beings, we can only understand the spiritual essence of each chag based on the physical events which occurred throughout the years. We can better understand this spiritual essence by learning about the mitzvot of each chag, and by learning what Chazal say about each chag. We thereby are more attuned to appreciate and to absorb the spiritual influence of that day.
Yom Ha'atzmaut is unlike all of the other chagim. There is no Torah, Rishonim, Achronim, or chasidut on Yom Ha'atzmaut, and therefore it is difficult for us to understand what the essence of the day is. Our generation does not fully appreciate the miracle of Yom Ha'atzmaut because we did not personally experience it. We must recognize that there were major miracles that occurred in the victory of the War of Independence, and we must thank Hashem for all of these miracles.
The fact that we are free to be in control of the land is also a reason to thank Hashem and to rejoice. When I was young, being religious in Israel was not as easy as it is today. Now there is a significant religious community in Israel, and being religious is much more comfortable. Certainly it was much harder to be religious Jews in Eretz Yisrael before there was a state.
Americans or Englishman may feel nationalism towards their respective countries, but no one in the world can feel as strongly as Jews feel about their land. We are the only people in the world who can claim that Hashem gave us our land, in contrast to all other nations who got their land through conquering others. We are the only people that can say that Hashem created this land for us. We must feel that this day is special because we can proudly say that Hashem returned us to our land.
Man has a difficulty to thank Hashem for things that he is accustomed to. We are used to the fact that we can see, and therefore we hardly appreciate it. We are meant to thank Hashem by saying the bracha of "pokeach ivrim." If a person was blind and his sight was restored one morning, he would say the bracha of pokeach ivrim with such tremendous kavana (at least for the next week!). The same idea applies to our independence. Since we were born with independence, it is difficult for us to thank Hashem for it.
There are many hints to the significance of 5 Iyar as Yom Ha'atzmaut.Chazal point out that every day of Pesach will always fall out on the same day of the week as another holiday, according to the "At-bash" gematria system. The first day will fall on Tisha B'av, etc., in the following order:
Alef- Taf. Tisha B'av
Bet- Shin. Shavuot
Gimel- Resh. Rosh Hashana
Dalet- Kuf. Kriat Hatorah (Simchat Torah)
Hey- Tzadi. Tzom (Yom Kippur)
Vav- Pei. Purim
Chazal do not mention which festival corresponds to the seventh day of Pesach, but it has been pointed out that the seventh day of Pesach, which corresponds to Ayin, always falls out on the same day of the week as Yom Ha'atzmaut.
Furthermore, the Ramban says that the six days of creation correspond to the six thousand years that the world exists. Each day corresponds to one thousand years. The year 5708 (1948), corresponds to the end of the 5th hour on the sixth day, the time man was given his soul. [In addition to these hints, there are many more which can be seen in the Siddur, "Goel Yisrael."]
It is hard to say that all of these hints are coincidental. What makes this even more significant is that this date was not even determined by Jews. The end of the mandate was established by an officer in the British foreign office, apparently for no significant reason, and without any awareness of all these hints. This underscores the Divine hand involved in choosing this date.
The Gemara (B.K. 60a) says that dogs barking is a sign of Eliyahu's arrival. The Maharal asks, why is this announcement heralded by the bark of dogs, and not by a talmid chacham? He answers that this is to show that the coming of the Mashiach is by Divine decree and not dependent on human intellect. For this reason, the term "Am Yisrael" was first coined by Pharaoh, and the name "Yisrael" by the angel of Esav.
We have seen that there is a special significance to this day. But what is the spiritual essence of this day? What should our Avoda be regarding Yom Ha'atzmaut?
Yom Ha'atzmaut falls between Pesach and Shavuot, which are holidays of independence. Shavuot is not really an independent holiday, as the Torah never mentions its date. We only know that it comes seven weeks after the Omer sacrifice, and we count the Omer to connect Pesach to Shavuot. Just as Shemini Atzeret follows Succot, with days of chol hamoed in the middle, so too, Shavuot is an Atzeret of Pesach, and the days of the Omer are like a "chol hamoed" which connects the two holidays. The idea of freedom is common to both of the holidays. There is a reason that both Yom Ha'atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim fall out in this period! Moreover, Yom Ha'atzmaut is thirty days before Shavuot, the time that one starts learning the halachot of Shavuot and the freedom associated with it.
It is clear that on Pesach we celebrate our physical freedom, as we were then freed from Egypt. What is the freedom which we received on Shavuot? Chazal teach that receiving the Torah made us free, but how does the Torah give us freedom?
Moshe was told that he would take the Jews out of Egypt so that they could serve Hashem: "When you take the people out of Egypt, You will serve G-d on this mountain." (Shemot 3:12) It seems that we went from being slaves of Pharaoh to becoming the slaves of Hashem, which is much harder, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Any human master does not enslave a man from the day he is born until the day he dies. In general, little children and old people are not enslaved, and slaves are allowed to rest every so often. But we are always slaves of Hashem as long as we breathe. In addition, Hashem tells us how to sleep, talk and eat; there is no domain of our lives which is not dictated by Hashem's Torah. What master enslaves a slave so comprehensively? Qualitatively, a human master cannot command a slave what to think and what to feel. But Hashem commands us who to love, when to be happy, what to think, and what to desire. It was easier for Yisrael to be in Mitzrayim, so why are we considered "free" when receiving the Torah? Why do we celebrate freedom on Shavuot? What freedom does the Torah give us? We must redefine freedom.
The word for independence in Hebrew is "atzmaut," which comes from the word "etzem," which means "bone" and also "internal essence" of something. What is the connection between these two meanings? Man also has externals and internals. The bones of the skeleton form man's physical essence. For this reason, when a corpse decomposes in the ground, his skeleton remains. Based on this definition, we can understand the idea of "atzmaut," independence. What is freedom? If man is freed from his master, that is only half of freedom. Freedom means reaching our true essence. The spiritual essence of Yom Ha'atzmaut, Independence Day, is that we will be able to recognize our inner essence. What am I? What is Am Yisrael? Even if we become independent of all foreign servitude, we are not truly independent until we realize what lies in our essence.
In the Pesach Haggadah we mention the following: "Therefore we must bless, praise … the One who took us from slavery to freedom, from despair to joy, from mourning to Yom Tov." One may ask on the wording of the Haggadah. Generally, there is a stage which occurs between mourning and Yom Tov. When a person stops mourning, it is not necessarily a Yom Tov, it is a regular day. Similarly, there is a stage between despair and joy, the stage of being normal. Why does the Haggadah not mention this middle stage?
We see that the same rule applies to freedom. There is a middle stage between freedom and slavery. In Pesach, the slavery stopped, but we were not yet totally free in that we have not reached our essence. On Shavuot, we became free, because then we were able to recognize who we truly are. In the Haggadah, we thank Hashem for removing us from slavery on Pesach and for giving us true freedom on Shavuot.
Many people today do not recognize that they are not free. Hashem made it difficult for us to recognize that we are not free because we live lives of externals. We pretend to be free, but man's evil inclination enslaves him by causing him to sin. We place our physical needs before our spiritual needs. If man remains in this mindset of constant physical desire, he is not truly free.
Our goal is to be more free than the rest of the world -- this is the essence of the name Yisrael. When Bilam came to curse Yisrael, the pasuk says that Hashem did not want him to curse Yisrael and turned his curse into a blessing. Yisrael is not satisfied with being "not cursed," we must be "blessed." Yisrael cannot be "parve," we must always come out ahead. The angel of Esav came to fight with Yaakov, and could not win. Yaakov did not just walk away safely; he only let the angel leave after receiving a bracha. This is the essence of the name Yisrael. There is no point in leaving Mitzrayim just to be no longer slaves, we went to Mitzrayim to leave as free people. Throughout our history we have been encountering difficulty, but the goal is to gain and to grow from these difficulties. Our independence is then expressed by what we gain.
When a man divorces his wife, the get must not be given against the will of the husband. The Gemara says that when someone does not want to divorce his wife, beit din may force him until he says that he wants to divorce her. But if someone he is being coerced to divorce his wife, and he truly does not want to, how is the get valid? The Rambam explains that a person truly desires to do good. Even if he says that he does not want to divorce his wife, inside, he really wants to. There is an external yetzer hara which is preventing him from fulfilling his good will. True independence exists when someone is in faithful to his inner good will.
In Yeshiva we must use this day of independence to strengthen our inner selves. There are many people in the world today who are afraid to be independent and to look at themselves alone. People are afraid to see what is inside. We have the ability, though, to recognize our inner essence.
Let us be ourselves, and thereby express our true independence!
Shiur ID: 3969