“Seeing is believing”
A few days ago I received the following email from one of our alumni:
“….I was wondering how you would answer the following question if someone posed it to you: How do you have a chagiga with live music on Yom Haatzmaut if it is during Sefirah? If we see Yom Yerushalayim to have a greater religious significance, is it sufficient to have the chagiga then?”
When approaching my answer to the question I firstly have to explain the essence of the period referred to as ‘Sefirat Haomer’:
“And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the day of rest, from the day you brought the sheaf of the waving. Seven complete weeks, even to the morrow after the seventh week shall you count fifty days and you shall present a new meal-offering to the Lord.” (Vayikra 23:15-16.)
We know that seven weeks after the first day of Pesach the most awe-inspiring event in the history of the world – the Revelation on Har Sinai, Matan Torah – occurred. To fully appreciate any momentous experience in life, a person must generally be well prepared, disciplining his thoughts and actions so as to receive its full impact. Whatever huge anticipation surrounded Bnei Yisrael in those weeks after the initial exodus and before those days at the feet of Har Sinai has been manifested by the Torah requirement to count the forty-nine days that separate the first day of Pesach from Shavuot.
This brief exercise is not a mere ritual ‘countdown’ (or ‘countup’ in our case). On the contrary; we are to count with awe and intention and use these days to prepare ourselves to receive the Torah anew.
The nation that left Egypt was initially totally unprepared for the spiritual utopia presented at Har Sinai. Hence there was much to accomplish in very little time. Indeed, in Chassidic circles, each day of the Omer represents an area of self improvement necessary to complete a person’s spiritual make-up in preparation for Matan Torah.
The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 306) explains this mitzvah:
“This mitzvah emphasizes to us all that the main element of Jewish life is nothing other than the Torah. This is the principle reason why Am Yisrael were redeemed from Mitzrayim, so they would accept the Torah at Sinai and fulfill it. Now, because it is the core of our lives, we were commanded to count the days from the second day of Pesach through to the day the Torah was given. Here, with our very souls, we show our great yearning for that distinguished day. For counting shows that a person’s desire, all his hope of deliverance, is to reach that time.”
If we adopt this approach, in principle, the atmosphere during these interim days should be one of excited impatience, anticipation and elevation. The festive mood of Pesach does not end with Havdala on the last day of that chag. It becomes a springboard to continue our celebrations for the next six weeks. These days of the Omer are an equivalent ‘Chol Hamoed’ (as the Ramban himself suggests) connecting the initial celebration of physical freedom with our climatic spiritual redemption.
Hence we are actually in celebration mode for seven weeks. Perhaps this explains why the name, Shavuot (“weeks”), has very little to do with the day itself and much more to do with the period immediately prior to the day (the Hebrew word ‘Shavuot’ means weeks in reference to the entire period leading up to Matan Torah).
Nevertheless, despite our elation and excitement in anticipation of Matan Torah, paradoxically – instead of continuing the festive aura of Pesach in the run up to Shavuot – we find ourselves adopting the laws of mourning during this period:
“Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students spread over the country, and they all died during a short space of time between Pesach and Shavuot because they did not treat each other with respect.” (Yevamot 62b)
(In later centuries there were many other tragedies at this time of the year. In 1096 in Germany, communities were destroyed, adults and children massacred and leading scholars burned alive. In 1648-49 it was the Chmielnicki pogroms. The author of Turei Zahav, the Taz [Rabbi David Halevi 1586-1667], mentions the disasters of 1096 as a reason for mourning during the Omer period. See his comments to Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 493, Se’if Katan 2. Moreover, Pesach often falls close to the Christian celebrations of Easter. According to Christian tradition, Jesus was killed at this time. Indeed, what they refer to as “The Last Supper” was presumably Seder Night. So as the Jews sat down to celebrate Pesach, medieval Christianity saw an opportunity for revenge, hence the many blood libels that occurred specifically during this period).
As a sign of mourning for Rabbi Akiva’s students the custom is not to hold weddings, listen to music or shave. (In general, people grow their hair and beards for 33 days of the 49 day period – see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 493.)
And now the confusion sets in; will the real Sefirat HaOmer please stand up! Are we meant to be celebrating ‘Chol Hamoed’ or are we meant to be immersed in aveilut? In truth, we need to do both – fundamentally the period is a positive one, but simultaneously we adopt certain customs of mourning. Such a stance is reflected by the law regarding “Shechecheyanu”.
This bracha is generally not said during mourning yet during the time of Sefirat HaOmer we are advised that “one should not miss the opportunity of reciting the ‘Shechechyanu’ beracha if it arises”, because, in contrast to the three weeks when it is assur to recite ‘shechecheyanu’ between the 17th of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av – the period of the Omer is in its essence a very positive one (See Mishna Berurah Seif Katan Bet, to Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 493).
The premise of my student’s question is that ‘Sefirah’ is a sad time in absolute terms, but to my mind this is a mistake – we do adopt certain elements of aveilut, but fundamentally, Sefirat Haomer is a period that connects Pesach to Shavuot, physical liberation to spiritual redemption, and as such is regarded by many as a form of Chol Hamoed.
If we accept that the mourning during this period is limited to a degree then there is already room for leniency regarding Yom Haatzmaut, but I would like to go much further still:
As we know, there are at least two customs regarding the mourning during this time period: We have been taught that the students of Rabbi Akiva died for a period of 33 days between Pesach and Shavuot. One custom observes ‘aveilut’ from the first day of the Omer until the 33rd or the 34th day (depending on Ashkenazi minhag or Sefaradi minhag respectively), whilst the other begins ‘aveilut’ at the start of the month of Iyar and continues until three days prior to Shavuot.
Yet according to the first minhag, the first six days of aveilut clash with Pesach! And for those of us who keep the first part of the Omer there has never been a question as to whether one can celebrate Pesach fully because of the minhag of aveilut that clashes with those very days. Indeed, here in Israel, live music can be heard everywhere during the days of chol hamoed – and the reason is clear – the minhag of aveilut cannot override the Torah festival of Pesach.
So our question is what happens when Yom Haatzmaut clashes with the minhag of aveilut of Sefirat HaOmer?
If we see Yom Haatzmaut as a religious festival – though obviously not in the category of Pesach, but nonetheless a day of fundamental importance to the nation of Israel – then just as the celebrations of Pesach override the aveilut of the Omer so the festivities of Yom Haatzmaut should take precedence over the minhag of mourning. The real question is therefore do we really see this Day of Independence as a religious day? (I have in the past elaborated regarding the recital of Hallel on Yom Haatzmaut referring to the relevant Talmudic and Responsa sources involved.)
As all of my students know only too well, I find it extremely difficult to understand the thinking of anyone who does not perceive the religious significance of the fifth of Iyar. It seems so superfluous to me to have to explain, but explain I will, because the time has come for us as religious Jewry to stand up and open our eyes to the miracle of Israel; to once and for all realize that what we pray for thrice daily is actually happening here and now, and if we truly believe in what we are yearning for, surely it should be appreciated as it is being realized.
We have been in ‘galut’ for close to 2,000 years. Suffering after suffering, exile after exile, pogrom after pogrom. We have wandered from Babylon to Spain, from Spain to Eastern Europe. Our trials and tribulations have become increasingly threatening to our existence, but we have always known that we have a promise, that the Holy One blessed be He would not leave us to perish, that we would someday return home, and that He would bring us here, home, to the land of our Forefathers.
Now after all those years of suffering, after the unparalleled tragedy of the Holocaust, when all seemed to be lost, the Almighty has come knocking at our door (Shir HaShirim 5:2). He initially came towards the end of the nineteenth century with a call for Aliyah, but relatively few of us listened. He sent Lord Balfour with a declaration from the British Empire but again, we were yet to realize its significance. Surely this cannot be what we are praying for, the Mashiach in the form of a polite and proper Englishman?!
Then, slowly but surely, mostly unaffiliated or non-religious Jews began to return to Zion in large numbers, but how could this possibly be a sign? How could the Final Redemption begin at the initiative of a motley band of disillusioned, socialist driven, non-believing Jews?
In November 1947, the peoples of the world declared there should be a State for the Jewish Nation in Palestine, after 2,000 years of wandering and merely three years after the unparalleled murder of a third of our people. The very same world that ignored the plight of Am Yisrael in Evian on July 6th 1938; the very same nations who stood silently through Kristallnacht, the ghettoes, the shootings and the gas chambers, finally spoke up for the right of the Jewish people to their own homeland.
Surely a sign of redemption! But it did not end there – 19 years later came the Six Day War.
The Israeli Defense Forces reunited Yerushalayim…
Our paratroopers stormed Temple Mount…
We celebrated a modern day Divine Revelation just a few days before Shavuot!
Could there be any clearer sign of the Almighty’s presence, proudly declaring the arrival of the redemption?
Then Kibbutz Galuyot began: The Russian gates opened to let Soviet Jewry free; Ethiopian Jews marched for months through the African deserts just to see Yerushalayim. Is this not the ingathering of exiles we had yearned for for so long?
Wake up and see, our dreams and prayers are coming true, and we merited to see this with our very own eyes!
Israel, the home of every Jew, has been an independent country for 64 years now. Every single moment has been and continues to be a miracle. We are surrounded by 150 million people who would rather that we not be here, but we are here, and B’ezrat Hashem – we are here to stay! Yes, God has promised, and the Almighty has clearly begun to deliver – and we have merited seeing this with our own eyes! Can we really contemplate not celebrating?!
Rav Soloveitchik was said to have commented that if on LaG BaOmer we celebrate simply because an epidemic stopped then surely there is room for celebration on Yom Haatzmaut.
Can a believing Jew really contemplate not celebrating Yom Haatzmaut because of Sefirah? Is this day not a contemporary Pesach, Bayamim Hahem Ubizman Hazeh. The very same Rabbi Akiva who tragically lost 24,000 students to an epidemic, stood overlooking Temple Mount watching foxes play in an area that is only permitted to the Kohen Gadol to enter on Yom Kippur, and whilst his colleagues wept, he laughed. He laughed because he believed in the prophecy that tells us that old people will one day sit in the streets of Yerushalayim, and little children will play all around – he knew it would happen (Makkot 24b).
Rabbi Akiva believed even though he never saw it with his own eyes – but we see it with our own eyes, yet we don’t believe! Can that really be? What do you think – would Rabbi Akiva, the eternal optimist celebrate Yom Haatzmaut? Would the Rambam who declared a festival for his family on the days he visited Har HaBayit and Hebron, not declare a festival when Am Yisrael has returned to Eretz Yisrael, when after 2000 years we have Malchut Yisrael – a Government, an Army?!
Rabbi Yehuda Halevi lists the Talmud’s endless praises of Eretz Yisrael to the King of the Kuzars but the King is bewildered (see Kuzari, Ma’amar 2: 22-24):
“If what you say is true, surely the Jewish people have fallen short of their duty by not endeavoring to reach that place? Your founding fathers chose it in preference to their birthplaces and lived there as strangers rather than as citizens in their own country. This they did at a time even before the Shechina was visible, when the country was immersed in impurity and idolatry. Nor did they leave the Land in times of dearth and famine without God’s explicit permission. They even issued instructions to be buried there. Yet when Ezra and Nechemia called the people to return home during the time of the Second Temple, they weren’t interested. How could that be?”
The Rabbi concedes:
“Your reproach is severe. Indeed, it was this lack of reaction that ultimately kept the Divine promise about the Second Temple from being fulfilled. If all of our people had willingly consented to return, Divine Providence was ready to restore everything to its original state but only a minority was ready to do so. The majority and the aristocracy remained in Babylon, preferring dependence and slavery, unwilling to leave their houses and affairs.”
Shlomo HaMelech talks of the Jews in exile who are asleep (Shir HaShirim 5). The Almighty is knocking on the door and we must wake up. Ultimately we must return home, but we will never be able to leave the comforts of the Diaspora unless we first and foremost internalize the fundamental importance of this holy day Yom Haatzmaut. Yom Yerushalayim cannot be considered holier! How could we have conquered Yerushalayim without a State without an Army without a Government? It is all part of the same ongoing miracle. Would we contemplate Shavuot without Pesach?
Let us take to heart the final words of the Kuzari:
“The verse tells us that we plead of the Almighty: ‘You shall arise and have mercy upon Zion, for the time to favor her, indeed the set time has come (ki va moed). For your servants take pleasure in her stones and embrace her dust.’” (Tehillim 102:14-15).
This means Yerushalayim can only be rebuilt when Am Yisrael yearns for it to such an extent that they embrace her stones and dust!
Our fate is in our hands. We put ourselves into exile through pointless discord and disunity. It is up to us to rectify the situation.
If we truly wish it, it is no dream.
If we really believe the prayers we say every day, the time has come to act, and the first form of acting is to open our eyes and appreciate the State of Israel – to celebrate the miracle of Yom Haatzmaut!
Let me conclude with the words of the Prophet Yeshayahu:
“And the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all of the faces, and He shall remove the shame of His people from all of the earth. And it shall be said on that day, ‘Behold, this is our God. We have waited for Him to save us. This is the Lord. We have waited for Him, we shall be glad and rejoice in His salvation.’” (Yeshayahu 25:8-9).
The endless tears and pain of 2000 years of suffering, slavery and death; the days commemorated on Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron… all of those tears will be wiped away.
And on this wonderful day – Chag Ha’Atzmaut – we will rejoice, having waited expectantly for its arrival for so many years.
The Return to Zion is happening before our very eyes. We merit to see what our forefathers yearned for every day; we can live in the Old City of Yerushalayim, in the Land of Israel, a land that even Moshe Rabbeinu couldn’t enter…
May all Jews realize that here in Israel we are living Jewish history.
It’s up to you whether you want to be part of it.
It is a window of opportunity that we can ill afford to miss out on.
The redemption has begun!
Chag Atzmaut Sameach!
Rav David Milston