Yom HaAtzmaut: Thoughts from Jerusalem

May 9, 2011Miriam Farber

Shabbat and Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel's Independence Day. On the surface, these holidays have little in common. One has existed literally since the beginning of creation, the other since 1948. Shabbat is observed in mostly religious ways, while Yom HaAtzmaut is a more secular holiday, to make a broad generalization. What do these two have in common?

My teacher at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies, Rabbi Levi Cooper, taught me last year at this time that although the other 364 days of the year are meant for working and struggling to make the State of Israel the absolute best it can be, a light to the nations and the fulfillment of the highest hopes and visions of the early Zionists, Yom HaAtzmaut is the day to cease from that work. It is a day to pause from the hard work of building the country, to simply celebrate, be grateful, and praise God for the miracle that is the founding of the State of Israel. In Israel, this is done with barbeques, picnics, parades, fireworks, and street parties, much like independence celebrations the world over. Furthermore, many synagogues in Israel, across the religious spectrum, add Hallel, psalms of praise, to the day's liturgy, emphasizing the sense of gratitude, praise, and celebration.

Six days of the week we engage in work and acts of tikkun olam, repairing our very broken world. But every week on Shabbat, we pause from this holy work to instead notice and be grateful for those places and moments where the world is whole. These are the moments that inspire us and give us hope that the world can be better, what sustains us through the challenging and frustrating moments in the week ahead.

The Talmud teaches that Shabbat is 1/60th of Olam Haba, a little taste of the world to come (b.Berakhot 57b). On Shabbat, we hold up our highest vision of what our society and world should look like, celebrate the progress we've made towards the world-as-it-should-be, and dedicate ourselves to continuing that progress in the coming week. So too on Yom HaAtzmaut do we recommit ourselves to building the Israel its founders imagined: "The State of Israel...will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture." (Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel) We commit to building the country of our forefathers' and our dreams. As Reform Jews, sometimes it is easy to be frustrated with the ways in which Israel is not living up to those visions - the lack of state recognition for Progressive Judaism, the growing gap between the wealthiest and the poorest, our struggles with how those on the margins, relatively powerless in Israeli society, are treated. Yom HaAtzmaut is the day when we put that to rest, and instead rejoice and celebrate in the accomplishments and progress we have made in the past year and since 1948. Last year, I attended a Yom HaAtzmaut ceremony in Jerusalem in which social activists from around the country were honored for their hard work. Every year at the end of Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel honors its most accomplished citizens in the arts, sciences, humanities, and many other categories with the Israel Prize, the state's highest honor.

These ceremonies and celebrations are examples of how much there is to celebrate, be proud of and to be grateful for on Yom HaAtzmaut. Rather than letting these accomplishments blind us to the work left to be done, let them inspire us to not only celebrate them, but to work for an Israel of justice and peace.

Miriam Farber is finishing her first year as a rabbinical student at HUC-JIR. She will be heading to the Los Angeles campus after leaving Israel. During her two years living in Jerusalem, Miriam studied at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and participated in Encounter's Advanced Leadership Seminar, studying conflict transformation in Israel and the West Bank. Miriam is an alumna of the Jewish Organizing Initiative and spent 13 summers at URJ Eisner Camp in Massachusetts. Miriam blogs about her experiences living in Jerusalem at http://tovahhaaretz.blogspot.com.

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