One of the most amazing aspects of Israel is how the Jewish calendar truly comes to life there. It is in Israel that one is immersed in sacred time, and the place where citizens actively participate in what is holy within Jewish tradition. Beyond the religious experience, too, there are days in Israel that are deemed sacred. Among them are Yom HaShoah, the day that memorializes those who lost their lives in the Holocaust, and Yom HaZikaron, which commemorates those whose lives were taken fighting for Israel.
Immediately following Yom HaZikaron is Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel's celebration of her independence, which was declared on Friday, May 14, 1948. The following year, the Israeli government declared the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Iyar as a national holiday. Since then, Yom HaAtzmaut has evolved into a day that often is considered a second Exodus for the Jewish people and for Israelis. Intrinsically linked to Israel's War of Independence against the countries that surround her, Yom HaAtzmaut symbolizes the belief that by standing strong, the State of Israel will persevere for all time.
The statewide celebration of Yom HaAtzmaut begins with a torch-lighting ceremony atop Mount Herzl, the burial site of Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism. Special prayers for Israel are added to the daily liturgy and specially-written Passover Haggadah – emphasize the themes of freedom and redemption. Ophir Yarden, director of educational initiatives for the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, has noted that the observance of Yom HaAtzmaut also alludes to Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, with the days preceding the holiday devoted to soul searching and identity reflection. He suggests, too, that there is an association with creation imagery; just as Rosh HaShanah celebrates the creation of the world, Yom HaAtzamut celebrates the creation of the State of Israel. Lastly, Yom HaAtzmaut is associated with light imagery (a common theme throughout Judaism, particularly during Hanukkah), celebrating the miracle of Israel's independence despite its trials and tribulations.– like the
Each of these comparisons provides evidence that Yom HaAtzmaut has molded itself into a day as holy as any commanded in the Torah or other sacred Jewish texts. It is a day set aside for spiritual renewal and connection to the State of Israel; enjoying time with family and friends; and raising Israeli flags to celebrate both Israeli independence and Jewish peoplehood.
In North America, Yom HaAtzmaut provides a perfect opportunity to explore how Israel can have meaning in our lives. By using this day for study and reflection, as well as for celebrating the state and our Israeli brothers and sisters, not only will we enrich our own lives, but also demonstrate a deep connection to both the land and her people.
Rabbi P.J. Schwartz is the assistant rabbi at Temple Israel in Westport, CT. He was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, OH, in June 2013 and is married to his college sweetheart, Michelle, a special education teacher.