Monday, April 30, 2012

Yom Ha'atzmaut in Israel vs. in the Diaspora

Even though I'm no longer an actively practicing pulpit rabbi, I remain connected to many of my rabbinic friends, and somewhat active in the rabbinic community. To that end, I receive (and sometimes participate) in a rabbinic email list, which discusses fascinating topics, issues and challenges pertinent to rabbis of all stripes.
Each year, as Yom Ha'atzmaut approaches, the rabbis begin a series of discussions about the religious observances of the day, including whether and how to recite Hallel, tachanun, and the suspension of the mourning practices of Sefirat Ha'omer. I recently wrote a response not to any particular email, but to the entire genre, as it highlighted a substantial gulf between the observance of these holidays here, and the way that we observed them in the States. Then, my good friend Rabbi David Brofsky sent a moving response, which I am also sharing. (Note: While the email list is private, I have removed any reference to members of the group, and only share my own and Rabbi Brofsky's words with his permission.)

Inevitably, it seems, each year the same discussions arise in some form. Do we recite hallel, when, with a brachah or without? Did the Rav recite hallel? What's the position of the Chief Rabbinate? I know that the questions come from a desire to adhere precisely to the letter of the law, but feel that sometimes they overshadow the true nature of the day. Instead of focusing on the nisim and yad hashem, we occupy ourselves with whether to say hallel with our without a brachah, and which rabbanim advocate what (which is sometimes also code for "is or is not a big enough Zionist").

[A certain rabbi] asked about what actually takes place here. In my religious yishuv Yom Ha'atzmaut is treated as a fully religious holiday. People came to shul on YH eve dressed by and large in white shirts (which is pretty much like Shabbat), we recited a tefillah chagigit
(without hallel), and on YH morning the shul recited Hallel with a brachah. More to the point, the davening itself had a celebratory tone - in the way that people prayed. It wasn't a rushed, weekday morning davening, but more like the relaxed davening of a minor holiday. This might have much to do with the fact that no one had to get to work. To be honest, I find myself
in an unusual situation, in that personally I don't recite the brachah, following the practice that has become accepted in the United States (as communicated from Rav Soloveitchik). But I haven't communicated this to my children, and they recited a normal hallel with a brachah - which is the accepted, universal practice here in Israel in the community where I live.
I see no reason to confuse them.

Personally, I long for a time when these discussions take a backseat to the univserval acceptance on Yom Ha'atzmaut as a religious event; when our communities will see it as such, and spend more time thanking God for the State of Israel and the sovreignity of the Jewish people in our Homeland, than allowing the nuance of ritual, as important as it may be, to distract us.

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Rabbi David Brofsky
I would like to add a few thoughts to R. Spolter's email, which focussed on the content and experience of Yom HaAtzmaur, from the perspective of one, like R. Spolter, who lives in Israel.
To be honest, when I lived in America, I found great difficulty connecting to the religious side of Yom HaAtzmaut. Yes, my "Zionism" was solid, as was my firm belief that the establishment of the state of Israel and its continual existence is a miraculous event- the largest event to affect the Jewish people in almost two thousand years, and obviously one must give thanks to HKB"H. However, the feeling was somewhat dry, and often, I felt that Yom HaAtzmaut events were "hijacked" by who I perceived as "nationalists"- who did not necessarily emphasize the religious aspect of the say (or at least I thought then).

After living in Israel for almost two decades, I must relate the following: 
1. Yom Ha-Zikaron: There is no day similar to Yom Ha-Zikaron in the secular or religious calendar. Chazal were aware that despite the intensity of the aveilus of Tisha BeAv, Aveilus Yeshana (old mourning) is important to commemorate, and we should all merit feeling it in the depths of our soul, but it is still Aveilus Yeshana. We all know, however, that the intensity of a shiva house in which a young woman and children have lost their husband/father is far more intense than Tisha BeAv. That is Aveilus Chadasha. (New mourning) Yom HaZikaron is Aveilus Chadasha. One listens to the radio, watches the television, attends ceremonies in military ceremonies- and simply spends the day crying. If one has not personally known a soldier that was killed, or a civilian killed in a terror attack, then one is certainly connected in another way; one remembers the incident, mourns those who have lost their lives, cries for the widows and children left behind. There is nothing like it. Halavay our feelings on Tisha BeAv should be so intense; halavay the nation should mourn on our religious days of mourning as they do on Yom HaZikaron.

2. Yom HaAtzmaut: R. Spolter noted the festive mood during davening. In many religious communities, tefillot yom haatzmaut, especially hallel, are the most heartfelt of the year. For me, this reminds me of R Hai Gaon's understanding of hallel on leil ha-seder: shira. It is praise which is not imposed, like the regalim, or even lke Chanukka, which the Chasam Sofer
suggests may even be mi-deoraisa! - but rather which comes from the feelings and experiences of the kehilla. Imagine if we really felt that we were saved by the hand of God on Chanukka, or that if the salvation of Purim was still felt! Imagine if we really felt as if we had just left Egypt and were marching towards the land of Israel! Here, the niflaot Hashem (wonders of God) are apparent to all. The feeling of what was, what could have been, what could be (which we all try to feel during the tzomos and chagim during the year- as that is partially their purpose!) is felt by all. (Incidentally, one who experiences Yom HaAtzmaut in such a manner cannot fathom how one can omit tachanun on Tu B'shvat or pesach sheini, but say it
on Yom Ha'atzmaut. Similarly, one cannot understand the objection to suspending nihugei aveilus for the day- just as shiva is set aside for a regel.)

It is possible that the commemoration of Yom HaAtzmaut in chutz la'aretz should be different- as the expectation that one so intensely feel gratitude to HKB"H may not be reasonable. In addition, culturally, the American equivalents, Memorial Day and July 4, are, to the best of my
memory, days of shopping family get-togethers (also noble activities...). But I feel that rabbinic leadership outside of Israel should at least understand what these days are to a religious-zionist Israeli, and hopefully, as R. Spolter suggested, the discussion of how to make Yom
HaAtzmaut a more intensely/religiously felt holiday should take a greater role in these yearly discussions.