On June 7 1967 at 4:00 am Knesset member Menachem Begin, who had just joined the cabinet of the government of Israel, called the Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol and said: ‘Forgive me for disturbing your sleep, we have no time left. I propose the army be ordered to enter the Old City (of Jerusalem).’ On the second day of the six-day war the UN was already calling for a cease fire which would freeze the Israeli incursion into Jerusalem. Even though they were being routed, the Jordanian army was still shelling the Jewish positions, and defacto not accepting the UN cease fire. The front in Jerusalem was still active, and the Jewish forces could advance. Begin’s phone call set in motion the sequence of events that would close the circle of Jewish history brining Jewish sovereignty to all of Jerusalem, and to the holiest spot in Judaism, the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. On Saturday night we will be celebrating Jerusalem Day commemorating these events. This day is the final in a series of ‘holidays’ which lead us each year through the highs and lows of the astonishing story of modern Jewish history.
One of the special things about living in Israel is the unique feeling in the country around this time of year. Beginning right before Passover, and continuing towards the holiday of Shavuot in late May/early June, there are six special days which are
Yom Haaliyah, Celebrating Jews coming to Israel
Yom Hashoa, Holocaust Remembrance Day
Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers followed the next day by
Yom Haatzmaut, Israel Independence Day
Lag B’Omer, the holiday Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on the 33rd day after Passover
Yom Yerushalayim, the Day Commemorating the Liberation of Jerusalem.
It’s not that these holidays do not exist in the US, if you look for commemorations and celebrations of these days you can find them. Some, like Yom Hashoah are memorialized more widely, others like Lag B’Omer are much harder to find. But in Israel it’s a whole different story, for there is an almost universal awareness of these days. These celebrations and commemorations are very present in the people’s consciousness and form a strong part of the national identity, and through that of Israelis' Jewish identity as well.
There are several reasons why these days resonate so strongly. The first is that they commemorate recent Jewish history and the history of Israel. They are are real to people because they are part of their story, or that of their parents or grandparents. This idea of instituting special holidays and commemorations for contemporary events is not new in Jewish history. In the times of the second Temple there was a custom of establishing days of celebration for military victories and being rescued from danger listed in a work called Megillat Taanit. These days were annulled after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. In the middle ages communities established days of mourning and fasting to commemorate pogroms, persecution and destruction of communities. The most notable was the 20th of Sivan which commemorates a blood libel persecution of the Jews of Blois, France in the 12th century, as well as the Chemelnytsky massacres in the 17th century. Because the Israeli commemorations are contemporary, they are often part of many families’ personal story was well. They are part of the personal story of a great-grandparent who went through the Holocaust or who fought in the War of Independence, or a grandparent or parent who fought in the Six Day War.
For many Israelis, these modern holidays encapsulate not only the Israel experience, with all of its high moments, but also with its extreme challenges, like the ultimate challenge and sacrifice of losing a child who was defending his homeland. As such, I believe that the unfolding of these holidays corresponds to the unfolding of the story of Jewish history itself. Let’s now talk about each one and its significance.
Yom Haaliyah is the earliest of these holidays in the annual cycle, and is celebrated on the anniversary of Joshua’s crossing of the Jewish people across the Jordan river five days before Passover. It is also the newest and least recognized of these days, but one could say it is the most important. The day was instituted as a national holiday by the Knesset in 2016 after the idea was conceived and lobbied for by our own Jay Shultz and Am Yisrael Foundation. It recognizes the first mass emigration of Jews to Israel as a paradigm for all subsequent aliyah. While Jews have been living in Israel continuously and coming to Israel since the Roman destruction in 135 CE, modern Aliyah began with Aliyah alef after 1882 and has been ongoing since. Like the United States, modern Israel is a country of immigrants, and so you do not have to go back too far to feel connected to this day. Recently, it has been said that Israel was established as a refuge for people fleeing the Holocaust. Yom Haaliyah affirms that Israel was established as the historic homeland of the Jewish people well before the Holocaust.
Holocaust memorial day has been etched into the consciousness of modern Israel as a solemn important day because of the recognition of how Israel did serve as a sanctuary for refugees and survivors of the Holocaust. When the siren goes off the entire country stops in its tracks and stands for two minutes. Even people driving in their cars pull over, get out of their cars and stand still to reflect on the day. It is also a solemn reminder of the declaration ‘Never Again’, that Israel is here to protect Jews throughout the world and that we will never again allow a genocide of Jews to occur be repeated.
It is fitting that Yom Hazikaron is a week after Yom Hashoa, for the survivors of the Shoa also had to defend Israel. Despite the UN calling for a partition plan to share Israel between a Jewish and Arab state, Israel was attacked when we declared our independence, and there are stories of Holocaust refugees getting off the boat in Israel, and a few days later being handed a gun to defend the country. The day commemorates all those who have fallen in battle defending Israel or from terrorist attacks. It is also commemorated with a siren and a moment of silence. While only a portion of Israelis are the descendants of Holocaust refugees, unfortunately almost every Israeli has a family member, family friend or someone they knew who died in a war or in terrorist attacks. This day is very personal for Israelis, and people go to commemorations and to the military cemeteries on this solemn day.
The juxtaposition of Yom Haatzmaut occurring on the evening as Yom Zikaron finishes is a reflection of the extremes in which Israel was created, and in which it still lives. Our country was forged through the sacrifice of those who gave their lives defending the country, and with the national pain of the loss. Yet we also recognize that this was the path to the joy and celebration over the creation of a Jewish state after 2000 years. On Israel Independence Day in 1948 everyone was out dancing in the streets in Tel Aviv, and the next day Egyptian warplanes were flying overhead. The Psalm tells us (126:5), “Those who plant with seeds will reap with joy.” Unfortunately for Israel so often the path to celebration was through self-sacrifice.
Lag B’omer, the holiday celebrated by lighting bonfires, falls a week later. It is the exception in our list, for it dates back to the Roman occupation around the year 100 CE. On the face of it, the holiday commemorating the conclusion of the plague that struck Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students, and the passing of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar, does not seem to fit into the sequence of the holidays as we have set it out so far. Yet when we look closer we see a common thread. After Rabbi Akiva’s students died, he selected five new students, one of whom was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai to carry on the tradition of Torah study. So this day marks the ability to carry on Jewish life after loss and tragedy, particularly through Torah study. So while Yom Haatzmaut celebrates the re-establishment of the political life of the Jewish people, Lag B’Omer is the carrying on of the spiritual life of our people. While Lag B’Omer is one of the least known of Jewish holidays outside of Israel, here in Israel it is quite the opposite. If I were to ask you what is the largest annual gathering of Jews, you might say a football game in Tel Aviv, or a Madonna concert, the New York Israel day parade, or maybe one of the Jewish holidays in Jerusalem. But it is none of the above. It is estimated that over 500,000 Jews gather in Meron, the place of Rabbi Shimon’s grave on Lag B’Omer. You see bonfires lit in all the streets all over the country, and Jews are celebrating our spiritual survival over the past 2000 years.
Finally, we come to Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day. Israelis view the Six Day War as the greatest miracle of the modern state of Israel. Fifty-two years out it is hard to recapture the feeling of elation that gripped the country. Before the war they were digging graves, afraid of massive numbers of casualties, and after the war not only was the country saved, but it was more than doubled in size and our most historic sites came under Israel's control. National pride was ignited, as was Jewish pride throughout the world. There was a religious revival in Israel sparked by the sense of the miraculous nature of the victory. However perhaps most significant from a religious perspective was the unification of Jerusalem. This brought about regaining control of the Temple mount, the holiest spot in Judaism, and access to the Western Wall which had been denied by the Jordanians for 19 years prior. Jerusalem became an open city with access to holy spots for people of all religions, and once again could become the focus of Jewish spiritual life for Jews throughout the world. In a very concrete way, Yom Yerushalayim is the culmination of this Israeli holiday season, and a momentous watershed day in the unfolding of Jewish history and Jewish destiny.