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A Time for Mourning, Reflection, Celebration, and Gratitude

[additional-authors]
May 9, 2019

The following was adapted from a speech given at Aish San Diego at a service following the end of Yom Hazikaron

We are at the beginning of a most unusual transition – that to my knowledge is the only one of its kind in the world – a national and intentional move from sorrow to jubilation – due to the pairing of Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) with Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day).

Israel has two major memorial days: Yom Hazikaron (the Remembrance Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism) and Yom HaShoah Vehagevurah (Israel’s Holocaust and Heroism Memorial Day). Yom Hazikaron is a reminder of the cost we pay, and sadly continue to pay, in order to have a Jewish State; while Yom HaShoah is a reminder of the cost of not having a Jewish State.

One of the most unique features of Yom HaShoah and Yom Hazikaron is the siren that sounds across the entire State of Israel at 10:00 and 11:00 a.m. (respectively); bringing the entire country to a complete halt. If you haven’t been in Israel to witness the sounding of these sirens, I highly recommend you make travel plans to do so. It is one of the most moving things you can experience.

Across the country, people stop what they are doing and stand at attention for the two minutes that the siren blares. Tel Aviv’s crazy traffic (think NYC traffic on steroids) stops in the streets, even on the highways; and drivers and passengers alike step out of their cars to stand at attention. As Israelis say, from Metula in north to Eilat in the south, the country stops in its tracks to mourn and honor the fallen as one.

Remarkably and exceptionally, less than 8 hours after the sounding of the Yom Hazikaron siren, the Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations begin. After 24 hours of grief and remembrance, of watching heart-wrenching news story after news story, featuring the many brave soldiers who sacrificed everything, of crying for the numerous young men and women taken from our small nation way too early, Israelis celebrate their independence madly, wildly, passionately, and gratefully.

It is this thankfulness that I want to discuss today. During our Maariv service for Yom Ha’atzmaut, we will shortly be reciting prayers of Hoda’a (of gratitude). And as Jews – blessed to be alive in 2019 – we have much to be grateful for when it comes to the existence of the modern state of Israel.

Most of us have no memories of a time when Israel didn’t exist. A significant number of us also have no living memory of a time when Israel last fought (in 1973) an existential war. As a result, it is only natural that many of us take Israel as well as its existence for granted.

The existence of Israel, of a Jewish state, which we all know (in an age of growing antisemitism) is the safe haven, the proverbial “escape hatch” for all Jews worldwide, is as much a part of our reality, of our everyday lives, as the cup of coffee most of us have in the morning.

But the Yom HaShoah and Yom Hazikaron sirens, which stop everyone in their tracks in Israel are there to remind us that this reality is nothing short of a miracle, that while it may be our “normal;” in the history of the Jewish people, it is very plainly a “new normal.” A “normal,” which we should never take for granted and that we should understand is not only necessary to prevent future Shoah’s, but was also hard-earned with the blood and sacrifice of heroes.

And that is why Israel’s founders wanted to have Yom Ha’atzmaut immediately follow Yom Hazikaron. So all of us, before we turn to the joy and jubilation of celebrating having a safe haven as well as sovereignty and freedom in our indigenous, historical and religious homeland, pay homage to those who sacrificed and lost so much in order for us Jews to have our miracle of state, after nearly 2000 years of dreaming, longing, and praying for it.

As David Ben Gurion famously said, “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.”

And a miracle Israel truly is. And as our tradition, and the “Al Hanisim” prayer teaches us – we should always be thankful for miracles.

On the eve of this past Passover, Bibi Neyanyahu sent out a message via social media where he said: Citizens of Israel, Jewish brothers and sisters around the world, each year on Seder night, I am deeply moved,  … Passover touches upon the roots of our national identity. Thousands of years ago we raised the banner of freedom and liberty. We went from slavery to freedom, from subjugation to independence. We began our long journey from Egypt to our home — Zion and Jerusalem.”

The incredible story of our people has no parallel,” Bibi continued. “Even in bitter exile, under unbearable conditions, we maintained our unique identity. We did not surrender. We kept our faith. Generation after generation, we read in the Haggadah, ‘Next year in Jerusalem!’ We held on to our hope. And that hope, my friends, became reality.” Netanyahu went on to say that “Israel is systematically and persistently becoming a global power.”

After 2000 years of exile, after 2000 years of persecution, and out of the ashes of the Holocaust, the worst attempted genocide in modern history, the Jewish people have their own state. And what a state it is …

Over the last 35 years, Israel has experienced dramatic – almost miraculous – certainly unprecedented and unexpected – improvements in its economy. The inflation rate declined from 447% to 1.5%. Thanks to the growing economy, defense expenditures as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) went down from 20% to 5.8% (2016), higher than the U.S. military expenditure of 3.8%, but still a vast improvement. Exports in 1984 were $10 billion and in 2018 they exceeded $110 billion. And while per capita income in 1984 was $7000, in 2018 it was nearly $42,000, surpassing many European countries, and almost exactly the same as our former colonial master, England. Women in Israel’s labor force were 30% in 1984; that number now stands at almost 60%. And while the GDP in the U.S. (2017) grew by 2.3%, in the U.K by 1.8%, and Italy by 1.5%, Israel’s GDP growth was 3.3%; and it has grown at that pace for most of the past decade.  

And Israel is not just an economic success story. After all, money is not everything. Israel is #1 in the world in the number of museums per person. It has over 200 museums, and counting. Israel leads the world in the recycling of waste water (close to 90%) while in second place, Spain is only 20%. Israel leads the world in the number of people employed in research and development; and in a related stat, Israel is the second most educated nation in the world following Canada, above Japan. And Israel, with barely 9,000,000 citizens has 2 universities in the top 100 in the world, comparing incredibly well with countries over 10 times its size, like Germany and Japan, which each have 4 universities in the top 100. And Israelis, despite all of the trials and tribulations, and the incredibly rough neighborhood they live in, are happy. Recent surveys and studies regularly rank Israelis as the 10th happiest people in the world.   

And Israelis have reason to be happy. And proud. Again, despite the trials and tribulations, the enemies who regularly threaten and attack Israel (as we just saw this past weekend when Hamas indiscriminately fired nearly 700 rockets and missiles at Israel in under 36 hours), the British Economist survey on the best places in the world to be born and live placed Israel as 20th, ahead of countries such as the U.K., France, Italy, and Japan.  

In 2018, Bloomberg ranked Israel’s health system as the sixth best in the world, ahead of the U.S. and many European states. At 84.4, the life expectancy for Israelis is the 7th best in the world, and Israel is generally considered the 10th healthiest country in the world. And U.S. News and World Report recently ranked Israel as the overall 8th most powerful country in the world behind only the 5 UN Security Council countries, Germany and Japan. Think about that … 75 years after the Holocaust; 71 years after the nascent Jewish state with only 600,000 citizens and an army made up of many Holocaust survivors fought off 7 Arab armies in order to achieve the independence we are celebrating tonight, Israel is ranked as the 8th most powerful country in the world.

71 years since the Jewish people reconstituted our state in our indigenous homeland, Israel is already the 10th oldest uninterrupted democracy in the world. Israel is a country where army generals don’t plan coups and revolutions, but they do often run in elections as leftists and centrists. That is, in and of itself, something to be proud of and not take for granted. After all, very few of Israel’s original 600,000 citizens or early immigrants who came to the country fleeing persecution or ethnic cleansing from either Europe or Arab controlled lands, came from countries that had any experience with democratic rule.

But while all of these rankings and statistics are important and impressive, they are not what truly captures for me the miracle of Israel. The reason, those of us who have been blessed to be alive at this time, have so much to be thankful for, so much to be celebrate.

What really moves me is the everyday miracles, the extraordinary becoming the normal, the utterly impossible and amazing, becoming routine and for many, even mundane.

In 1896, when Herzl published “The Jewish State,” most people thought the very idea of Jewish state was not just improbable, but impossible. They also thought that the idea of Jewish nation-state where our people’s mother tongue would be Hebrew once again, was pure folly.

So every time I am in Israel, I am amazed by the little things, and I promise myself I will not take them for granted. Hearing a toddler speaking Hebrew; listening to commercials in Hebrew selling everything from mortgage loans to bubble gum; a Star of David on a 747 passenger jet; everyone from my taxi driver to the radio broadcasters on Friday saying “Shabbat Shalom;” or practically the entire country shutting down on Yom Kippur.   

To be amazed by, and thankful for Israel: I don’t need Israel to be a technological leader; to be the “start-up nation.” I don’t need it to have the most per-capita Nobel Prize winners in the world; I don’t need it to produce incredible TV shows like Shtisel, Fauda, or Kfulim (False Flag). Or to have one of the most amazing restaurant scenes in the world.  All of that is a bonus. 

Nevertheless, and despite all of Israel’s incredible accomplishments; despite it representing the first successful movement of an indigenous people to regain their sovereignty in their land, as we know all too well, and memorialize on Yom Hazikaron, there are still many in the world who find the existence of Israel as offensive as they previously found the existence of Jews. There are still those who continue to attack us and who seek to return us to being weak, defenseless and wandering people without a national home. A people whose plight can once again be ignored by the nations of the world, as the dictators and tyrants seek our annihilation.

And as a country surrounded by enemies, by some of the worst dictatorships and terrorist groups on the planet, it would not be far-fetched to assume that Israel and Israelis would retreat into their own shell whenever possible. To save their energies for “fighting their own battles” as it were.

But Israelis do not do that. Not even close. So, in addition to appreciating and being so thankful for the “mundane” or the “normal” of having a Jewish state after 2000 years of exile, oppression and persecution; and for the realization of 2 millennia of dreaming and praying for that state, for “next year in Jerusalem;” I am also thankful for how incredibly moral and good that state is. How charitable it is.

Israel always offers a helping hand. Whether it is in response to tragedies in Haiti, Japan, Nepal, Mexico, or the Philippines; Israelis are there, saving lives and rescuing people. Israeli charities are also all over the world. Providing clean water resources where once thought impossible. Helping farmers in 3rd world countries discover the miracle of Israeli farming and irrigation techniques that drained swamps and made the desert bloom.   

And Israel’s charity and helping hand is not limited to Israel’s friends. During the Syrian civil war, Israeli soldiers regularly brought Syrian victims to Israeli hospitals, frequently provided life-saving and life changing care to thousands of Syrians. Israel’s “Save A Child’s Heart” also often saves the lives of children from countries that not only do not have relations with Israel, but are also avowed enemies of Israel.

In the early 1700’s, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, authored what many consider to be one of the premier works on Jewish ethics, called “The Path of the Righteous,” which expounds on how – according to the Talmud – one can achieve righteousness. Per Rabbi Luzzatto, there are three main categories of charity: giving of one’s wealth, giving of oneself physically, and giving of one’s wisdom.

As we see, by sending its soldiers, doctors, and field hospitals all over the world in times of crisis, by sharing its water innovations, agricultural techniques, and solar power technology with 3rd world farmers, and by providing life-saving heart surgery to children from all over the world; and without regard for whether they come from nations that are friend or foe, Israel excels in all 3 categories of charity.

Something every Jew, every member of Am Yisrael, can and should be incredibly proud of.

****************

Recently, Michel Bacos, the Air France pilot who stood shoulder to shoulder with the Jewish hostages at Entebbe, died. At his funeral, the Hatikva was played at his request. Thinking about his bravery and solidarity led me to re-watch Operation Thunderbolt, the movie about the incredible rescue of the Jewish hostages led by Bibi Netanyahu’s amazing brother, Yoni Netanyahu. And that got me to reading some of Yoni’s amazing letters (as documented in the book by Herman Wouk, “The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu”).

While most of Yoni’s letters are deeply inspiring, and I commend the book to all of you, one passage, which he wrote on March 17, 1969, stood out to me as I thought about this Yom Ha’atzmaut and how thankful we should be, as members of Am Yisrael at a time when the State of Israel is celebrating its 71st independence day. What Yoni wrote was:

“On me, on us rests the duty of keeping our country safe.  …we are united by something that is above and beyond political outlook. What unites us produces a feeling of brotherhood, of mutual responsibility, a recognition of the value of man and his life, a strong and sincere desire for peace, a readiness to stand in the breach, and much more. I believe in myself, my country, my family and my future. This is a special people, and it’s good to belong to it.”   

Yoni Netanyahu, like so many of the brave and incredible soldiers of the IDF, understood how special it is to be alive at a time when there is once again a Jewish state, and a Jewish army, to defend the Jewish people. To be a safe haven for us, a country that will – as it did on July 4, 1976 – send its best, brightest and bravest over 2000 miles to rescue Jews who were about to be massacred by terrorists.

Like Yoni so eloquently identified  at the tender age of 23, those of us who are blessed to live at a time that our ancestors could have only dreamt of, have a duty to be more than just thankful (though that it is certainly a start). Just like the brave Air France pilot who stood shoulder to shoulder with all of his passengers, we Jews – who have so much to be thankful for as we celebrate Israel’s independence – owe our brothers and sisters in Israel a commitment to stand shoulder to shoulder with them. To support them. As Yoni wrote, to demonstrate a “readiness to stand in the breach” for them, for Israel.

To be active in Synagogues, which like our Shul (B’H) support Israel and demonstrate Ahavat Yisrael in both word and deed. To support organizations that do the same, like StandWithUs, FIDF, and AIPAC. To never shy from stating our opinion, and by standing up for Israel and against antisemitism in the court of public opinion.

Anyone who knows Jewish history knows how special it is that after 2000 years we are no longer homeless wanderers; and that today we have a Jewish army flying a Star of David, ready to defend us, as well as a sovereign and free state in our homeland ready to welcome us as brothers and sisters.

That is something to be incredibly thankful for, and it is something worth fighting for. Chag Sameach.

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