Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Yom HaAssmaut: Celebrating the Present

Celebrating the Present
Thoughts on Yom HaAssmaut 2020
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Many have argued that it is inappropriate to celebrate the establishment of the State of Israel prior to its “final redemption” by Mashiah. Indeed, even we who celebrate Yom HaAssmaut rejoice only the athalta de-ge’ulah – “the beginning of redemption,” as we admit that there is actually more to come. Imagine a prisoner celebrating their freedom before leaving the grounds of captivity. How premature! Since anything might still happen, everyone would agree that the prisoner should only rejoice once out and away from the prison gates. Why, then, do we celebrate a state of independence which is still incomplete?

Several thousand years ago, Am Yisrael sang shirat ha-yam as they left Egypt. When exactly did they sing? Owing to the pesukim’s ambiguity, the Hakhamim disagreed about whether the people sang as they traversed the sea or only afterwards.[1] It is easy to understand why they may have sung only after crossing the sea. It was, after all, a song of thankfulness to God for His redemption from their oppressors. Singing during the splitting of the sea, however, is hard to comprehend. Why would the people sing before experiencing a complete and final salvation?

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg suggested that the fear and anxiety felt by Am Yisrael as they crossed the sea, with their sense of fate hanging in balance, underwrote the song that they then sang. “The meeting of terror and joy, destruction and birth, takes the people beyond the normal places of speech,” she wrote, “It takes them…into silence.” And it is from that emotional constriction upon ordinary speech that the song was then conceived.[2] While singing after keriat yam suf is a rational decision, singing during the crossing is emotionally charged.

In 1954, Ezriel Carlebach, the legendary editor of the Israel newspaper Maariv, traveled to India. He later summed up the difference between Western and Eastern mindsets, recalling a brief conversation with the prime minister of India at that time. As the two discussed the diplomatic complications of the time, which seemed difficult to overcome, Carlebach remarked, “Well, the question is what to do.” The prime minister gazed at him for a while, and then said, “You see? That is a typical question for a European.” “How so?” Carlebach asked. “Well,” he replied, “an Indian would have asked ‘What to be?’”[3]

If shirat ha-yam was sung after splitting the sea, it answered “What to do?” If it was sung during the crossing, however, it addressed “What to be?”

We tend to live our lives focused upon the past and future, in total neglect of the present. The “past” and “future” are easy to wrap our heads around. We can remember history and reflect upon its various lessons. And we can speculate about the future and prepare for its arrival. Appreciating the present, however, is a daunting challenge. It is difficult to seize a time that fleetingly shifts from one moment to the next.

Instead, we plan. We focus on how achievements at school will affect our future, how success at work will build income, and how proper investments will support retirement. And in so doing, we neglect the experience of life itself. Avoiding the emotions of fear, excitement, anguish and joy which make up “the present,” we hand over our most basic expressions of humanity to the stable and stoic states of predictability and complacency.

Medinat Yisrael has a long road ahead to its “final redemption.” The concerns regarding its state of politics, religion and security abound. But Yom HaAssmaut doesn’t celebrate the past, nor does it rejoice over the future. Instead, it embraces the present. We gather together as a nation on this day, ignoring “What to do?” and asking instead “What to be?” We celebrate the current reality, tapping into its wellspring of emotions and using them to draw closer to God.

[1] See Sotah 30a and Mekhilta: Beshalah 82. See R. Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik, Meorei HaMoadim vol. 1 (Jerusalem, IS, 1997), pg. 75-76 and Meorei HaMoadim vol. 2 (Jerusalem, IS, 2001), pg. 52-54. And cf. R. Barukh Epstein, Torah Temimah: Shemot 14:22.
[2] Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus (New York, NY, 2001), pg. 216-218.
[3] Ezriel Carlebach, India: Account of a Voyage [Hebrew] (Tel Aviv, IS, 1986), pg. 266. Cited by R. Yaakov Nagen, Be, Become Bless: Jewish Spirituality between East and West (New Milford, CT, 2019), pg. 1-2.