Yom Haatzmaut/Yom Hazikaron 2018

By Rabbi Dr. Ernest Agatstein, Co-President of the RZA (Religious Zionists of America)

An account of the international mission to Israel for the 70 the anniversary of Yom Haatzamut sponsored by World Mizrachi

Soon after arrival in our Tel Aviv hotel, 150 of us from the US (including a nice contingent from LA), Canada, England, South Africa and Australia are whisked by bus on the eve of Yom HaZikaron to Maaleh HaChamisha – “the ascent of the five”. So begins our immersion in what are some of the most emotional and meaningful five days many of us have ever spent in our travels to Israel. We go everywhere with an open Tanach and an open heart to the history of what took place to secure a homeland for the Jewish people after 2000 years in exile. Maaleh HaChamisha is a Kibbutz overlooking Yerushalayim which, in 1948, was under siege. The five Haganah men attempting to break the siege were ambushed and killed – hence the name, “Maaleh HaChamisha”.

There we gathered to hear from former MK Rabbi Dov Lipman, an American who made Aliya and who served in the Knesset, who told us how with trepidation he nervously told his grandmother in America that he was making Aliya, and upon hearing those words, rather then break into hysterics or tears, she recited the “shehechiyanu” blessing.

That night we gathered in the new Tachana district in Jerusalem with a few thousand Nefesh B’Nefesh olim and Deputy Minister Michael Oren to usher in Yom HaZikaron, starting with a two-minute siren at exactly 8:00pm, when the country begins to mourn its fallen 23,000 soldiers and citizens who gave the ultimate price to secure Medinat Yisrael. (I heard from Rav Reuven Taragin when he was in LA a few weeks ago that Yom HaShoah was the price we paid for not having the State of Israel while Yom HaZikaron is the price we paid for having the State of Israel.)

The next morning, we departed for Gush Etzion. 248 fighters were killed there on May 13th, 1948, the day before the State was declared, when the Arab legion overran the Kibbutz of Kfar Etzion, which had been established in 1944. This is why Ben Gurion established Yom HaZikaron as the day before Yom HaAtzmaut – to recall those heroic fighters and all other soldiers and citizens who gave their lives. Now, one sees a beautiful landscape with a renewed Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, the communities of Alon Shvut and Efrat and Neve Daniel. Cheryl Mandel, mother of Lt Daniel Mandel, killed by terrorists leading his troops into Shechem, spoke to us. She was upbeat, and she had us singing the song mitzvah gedola lehiyot besimcha after seeing us depressed upon hearing her story.

At 11:00am we stood to attention with 5000 residents of Gush Etzion in the Gush Etzion Regional Cemetery as the siren sounds. Four F16s flew overhead, the only cemetery in the country where the flyover is timed for the exact time of the siren. The names of the fallen were recited. El Maleh was intoned. There wasn’t a dry eye. This is Memorial Day for our country – not a day used for TV, football games and barbecues, but the true religious meaning behind Yom HaAtzmaut is the reality of Yom HaZikaron because there is a realization that without this day we would not have the celebratory day that follows. They are inextricably linked. It seemed to me there are two Jewish peoples – the one that lives in Israel commemorating these days, and the Jewish people of the Golah (Diaspora) where this day was just another weekday and work day. Two million Israelis went to visit graves on Yom HaZikaron – both secular and religious. On this day, we are truly one people.

We visited Yeshivat Har Etzion – the Gush! There the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein, the son of the late Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, spoke to us. I was struck by his keen insights. He cited various problems facing the Jewish people in Israel. The struggle between right and left – each thinks they are right. Leadership issues – he pointed to lack of idealism; people who enter politics must sacrifice ego rather than just accumulate power. We must choose wisely what issues we choose to advance versus what should be put aside for another day. He mentioned going to Har Habayit leads to hatred by secular Jews. He mentioned “Har Habayit Beyadenu” vs “Har Habayit Bilvavenu”. Thoughts to ponder over.

Rav Moshe Taragin, one of the senior lecturers at the Gush, took us on a tour of a 90,000-volume library, each shelf named after a fallen yeshiva student. Eight Gush students did not come home after being called away on Yom Kippur during the Yom Kippur War. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein stood in front of the yeshiva on that fateful day as his students departed and gave them each a roll of toilet paper. He knew they would not easily find it in battle. That’s what is on the mind of a Rebbe as his students enter battle.

We took jeep tours through the vineyards of Gush Etzion, seeing a mikveh from the times of Bayit Sheni where the Oleh Regel immersed on the way to the Beit HaMikdash. Our tour guide turned out to be Rabbi Simon Dolgin’s grandson, the great pioneering visionary religious Zionist leader of Beth Jacob Congregation in the 1950s and 1960s in Los Angeles.

That night we drove to Chevron, where we davened Tefilla Chagigit and Hallel in the Me’arat Hamechpela between the kevers of Avraham and Yaakov. As we exited after davening, we saw the flag of Israel raised above Me’arat Hamachpela marking the transition from Yom HaZikaron into Yom HaAtzmaut, in a blaze of fireworks. Six citizens of Kiryat Arba-Chevron were honored with lighting torches celebrating their contributions to the community since its founding. We ate a festive seudat mitzvah at 10 pm overlooking Kivrei Avot. What a sight!

We awoke early Yom HaAtzmaut for davening with a musical Hallel with instruments and singing sensation Yitzchak Meir leading us. That day was for tiyulim throughout the Israeli heartland. We went to Latrun, the British fort handed over to the Jordanians at the time of the War of Independence in 1948, that ruled over the crucial highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The fort was never captured despite waves and waves of fighters, some directly off the boats from the DP camps of Europe, so when they were buried, many were buried as Almoni (anonymous) because nobody knew who they were. Latrun is now a tank museum and features a great wall with names of the thousands of martyred fighters from the tank corps emblazoned on it for posterity. Everywhere, sacrifice and celebration go hand and hand. There, on the roof of Latrun, we looked over the plain where Yehoshua had defeated the Emori, and shemesh begivon dom, the sun stood still in the sky, and read the relevant pesukim from the Tanach. The heart soared.

From there we traveled through Beit Shemesh where the Plishtim sent back the Aron Hakodesh when they captured it after defeating King Shaul and sacking the Mishkan in Shiloh, again reading from the Tanach.

We picnicked and had our de rigueur Yom HaAtzmaut barbecue in a tent planted in a field of meadows – the field of Chirah Hadulmai who was Yehuda’s friend in the story of Yehuda and Tamar. Everywhere history abounds – our unique history of our people in our land! There we heard from Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon who recounted the story of the Sadigura Rebbe who lived in Vienna in 1938 when the Nazis marched in. The Nazis gave him a broom to sweep the streets. While doing so, he uttered a prayer to Hashem that he be granted the merit to sweep the streets of Eretz Yisrael. After eventually emigrating to the State of Israel, the Sadigura Rebbe davened in the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv on Yom HaAtzmaut, thanking Hashem for being given the privilege to hold an Israeli flag, and was found at 2 am sweeping the streets of Tel Aviv.

Va’achaltem oto b’chipazon, You shall eat the matzot in haste. Why? We were told to prepare matzot way in advance. Maharal and Rav Kook explained that chipazon meant, not natural, not step by step, but skipping the normal process. Redemption from Egypt was not natural, rather it was overtly miraculous. The prophet Isaiah says lo bechipazon tetzei’u, You will not leave the exile in haste. The future redemption will be natural, step by step. Great miracles were needed then because of being on a lesser level – the highest level is seeing Hashem in nature, like Purim. The miracle of the State of Israel cannot fully be explained in natural terms, however – high tech, medicine, space travel, 600,000 Jews to 6 million in 70 years! 46% of world Jewry now resides in the State of Israel. Soon issues of Yovel (the Jubilee) may be relevant once 51% live in Israel. Hodu Lashem Ki Tov! If everything is so good than why later in Hallel do we recite Ana Hashem Hoshi’a Na? We have problems so we need help but we must thank Hashem nevertheless for all the good he bestows!

We were taken to Tel Azeika where David slew Goliath. Again, we read the Tanach on top of a magnificent peak overlooking the plain where David Hamelech secured his place in history…

On Friday, we walked at 4:00 pm, the exact hour the State was declared 70 years prior, to Independence Hall. We were told that Ben Gurion was convinced by Rav Maimon, the great Mizrachi leader who recited Shehechiyanu publicly after the declaration, to advance the time of the declaration from Friday night midnight, when the British Mandate officially ended, to 4:00 pm on Friday, so as not to violate Shabbat. We were told that they all marched to the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv, which we also visited, to daven and welcome Shabbat. So much of our history is indeed bound up in recognition of Hashem’s hand in the arc of history of the Jewish people, no matter what our backgrounds and affiliations.

On Shabbat afternoon we did a walking tour of Old Jaffa. Rav Kook, the Chief Rabbi of Jaffa from 1905-1914 and the first Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael (1922-1935), had his Beit Midrash straddling two streets. The shul had its door opening on Rechov Torah, and the occupational training school he added to the traditional cheder so his students would learn an ability to earn a living opened on Rechov Avodah. How innovative and forward-looking was his approach.

When Rav Kook travelled with Rav Chaim Sonnenfeld, the head of the old Yishuv, to the Kibbutzim of the Galilee on their famous Tshuva train in 1914, they were met with jeers – “We don’t want your influence,” said one of the left-wing secular Shomer HaTza’ir kibbutzniks. Rav Kook lovingly explained that it was he who wanted to be influenced by them, in terms of their intense devotion to the land.

Let us pray that this spirit of inclusiveness, the reality that we are one people, in one magnificent land, and that we must work together to make it a success, spreads across Am Yisrael. This indeed will bring us hastily to the ingathering of all of us to Eretz Zavat Chalav U’devash. Amen, v’chen yehi ratzon.