In between the last global pandemic of 1918 and the pandemic we are currently in the midst of, the Jewish people have added several new holy days to our ancient calendar. Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, and Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day, are now both essential new dates on a schedule that goes back thousands of years. As a people, we honor and create a communal identity through the commemoration and celebration of our collective story. Our calendar guides us through a spiritual cycle that enables us every year to explore and grow personally and as a people.
Within the last 100 years, the Jewish people have experienced a massive genocide attempt, with Europe losing two-thirds of its Jewish population in just four years. Over one million Jewish children alone were murdered during the Shoah. 1 million children. Death, suffering, loss of home, professions, wealth, culture, institutions, and citizenship left the Jewish people wounded and lost. Our bodies were beaten and starved, raped, and cast aside like garbage. But our spirit? That is another story. That is a resurrection story.
Shoah, the Jewish/Hebrew word for Holocaust, comes from the Torah, and it means destruction, desolation, rubble...catastrophe. The technical name for the holy day we commemorated last week is Yom HaShoah Ve La’Gevurah meaning “Day of the Holocaust and the Great Strength.” For we cannot consider the Holocaust without also contemplating the great courage and strength that emerged from the Jewish people during and after the catastrophe. We cannot fully understand what transpired to our bodies and communities without also considering what we saw emerge from the fire: a real triumph of the human spirit.
We rose from the ashes. We came forward maimed and traumatized, and more durable than ever. Last week we honored those lost to the Holocaust and the strength shown amid violence and pain. This week we honor our resurrection.
Yom Ha’Atzmaut, our holy day THIS week, celebrates the creation of the modern state of Israel. As with any modern nation-state, Israel is a diverse and complicated society. Israel today is both worthy of praise and criticism as it struggles along with so many nations to be a healthy democracy, to create peace both within and outside of its boarders, and to find righteous and noble national leaders. Israel is democracy with both Jews and non-Jews holding seats in government. Israel extends itself to help other nations and is a leader in innovations that will help ensure the survival of our species and planet.
Israel has transformed itself from a place of refuge for wounded people to a place of innovation and modernity. A place where Jewish civilization thrives. Just 80 odd years ago, it was a dream, a fantasy, and a necessity for Jewish survival. When we read in the Torah that the descendants of Abraham will be a blessing to all nations, we can see that the innovations and creativity emerging out of Israel today is a manifestation of that promise, that vision.
As American Jews, some of us have little familial connection to Israel. Many of us were kept safe from the Nazis within the borders of this land, and it can be hard, I know, to feel the power of what the days between Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’Atzmaut mean in the Jewish calendar and for Jewish practice. I know too that many of you have mixed feelings about Israel and do not necessarily feel tied to this part of our Jewish spiritual cycle. Yet this year is unlike any other since this Holocaust and since the establishment of Israel. This year we are in the midst of a massive loss and destruction within our generation. This current catastrophe we are living through is one in which being an American is not an advantage. Our American citizenship no longer offers us the security and stability that it has provided for so many decades.
We American Jews need visions of resurrection, of moving from death and loss towards miracle-like renewal. These weeks within our calendar should offer us, as American Jews, a sense of hope in what is possible for our nation, and a sense of greater connection to a story that is bigger than our American Jewish identities—the story of our ancient tribe, the Jewish people.
Yom Ha’Atzmaut, which we celebrate today, marks so much more than the independence of Israel. Atzmaut means an independent self. Independence. It marks the Jewish people taking their destiny into their own hands. Empowerment. It marks our rebirth as a people. Displaced and castigated no more, Israel was created as a haven, a womb for the regrowth of the Jewish people. Though Israel and Jews worldwide still struggle to live in safety, antiSemitism still follows us, and we can turn our minds and hearts towards what WAS established in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Self-determination. We can, at this season, marvel at our ability to rebound and to renew.
Return, teshuva, is built into the foundations of reality. This is a vital teaching from our spiritual heritage. Just as a forest regrows after a fire, new life emerges from the ash, so too the Jewish people have regrown ourselves not only as a population but also our language, art, music, literature, and institutions. We did this for ourselves. We resurrected ourselves. For myself, Israel is one of the greatest human-produced miracles of the past century, other than the medical breakthroughs of vaccines and the sequencing of DNA.
This Shabbat Asher Hashash and myself will be leading services full of Israeli music and poetry. We will enthusiastically bring the power of Israel, the power of this story, and our calendar cycle, to our communal gatherings this weekend. We will immerse ourselves in Jewish music and poetry that has emerged from the ashes. Both Asher and myself are the children of refugees; both of us are Israeli and deeply rooted in the experience of the survival of our own Jewish families through the creation of the State of Israel. We two, in our bodies, minds, and spirits, are living embodiments of Israel here in our own community. Were it not for the modern state of Israel, neither of us would be possible.
If not before this year, let THIS be the year that our calendar guides you from feelings of being downtrodden and from feelings of suffering and trauma to the full knowledge that resurrection is possible. Renewal is possible. Healing is possible. It is a reality. It is real. We have seen it with our own eyes. For some of us, it is this very transformation of the Jewish people, which engenders courage and faith every day. This is true for me.
In between our last global pandemic and our current reality of death, illness, and loss, a great resurrection happened-a period of historical time and a national effort which will be at the core of the Jewish story forevermore. Just as Sinai and leaving Egypt, our exiles and our Kings, the magnificent Temple and all of our holy books defined and inspired us over the first several thousand years of Jewish history, it is the story we remember these weeks in April each year that will carry us forward for the next several thousand years. And it is not a story of being victims but rather a story of creating expansive, creative, inspired life out an experience of massive death and loss.
May we all go from strength to strength. And feel our ancestors nudge us towards HOPE, Tikvah, as we celebrate and commemorate our story as a people.