Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut during the coronavirus pandemic
How to observe these Jewish days, in this time of Corona
In this livestreamed shiur, Rabbi Sacks reflects on Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut 2020 – and how we are observing these days during the time of the coronavirus pandemic.
Chag Ha’atzmaut Sameach, Happy Yom Ha’atzmaut to all of you. But we can’t say those words without the real consciousness that this is really a unique moment in history: The coronavirus, which Bill Gates just described as “Like being in a world war, but one in which we are all on the same side.” Everyone throughout the world is suffering. Israel, of course, has dealt with this crisis very well indeed, has acted resolutely and well, and has now been able to relax some of the restrictions. But very wisely they have said that Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut must be celebrated privately – there will be a lockdown, and that of course is very wise but very sad.
We say, “Hinei mah tov umah na’im, shevet achim gam yachad” [meaning] to be able to sit together is good, and it’s pleasant. When something like the coronavirus stops us sitting together, zeh tov, aval zeh lo na’im. It’s good and wise, but it’s very unpleasant indeed.
And therefore let me share with you, just to lift our spirits a little bit, a D’var Torah.
What can we learn about Yom Ha’atzmaut from the coronavirus pandemic?
What the pandemic has meant for many of us, most of us, is that we can’t go outside, we have to stay indoors. In the language of the Mishnah, we have been confined to the reshut hayachid, the private domain, and haven’t been able really to be in the reshut harabim, the public domain.
But that precisely was the difference between the Judaism that existed for almost 2,000 years before Medinat Yisrael, and the Judaism in Medinat Yisrael. For centuries, throughout the diaspora, bechol mekomot pezureihem, Jews practised Judaism, but they did so indoors, not outside. Judaism was something that belonged to home, the beit knesset, the beit sefer, the beit midrash, it did not belong to the reshut harabim. If Jews practised Judaism outside, they could be attacked or worse.
Take Frankfurt, for example. Until the beginning of the 19th century, there was still a ghetto in Frankfurt, all the Jews had to live there, and none of them were allowed out of the ghetto at all on Sunday in case the sight of a Jew in the street upset a Christian on his or her way to or from church. So Judaism was ghettoised and privatised, Shabbat was something you did at home, Pesach was something you did at home, Succot was something you did at home.
Now, what is wrong with that? What is missing from Judaism when that is the case? The answer is to be found in the Ramban, on parshat Acharei Mot that we’re reading this week. There he says the following: ikar kol hamitzvot leyoshvim be’eretz Hashem. The main purpose of all the commandments is to be found by those who live in God’s land in the land of Israel.
Now the Ramban is emphasising the word kol, all the mitzvot. We know that some mitzvot are teluyot ba’aretz, they are dependent on the Land and it’s obvious that they can only be kept in Israel fully, but there are other mitzvot that have nothing to do with land, mitzvot hateluyot baguf, that have to do with your person, so why on earth should they only be, fundamentally, for people who live in the land of Israel?
The answer is simple. If you look in the Torah, and you step back from it and say, ‘What kind of book is this?’ you will see it is not a manual for the connection of the individual soul with God. For that we have the book of Psalms.
The Torah is, in fact, a set of instructions for the construction of a society, a society based on tzedek u’mishpat v’chessed v’rachamim, on righteousness and justice, kindness and compassion. It contains laws about welfare, laws about employer-employee relations, laws about agriculture, laws about the environment. It’s a book about the reshut harabim, the public domain, it’s about chevrah u’medinah, it’s about hitnahagut tzibburit u’matzav ruach le’umi. It’s about public conduct and national mood. It is about what we do, as members of a group, in the places that we share. It’s the code of conduct for the people we aspire to be.
And that is the difference Medinat Yisrael has brought to Jewish life. It has brought Judaism back to the reshut harabim, to the land and the public domain.
For example, and this incidentally, not just in Israel itself, it’s done something to transform Jewish life everywhere. Let me give you an example: na’ar hayiti vegam zakanti, a long time ago, 1966, I went up to university, to Cambridge. There were a thousand Jews at the university. Not one of them, however dati, wore a yarmulke, a kippah, in public, it just wasn’t done. One year later, people started wearing kippot in public, why? Because of the Six Day War.
Somehow, Israel’s triumph meant the Jews everywhere felt the confidence to announce their Judaism in public, in a way they hadn’t done in centuries. Judaism went back to the reshut harabim because of atzmaut Medinat Yisrael.
That is what I feel when I go to Israel. In Yerushalayim, I know that Shabbat is not only in here, it’s also out there in the street. On Shavuot, just before dawn, as groups of people who have been learning all night gather together in their masses around the Kotel, you see a sight that people haven’t seen since the days of Bayit Sheni, the Second Temple. This Pesach, even this Pesach during the midst of the coronavirus, still, all those people sitting on the mirpesset, listening to the four and five-year-olds singing ma nishtanah halailah hazeh.
Judaism in Israel belongs to the public domain, not just the private domain. It’s as if Israel cured us all of a kind of Jewish coronavirus that was forcing us to keep ourselves indoors.
So for the spiritual message this year, where for the first, and hopefully, the last time, we will observe Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut privately, not publicly, indoors, not outdoors, in the reshut hayachid, not the reshut harabim, we should be reminded that the plague from which we suffered for so long, forced us to be like that: to practise some kind of social distancing, and some kind of self-imposed isolation, that made us practise Judaism in private, and sometimes in secret, and sometimes in hiding.
This year it should remind us what Judaism was like before Yom Ha’atzmaut, and what Israel really is: the place where we are not afraid to be Jews, the place where we are not afraid to live Judaism.
We have to bring that spirit of tzedek umishpat v’chessed v’rachamim to the public domain, because this is our land, this is the land to which Avraham and Sarah travelled. This is the land where David sang his Psalms. This is the land where the Prophets delivered their eternal message of hope.
Let us take, therefore, from this time of trial, the knowledge that we must never take Israel for granted, we must never forget what it represents, we must always remember that this is the place we are free to be what we are, and free to become what we are called on to become.
May we see shevet achim gam yachad, and may we come together in the shared spaces of this great and special land.
Let me end with just one thought. One verse has resonated with me during the whole pandemic and its effect on humanity, and it is the line from David Hamelech where he says, v’ani amarti v’shalvi bal emot l’olam. I was so secure, I said I will never be moved.
That was the world before all this began. We were all feeling so confident, so safe, so secure, so affluent, so technologically advanced.
And then suddenly histarta panecha hayiti nivhal. You hid Your face, God, and I was terrified. That’s what the world has felt.
And then he says that ‘I prayed to Hashem’, ma betza bedami berideti el shachat. Ribbono Shel Olam, You need me alive, not, God forbid, the opposite. And then God does heal him, and he celebrates.
But what really struck me is, what did he call this Psalm? He should have called this psalm Mizmor leTodah. It is a psalm of thanksgiving to God for recovery from an illness.
That is the obvious title for it. And yet he didn’t call it that, he called it, Mizmor Shir Chanukat HaBayit. The song of the dedication of a house. What does he mean? What did David HaMelech mean?
He meant that when all the illness was over, he said to himself, out of all that pain and trauma let me build something. I don’t just want to forget it. I want to take all that negative energy and turn it into positive energy, and let me build something.
And that’s when he thought of the idea to build the Beit haMikdash. The Jewish people has always taken trauma and used it to build something. And it took perhaps the greatest trauma we have ever suffered, the Shoah, to make the Jewish people collectively resolve, that out of this we must build something.
And out of it they built Medinat Yisrael, the greatest collective act of building of the Jewish people in 2000 years.
That’s what Yom Ha’atzmaut really is. And therefore, as we thank God for the State, and all of those who defended it, fought for it, even gave their lives for it, we pray a prayer for all those who are unwell today:
Yehi ratzon sheHakadosh Baruch Hu, yishlach lechol cholay Yisrael, u’lechol cholay Olam. Refua shlaima min haShamayim, refuat hanefesh u’refuat hagoof. Hashta be’agalla, uvizman kariv, v’nomar Amen.
V’nizkeh lach kol beyachad, b’lev echad, im lo b’makom echad. Am Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael, Medinat Yisrael, v’sheyihiyu kulam, tachat kanfei haSehchinah u’briyut uv’shalom. Amen.