Rav Kook Torah

The Sanctity of Yom Ha'Atzmaut


Is there more to Israel Independence Day than fireworks and flagwaving? Is Yom Ha'Atzmaut just a secular holiday commemorating our political independence, or does it hold a deeper meaning for us?

The Holiness of Mitzvot

Rav Kook passed away in 1935, thirteen years before the State of Israel was established, but his son Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook interpreted the historic events of 1948 in light of his father’s teachings. In an article entitled “Affirming the Sanctity of the Day of Our Independence,” Rav Tzvi Yehudah analyzed the religious significance of Yom Ha'Atzmaut.

In general, our connection to sanctity and holiness is through the mitzvot of the Torah. Thus, before performing a mitzvah, we say, “Who sanctified us with His mitzvot.” The holiness of Yom Ha'Atzmaut, Rav Tzvi Yehudah explained, is anchored in the holiness of mitzvot. But which particular mitzvah is connected to this historical occasion?

The Ramban defined the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz, settling the land of Israel, as “we will not abandon it to another nation, or leave it desolate.” This definition makes it clear that the mitzvah is first and foremost an obligation of the nation; the Jewish people are commanded to take possession of the land of Israel and rule over it. On the basis of that national mitzvah, there is a mitzvah for each individual to live in Eretz Yisrael.1

The Ramban emphasized that this mitzvah is in effect at all times. This view is upheld in the Shulchan Aruch (Even Ha'ezer 75:6, Pitchei Teshuvah ad loc).

This then is the significance of Yom Ha'Atzmaut: that we have finally merited, after centuries of exile, to once again fulfill this lofty mitzvah, valued by the Sages as “equal to all the other mitzvot” (Sifre Re'eih), “to return and possess the land that God promised to our fathers” (Ramban). We should be full of gratitude to live here, in Eretz Yisrael, “the place that Moses and Aaron did not merit” (Ketubot 112a). We should be grateful to be alive at this time in history, to witness the hour of redemption that so many great and holy leaders of our people did not merit to see.

Courageous Spirit

And yet one may ask: why should the fifth day of Iyyar be chosen for celebrating this event? Perhaps a different date, such as the date of the ceasefire after the War of Independence, would be a more appropriate choice?

While the military victory of a fledgling state over the armies of five enemy countries was certainly miraculous, that was not the greatest miracle of the establishment of the State of Israel.

The true miracle was the remarkable courage displayed on the fifth of Iyyar in making the fateful decision and announcing the establishment of an independent state. This decision, in the face of heavy pressure from the U.S. State Department not to declare a state, and belligerent threats of the surrounding Arab countries to attack and destroy the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael, was by no means a trivial matter. The motion to declare a state passed by only a thin majority in Ben-Gurion’s cabinet.

(One of the signers to the Declaration of Independence, Moshe Sharett, later recalled in his diary how he had signed with “a sense of excitement together with a clear premonition of danger, such as one might feel while standing on a cliff, ready to leap into a yawning chasm. We felt as though we stood on a very high crest, where roaring winds were brewing about us, and that we had to stand fast.”)

This courageous decision was the true miracle of Yom Ha'Atzmaut. The Talmud in Baba Metzia 106a states that a shepherd’s rescue of his flock from a lion or a bear may be considered a miracle. Where exactly is the miracle in this act? The Tosafists explained that the miracle is to be found in the shepherd’s “spirit of courage and willingness to fight.” This spirit of valor is a miracle from above, an inspired inner greatness spurring one to rise to the needs of the hour. This is the significance of Ezekiel’s prophetic description of the redemption:

“I will place My spirit in you and you shall live. I will set you on your land, and you will know that I, the Eternal, have spoken and performed it.” (Ezekiel 37:14)

Atchalta DeGeulah

Nevertheless, many people have difficulty reconciling the current moral and spiritual state of Israel with the vision of the redemption as portrayed by the prophets and the sages. Is this the Messianic Era for which we prayed two thousand years?

The Sages determined that “The only difference between the current reality and the Messianic Era is [independence from] the rule of foreign powers” (Berachot 34b; Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 12:2). While we have certainly not yet merited the final phase of redemption, we have achieved this criterion of redemption — independence and self-rule over our geographical area.

Many Torah scholars fought against the Zionist movement because they envisioned redemption as a future era that arrives complete from the very start, and not an ongoing process. But the import of the Talmudic statement (Jer. Berachot 1:1) that the redemption will appear “little by little,” like the spreading light of dawn in the morning sky, is exactly this: that the redemption is a process that advances in stages.

We need to examine history with a perspective of faith in God. We need to recognize that the Master of the universe controls and governs all events. The Sages taught:

“What is the meaning of the verse, ‘For who has scorned the day of smallness’ (Zecharia 4:10)? What causes the table of the righteous to be scorned in the future era? Their smallness of faith, that they failed to believe in the Holy One.” (Sotah 48b)

Why is the future portion (the ‘table’) of the tzaddikim marred? Because they are tzaddikim who lack faith in God. They view the world with a narrow outlook and fail to see God’s hand in the events of history. The redemption does not have to come through great miracles; God can also bring the redemption using natural forces and events.

Ezekiel’s Prophecy of Redemption

The various stages of redemption are clearly described in the order of events in Ezekiel’s prophecy. The prophecy first speaks of the initial stage of redemption, the ingathering of the exiles:

“I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the lands and I will bring you to your land” (36:24).

Only after this initial redemption does the prophet describe the spiritual return and teshuvah of the people:

“I will sprinkle over you purifying water and you will be purified from all of your impurities.... I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will place in you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My spirit within you so that you will walk in My statutes.... And you will be My people, and I will be your God.” (36:25–28)

This narrative of the redemption concurs with the opinion of Rabbi Joshua in Sanhedrin 97b, that the redemption will come regardless of the merits of the Jewish people — “even if they do not repent.”2

(Silver from the Land of Israel, pp. 191-195. Adapted from LeNetivot Yisrael vol I, pp. 181-184, 192-200; Sichot HaRav Tzvi Yehudah 19.)

1 Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides) of Gerona, Spain (1194-1270). The Ramban wrote this definition of yishuv ha’aretz in his appendix to Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot, positive mitzvah #4.

2 See LeNetivot Yisrael, pp. 195-196, where Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook demonstrates that the Halachah follows this opinion.)