Yom Ha'atzmaut | Israel at 70
Updated: Apr 20, 2020
The newborn baby lies swaddled in a blanket, blinking out at the world. Her parents hover over her, smiling, marvelling, choking back tears. She is greeted by so many emotions. There is overwhelming jubilation; but also a hint of trepidation. What will the future hold for this fragile new life?
Almost 70 years ago to the day, a newborn state arrived in the world, amidst a similar swirl of emotions. There was euphoria among Jews everywhere at the fulfillment of a 3,800-year-old Divine promise and the culmination of an almost 2,000-year-old journey. The return of a displaced people to their national homeland. And at the same time there was trepidation about whether this vulnerable infant surrounded by hostile enemy states would survive.
It is so fitting that Yom Haatzmaut this year falls within days of Parshat Tazria, which opens with a description of the mitzvot surrounding the birth of a child. However — while still relatively young as a state — Israel at 70 is no longer a child. The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (5:21) describes the different stages of a person’s life. “A 70-year-old,” it teaches us, “attains saiva – fullness of years.” The Maharal explains that saiva means fullness of years, and the sense of satisfaction and fulfillment that comes with being able to look back on seven decades of one’s life. Saiva, he explains, is directly connected to the word, savai’ah, meaning “satisfied”, which in turn is connected to the root and letters of the word shivi’im, the number 70. It’s a time to look back and reflect with satisfaction on one’s life.
We can all look back on the State of Israel’s 70 years with a deep sense of satisfaction – for it has been seven decades of extraordinary achievement. In 1948, the very day after its declaration of independence, a tiny population of Jews, many of them Holocaust survivors, stood its ground and repelled no less than five invading armies. Over the course of 70 years, that vulnerable infant has been transformed into a mighty nation – a regional superpower, militarily strong and secure; an economic powerhouse, leading the way in technology and innovation; a proud and vital centre of Jewish life with thriving institutions of Torah learning; a vibrant democracy, with confidence and stature on the world stage. From cherry tomatoes to USB sticks, drip irrigation to cyber security, Waze to Wix, quarks to quasicrystals, the Jewish State has advanced humanity in quantum leaps.
And all of this has been achieved in the face of ongoing wars, international campaigns of delegitimisation, the absorption of millions of refugees — and with very few natural resources.
But, satisfaction isn’t the end of the story. As Jews, we are taught that it should give rise to another state of being – gratitude. It’s a lesson we learn from the mitzvah of Grace after Meals – the blessings recited after a meal that includes bread. The source of this mitzvah is the verse in Deuteronomy (8:10), which states, “When you eat and are satisfied, you shall bless the L-rd your G-d.” It is so interesting that the physical satisfaction from the meal is a crucial element of this mitzvah. In fact, the Talmud (Berachot, 20b) points out that the verse (“When you eat and are satisfied”) implies that the primary Torah duty to recite Birkat HaMazon only applies when a person is properly satiated. In other words, Birkat HaMazon teaches us that from satisfaction we need to move to gratitude – recognising and thanking G-d as the source of all our blessings.
And so on this important milestone anniversary of the birth of the State of Israel, marking 70 years, as we look back with satisfaction on all of the immense achievements of the last seven decades, it is a time when our hearts are filled with gratitude and thanksgiving to G-d for His blessings that have made it all possible.
David ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, is famous for having said, “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles”.
G-d’s miracles have accompanied the birth, growth and development of the State of Israel throughout these 70 years. From the great military victories – the breath-taking survival in 1948, the awe-inspiring achievements of the Six Day War and all of the battles that have seen Israel emerge triumphant over its many enemies – to the miraculous rebuilding of Yeshivot and Torah learning on grand scale beyond the wildest dreams of those who saw the destruction of these institutions in the Holocaust – the Jewish People have established with G-d’s blessings a thriving state in spite of all odds. Israel has, with Divine help, continuously defied the natural order of things.
Gratitude is at the heart of our Jewish identity. The word “Jew” comes from the word “Yehudi”, which comes from the name “Yehuda”, who was Leah’s fourth son. When she gave birth to Yehuda she said, “I will give thanks to G-d.” (Genesis, 29:35) The Sforno explains that the name Yehuda contains the letters of G-d’s name, as well as the root of the word thanksgiving. Kind David, descendant of Yehuda and one of the great leaders of Jewish history – and the head of a sovereign Jewish state, with all the challenges and responsibilities that accompany such a position – shows us the way of gratitude through his life’s work, the Book of Psalms, which he composed with a spirit of prophecy, and which is filled with the theme of thanksgiving to G-d.
And in our gratitude, let us find humility. The Meshech Chochma explains that it’s at the height of our satisfaction – when we are most prone to arrogance – that we need to give thanks to Hashem so that we can humbly reconnect with Him. That is why the mitzvah of Grace After Meals happens after the meal is completed and not before.
He traces this idea back to the Torah context of the mitzvah of Grace after Meals. In the very same paragraph that it is mentioned, the Torah warns us against arrogance and forgetting where our blessings come from. Interestingly, the context of the paragraph is the very same as we are discussing today. The following verse in that paragraph refers to living in and building up the land of Israel when it says: “And you may say in your heart, ‘my strength and the might of my hand made me all of these achievements, and you shall remember the L-rd your G-d because He is the one who gave you the strength to achieve’.” (Deuteronomy, 8:17-18).
Sometimes, we need protection from our own blessings. The most famous blessing of all – the priestly blessing – begins: “May Hashem bless you and protect you”. Why do we ask for protection after blessing? The Netziv explains that we are asking G-d to protect us from the blessings that could potentially lead us away from Him.
But, humility is not about denying our achievements. We need to acknowledge what we have achieved, and pay tribute to to the bravery, tenacity, loyalty, sacrifice and sheer talent of the Jews of Israel, who for generations have given their hearts and souls to nurture and grow a Jewish state in the land of Israel, and to the Jews of the diaspora for their support and partnership and love. We can do so with pride and satisfaction – but with the grateful and humble recognition that all that we have, and everything that we are, ultimately comes from G-d.
This is the path to true, enduring blessing in this world. Our sages teach us that when we give thanks to G-d we are simultaneously unleashing His further blessings into the world. On this momentous day, as we revel in our historic achievements with pride and satisfaction, let us rise to the occasion by responding with both gratitude and humility – and through this, let us unleash abundant Divine blessings for another 70 years of greatness.