Each Yom Ha'atzmaut, we celebrate Israel's successes and look forward to a greater future. But what does Yom Ha'atzmaut 5781, 2021, say to us now, coming on the heels of an unimagined pandemic? Believe it or not, we can gain insight by reminding ourselves of the story of Noah and the flood.
When Noah was born, his father, Lemekh, pinned high hopes upon him: "And he named him Noah, saying, 'This one will provide us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands brought about by ground God cursed' (Gen. 5:29). Lemekh hoped Noah would reverse the curse on the ground which was brought about by the sin of Adam and Eve: "The ground is cursed because of you; you will be sustained by it through painful toil" (Gen. 3:17).
However, this would not quite come to pass in the manner which Lemekh pictured. The ground, along with all created beings, would soon be destroyed: "God said to Noah, 'I have decided to put an end to all flesh, because the ground is filled with lawless chaos because of them: I am going to destroy them with the ground' (Gen. 6:13).
Noah, of course, survives the great flood that comes, but the ground, still cursed, does not. Still, surprisingly, after the flood is over and God instructs Noach to leave the ark, He delivers and redeems the very hopes Lemekh once saw in Noah: "I will never again curse the ground because of man" (Gen. 8:21).
Jonathan Grossman, writing in his superb book
Creation: The Story of Beginnings
(Maggid Press), cautiously speculates:
This pattern-of high hopes shattered by catastrophe and devastation that nonetheless reach poignant fulfillment-can be hesitantly applied to the birth of the State of Israel. At the beginning of the century, global national awakening sparked a new yearning for Zion, but these proud hopes were followed by the greatest tragedy and slaughter in modern Jewish history. And yet, as the dense, tragic cloud of ashes settled, a new state was born, against all odds, against all expectations." (p. 209)
High hopes, tragedy, and then, against all odds, a redemption. This is not just the story of the first Yom Ha'atzmaut; it is our story now.
For those in January 2020 who looked forward to the upcoming year, it proved to be something in between a disappointment (to put it mildly) and a serious and often tragic danger. Last year presented innumerable challenges to every member of our people as an unseen bug threatened the lives of countless millions and prevented us from coming together for fear of endangering our loved ones. We could not celebrate our holidays with family, we could not pray together in shul, we could not walk over to some of those we love the most and give them a hug. A physical disease brought many social and psychological ills in its wake.
We have experienced tragedy and disappointment. Now, as it did the first time, Yom Ha'atzmaut reminds us that there is yet time to turn our disappointments into redemption, to plant, build, and rebuild. If our hopes or connections were put on hold, it is not too late to reignite them, call an old friend, visit a long missed loved one, or get back to shul. If we were too often bored at home, wishing we were doing something meaningful, we may plan to volunteer in a soup kitchen, pray, or join a Torah study group.
If we feel or have felt distant-socially or otherwise-from the Jewish people and the Jewish homeland, this need not form a permanent feature of our existence. We may begin to change that now. There is no better way to start than with a healthy reminder that a difficult past does not dictate a dismal future, that we belong to an extended, loving family, and that Medinat Yisrael- our homeland, our celebration, our triumph-invites us to flourish with it, no matter what has come and gone.
Yom Ha'atzmaut Sameach. May it be a year of accomplishment and celebration.
Rabbi Yitzchak Sprung teaches Talmud at Ida Crown Jewish Academy and is the assistant rabbi of Congregation Or Torah.