A thought for Israel’s Independence Day – Yom Ha’atzma’ut – May 9th

Dearest Slifka Community,

I hope my message finds each of you well at this special time of completion and departure in the life of the college.
These hours are not only the time of packing up a dorm room’s worth of furniture, of beginning the travels to an old home, a new home, or a summer-long internship.
We are in the midst of Yom Ha’atzma’ut, the celebration of Israel’s establishment and existence – a day that is integrally connected to yesterday: Yom Hazikaron, the day of memorial for those who gave their lives creating and protecting the State. This calendrical moment is fraught to its core, moving participants with whiplash-inducing speed from mourning to elation.
This year, as these days follow quick on the heels of fighting that took the lives of many Israelis and Palestinians, the tumult of not only feelings – but of commitments, ideas, and loyalties – is elevated. Our mournings are not only deeper, but more varied – and at times, in conflict. Fear and hope intermingle with anger and solidarity, producing a welter of instincts that are hard for any individual to contain – which is why we often segregate ourselves into camps that hold one-dimensional (and therefore less-true) truths.
As we pass through the eye of this liturgical and emotional storm, assessing our stances towards the Jewish people’s most audacious project in the modern era – I want to suggest that these tempestuous, irreconcilable feelings are not unique to us and to our time. Paradoxically, they are a stable feature of how the Jewish tradition has imagined redemption rather than a symptom of an unredeemed condition.
How could this be? When God describes the blessings of living in the land to the first generation of Jews who stand on its threshold, the Divine promise of redemption includes commandments “judges… shall not skew judgment… and take no bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the innocent” (Deuteronomy 16:18) and “when you go out to battle against your enemy… more numerous than you, you shall not fear them” (ibid 20:1-9). Implied here is that the dream – as dreamt by God and by generations of Jews – was never a blissful respite from history, an unchallenged sovereignty of justice and peace. Rather, there would be conflicts, and there would be judges and government officials on the take – and the Jewish people longed for the opportunity and responsibility to hold them accountable, and to join in the never-ending struggle against the self-perpetuation of wealth and power by any and all means. And it meant that the Jewish people expected a future of armed conflict, one in which defeat seems like all-too-real of a possibility.
Many of us were raised on the idea that Judaism’s version of redemption is the dream of world peace – and that Israel’s ongoing conflicts, be they political and internal or armed and external, together make it hard to see our present reality as redeemed. And that dream should remain always in our hearts and before our eyes. But, as is so often the case, Judaism makes a startling claim: redemption does not free us from the dangers of war, the ugliness of politics, or the uncertainty of true moral choice. It is the blessing and burden of responsibility on this scale. Redemption is never secure – and yet, it is to be celebrated.
So as we stand together – and apart – in these days of mourning and celebration; as our tears and our songs diverge and converge; as undergraduates leave the ingathering of this campus for a summer, or a lifetime, of dispersal from Yale – may we be bound together in the intertwined struggle and deliverance that have always marked the outlines of redemption, from our ancestors who departed Egypt to our fellow-Jews who live and die, fight and live – in our shared, contested dream of Israel.
With blessings for a summer, and a year, of peace and flourishing,

Rabbi Jason Rubenstein

Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale