STAMFORD, Conn. (May. 4)
Israel became a state on the fifth of Iyar, 5708, or May 14, 1948. There are few other dates more identifiable to Jews. Those who were alive will never forget that fateful day, 57 years ago, when Israel became a state. With Arab armies amassed on its as-yet-undeclared borders, with the British having sailed from Haifa that morning, Israel’s birth could not have taken place under more perilous conditions. On that Friday afternoon, with the long shadows signaling the imminent arrival of Shabbat, David Ben-Gurion entered the Tel Aviv Museum, met there by invited guests plus a large number of residents of Tel Aviv who had gotten wind of the historic decision. By 6-4, with three absent, the National Executive had approved the decision to declare a state, even though they perceived the new nation’s chances of survival as no better than 50-50.
Ben-Gurion read the Declaration of Independence and it was signed by the delegates of the Provisional State Council. The ceremony lasted 32 minutes. The sun set but Israelis could not rest on this, the state’s first Sabbath. Armies from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Transjordan and Iraq attacked at midnight, vowing to destroy the “Zionist entity” within 10 days. But two weeks later, the borders basically held, and after a monthlong truce the Israeli counteroffensive began, leading to a clear victory.
I was not alive then, but I can imagine what that first Shabbat must have felt like. I’ve experienced that sense of foreboding and helplessness at other times, like when the first Scuds were launched during the 1991 Gulf War, or during those confusing early hours of the Six-Day War in 1967 or on Yom Kippur 1973. To fully appreciate the miracle of Israel, and to fully comprehend the weight of the decisions made by its leaders, we have to recall those existentially excruciating moments.
Understandably, Israelis typically choose to toss the stress aside on this Yom Ha’atzmaut — Israel’s Independence Day — preferring to turn the day into one humungous cookout. Yes, the holiday is preceded immediately by a Memorial Day far more meaningful than America’s, and yes there are nice patriotic touches to the day, like the International Bible Quiz. But this year at least, Yom Ha’atzmaut must be more of a day for reflection than pure, unadulterated celebration.
The calendar gives us a perfect opening to do just that. This year, the fifth of Iyar falls precisely on May 14, for only the second time since 1948. Not only that, but it falls on Shabbat.
But wait. Our calendar tells us that when the fifth of Iyar falls on Shabbat, the celebration is moved ahead two days to Thursday, so it does not conflict with the day of rest.
Now I can understand the potential conflicts Shabbat would present for parades and cookouts, but this year of all years, we should keep May 14, Iyar 5 and Shabbat on the same page. Or, to quote the Torah portion read on that Sabbath, Emor, which details the Jewish festival cycle and codifies the rhythms of sacred time, “These are the set times of the Lord, the sacred occasions, which you shall celebrate each at its appointed time” (Lev. 23:4).
Nothing is in there about cookouts or transferring commemorations to Thursday. Perhaps Israel should do what America does with July 4. When it occurs on a weekend, we slap on a Monday holiday to satisfy the unions, but we always celebrate “The Fourth” on the 4th. So Israel could declare the prior Thursday “National Cookout Day,” but keep Yom Ha’atzmaut where it is.
So what makes this year so worthy of a “Shabbat Ha’atzmaut?”
Israel is now in the process of implementing a decision almost as agonizing as the one that faced Ben-Gurion. Few Israelis have a great desire to cling to the dunes of Gaza, but fewer yet are enamored at the sight of Jews being forcibly evicted from their homes by a Jewish army, all for the sake of a security that remains as elusive as ever. There will be no national referendum on the withdrawal, but there must be a collective soul-searching in the face of threats against Prime Minister Sharon’s life and cries of treason being hurled from all sides. There must be a national time out.
Shabbat provides an opportunity to reaffirm mutual interdependence rather than national independence. On this day we abstain from dominion and disputation, replacing them with coexistence and “Shalom Bayit” — peace in the home. “Six days a week we seek to dominate the world,” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel. “On the seventh day we try to dominate the self.”
I don’t know about the rest of the Jewish world, but on that triply sacred Saturday in May I’ll be immersed in reflection — about my thirst for peace, my love for my neighbor and the miracle of my resurrected Jewish homeland.