When the State of Israel was established it was decided to observe Yom Hazikaron, a Memorial Day, for those who died in the War of Independence. Those who died in subsequent wars defending Israel and in terrorist attacks are included on this day as well. The day chosen was the day before Israel Independence Day, Yom Ha’atzmaut.
On one hand, these two days coming back to back makes it challenging for families of those who actually fell in these wars or from acts of terrorism to make the transition from mourning to joy, from personal grief to celebration. On the other hand, the juxtaposition of Yom Hazikaron (and also Yom Hashoah) with Yom Ha’atzmaut makes a powerful statement that the establishment of the State of Israel came at a high price, one which we must always acknowledge and honor. The rebirth of Jewish independence in its ancient homeland coming so soon after the indescribable horrors of the Holocaust reflects this same pattern as well. Both of these examples mirror one of the most important and crucial themes of Jewish history: exile and redemption.
Therefore to fully contemplate and integrate the connection between Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut it behooves us to delve into the broader context of Jewish history to appreciate these two days properly.
Even before the birth of the Jewish people there are many examples provided in the Torah of humanity playing out the energetic dynamics of the ongoing archetypal cycle of exile and redemption. For example: Adam and Eve were placed in a utopian, redemptive setting – the Garden of Eden – but were eventually forced into the very first human exile as a consequence of their eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The fact that the cycle of exile and redemption begins with the first humans is quite significant. Their story thus becomes the model of the existential predicament of all humanity, constantly playing itself out on all levels, from the national-historical to the personal-psychological.
Another example: After Cain kills Abel his punishment was to be a “vagrant and wanderer,” trapped in a constant state of perpetual exile. Additionally, Noah was commanded to build an ark wherein he and his family lived and took refuge until the waters of the flood receded. This year of exile in the ark was followed by the opportunity of redemptive return and the possibility of building a new world. Noah and his sons unfortunately were not able to translate this nearly once in history occurrence into a rectified reality; thus, setting the stage for the continuation of this meta-historical cycle of exile and redemption. Ironically, the generation of the Tower of Babel reasoned that they needed to build a tower unto the heavens in order that they would not be scattered across the face of the earth, which, it turned out, was the exact result of their misguided action.
We can see from these few examples that this dialectical rhythm of exile and redemption, expansion and contraction, is practically built into the very structure of creation. This dynamic is referred to in Kabbalah and Chassidut as, “run and return,” a phrase taken from the movements of the angels in Ezekiel’s vision (1:14). It is a phenomenon of nature as well, evidenced by the ebb and flow of the tides, the alternation between night and day, and the annual journey from winter to summer and back again. Exile and redemption is, therefore, a natural, human and universal dynamic.
That being said, it is also a dynamic that has particular importance for the meta-historical narrative of the Jewish people. It has in fact become through the ages one of the contextual metaphors or choruses to which the song of our people’s destiny continually returns and repeats. And, like everything else in Jewish history, it has its roots in the Torah.
For example: Abraham, the first Jew, was forced to leave Ur Kasdim due to his heretical belief in one God. The term “Hebrew,” as Abraham and the first Jews were initially called, comes from the root “to cross over;” in this case, meaning to cross over the Euphrates River in search of a new home. Abraham and family then settled in Haran, the place where God commanded Abraham to, “Go for yourself, from your land, from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). This communication instructing him to leave everything behind in order to build a new life marks the first time God speaks directly to Abraham; and, significantly, introduces this very dynamic of running from and moving towards that is the perpetually reoccurring pattern of Jewish history, as well as individual consciousness.
Paradoxically, soon after Abraham arrived in Israel – “the land that I will show you” – there was a famine and Abraham and Sarah were forced to descend to Egypt. This incident is a cardinal example of the dictum of the sages: “the actions of the fathers are a sign for the children” (Sotah 34a). The story of Abraham and Sarah going down to Egypt and returning to the land of Israel in freedom, as discussed above, becomes the template and paradigm of all Jewish history.
Additionally, at the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses revealed to the people in great detail, and through constant repetition, the cycle of exile and redemption, as it will manifest throughout history until the final redemption. An even superficial reading of Jewish history confirms these prophecies: the Jews came into Israel and conquered it, giving rise to the glory of the great kingdom of David and Solomon, leading to the ten tribes being taken into exile by Assyria, culminating in the destruction of the first Temple and exile to Babylonia, continuing as the struggle with Persia, then returning to build the second Temple, evolving into the battles of sovereignty with the Greeks, and climaxing with the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and the beginning of nearly 2,000 years of exile. During those 2,000 years countless communities, large and small, around the globe, experienced alternative “golden ages” and relative peace, followed by crusades, inquisitions, expulsions, ghettos, pogroms and finally, the Holocaust. The rebirth of the Jewish state in 1948, only three years after World War II, places us once again in a semi-redemptive state, at least for the time being.
The prophets were not only cognizant of this cyclical dynamic and its role in the past as well as the inevitable future until the coming of the Mashiach, but were also totally aware of its being in fact the very context within which they were living in the present. The books of the prophets were therefore filled with warnings of exile if the people did not change their ways, as well as promises of redemption in the future even if the exiles were to actually occur. In fact, one of the most challenging aspects of understanding the books of the prophets — especially Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel — is the constant juxtaposition of doomsday scenarios and promises of redemption, written in a somewhat jolting manner in which harsh words of warning and severe images of destruction flow almost seamlessly into idyllic descriptions of a future utopia.
The Arizal took these antecedent ideas of exile and redemption and expanded them in radically new and innovative ways. He explained that in the very beginning of the creative process, God, as it were, contracted His Infinite Presence in order for there to be a “place” for independent existence. This apparent withdrawal created a “vacuum” in which a finite, “independent,” physical reality could be created. In a sense, this is the Divine source and root of exile, as God seemingly exiled Himself, as it were, from the very world He was creating. The emergence of this necessary stage of contraction within the process of the creation of the world is crucial to our understanding of the ultimate purpose of the cycle of exile and redemption.
Within this “vacuum” God formed the very first vessels to receive and contain His light. According to the Arizal, these first immature vessels shattered as a result of their inability to process and share the infinite light they received in what he calls the primordial “breaking of the vessels.” The shattered sparks of these broken vessels were thus released and scattered throughout creation and form the foundation of our present state of reality, which he termed “the world of rectification.”
The Arizal translated this cosmological symbolism into a meta-historical narrative that helped explain the exile of the Jewish people. Instead of seeing the long and bitter exile as only a consequence of our deeds, or a punishment for our sins, as predicted in Deuteronomy, exile became a necessary development in the history of mankind, presenting us with the opportunity to repair what had previously been broken. In this way, we are able to play a co-creative role in the perpetual creation of the world in partnership with God. From this Kabbalistic cosmology we can begin to grasp just how deeply rooted the cycle of exile and redemption truly is within the structure of reality.
Furthermore, according to the medieval Kabbalists, it is the Jewish people, as the living allegory of the Divine process, that have been blessed and burdened with the redemptive task of gathering and uplifting all those holy sparks of light scattered throughout the world as a result of this primordial “breaking of the vessels.” In this way they will effectively repair the initial immature vessels of creation which were broken in the process of coming into being. In order to accomplish this holy mission the Jews themselves had to be “shattered” and scattered to the four corners of the earth. In this way, the Jewish people would be able to develop the necessary sympathetic and empathic abilities to identify with brokenness and suffering in order to understand, relate to, and ultimately redeem the shattered world. This is the archetype of the wounded healer, the one who understands the inner depths of a particular ailment because he or she has actually experienced it, and by virtue of this has a better chance to actually uproot and repair a particular disease at its essence. Little by little, these sparks will be brought back to Israel where they will achieve their full rectification at the “end of days” and the inception of the Messianic era. This revolutionary paradigm shift in the very nature of how we view exile and our Divine mission therefore becomes a model to be followed in our own personal lives as well.
Ultimately, this is a spiritually active paradigm of constant striving for higher levels of perfection. The desire to constantly grow and evolve is a defining aspect of Jewish soul-consciousness. Jacob received the name Israel, “because you have strived with God and man and have overcome” (Genesis 32:29). In this sense, striving becomes a means as well as an end in itself. It is therefore both the path and goal of Jewish spiritual life and history, as encoded within the ladder of Jacob’s dream, upon which the angels were constantly running and returning, ascending and descending from earth to heaven and back.
Furthermore, the Chassidic Rebbe of Slonim, Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, when discussing the “Covenant of the Pieces,” God’s original covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15:1-21), teaches that the exile in Egypt, unlike subsequent exiles, was not based on reward and punishment, or as a consequence of our actions, but was a process of purification that the Jewish people had to go through in order to become a unified people and to fulfill its unique mission in the world. In order to be a proper vessel for redemption and rectification – to be a light unto the nations – we as a people had to experience the cycle of exile and redemption as the foundation of our national life. In order to rise to our collective calling, the intimate knowledge of this dynamic had to flow in our veins and be engraved in our very essence. Only then could we truly merit the name Israel.
On Yom Hazikaron when we remember and honor all those who gave their lives in the ongoing saga of creating a homeland for the Jewish people it behooves us to contemplate the bigger picture of exile and redemption. May their memory be for a blessing.