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From Yom HaShoah to Yom Ha'atzmaut: The Journey of a Nation©

Updated: May 21

Parashat Acharei Mot - May 4, 2024

I heard a fascinating story this week at a Shiva home for one of our chaverim/congregants. The family I was sitting with were all immigrants from Odesa, Ukraine, who came to America during the final years of Communism in the former Soviet Union. Some of their families had been in Odessa pre-dating the World Wars, for generations. During the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, Stalin evacuated Soviet civilians and factories in Ukraine, including many Jews who would have been murdered by the invading Nazi force, to the east to save their lives, but also so they could aid in the war effort. All their family and friends, everyone they knew, were placed on two ships. One ship arrived safely at its destination, the other ship was destroyed by a Nazi air assault. 

The matriarch they were mourning was on that ship, along with the ancestors of everyone else I was sitting with, neighbors whose children and grandchildren met, fell in love, and started families.

But their ancestors were on both ships; half of their family and friends did not make it, but they were alive because that one ship made it. 

And I imagine they wondered, why were we saved and not them?

In our parashah, Acharei Mot, we read about the two goats, the goat for Azazel, and the goat that is sacrificed in the camp. We see the story of these two goats, which we read on Yom Kippur, in Leviticus 16.

The people would put all their sins on one goat and send it away, which is where we get the term scapegoat. The High Priest would lay his hands on the goat and confess the sins of the entire people, not his own or the sins of just the priests. Then, he would send the goat away into the wilderness, and the goat would never return. 

I wanted to focus on one line, Leviticus 16:22

וְסָמַךְ אַהֲרֹן אֶת־שְׁתֵּי יָדָו עַל רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר הַחַי וְהִתְוַדָּה עָלָיו אֶת־כל־עֹוֹנֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת־כל־פִּשְׁעֵיהֶם לְכל־חַטֹּאתָם וְנָתַן אֹתָם עַל־רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר וְשִׁלַּח בְּיַד־אִישׁ עִתִּי הַמִּדְבָּרָה׃

Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man.

The word Hitvadah, which means to confess, means to ‘reveal oneself’, the opposite of hiding something. The Jewish Publication Society commentary notes, “Originally, the confessional enumerated the various sins in order to expose them. Once isolated in this way - identified by name - the sins could be exorcised. Ancient people believed that sinfulness, like impurity, was an external force that had clung to them; it was necessary, therefore, to ‘drive out’ or detach sins.” 

Our national regrets were aired publicly, and then, after they were revealed, they were symbolically sent away. The idea likely was that if we send them away, then we are committing ourselves to not falling into the same trap.

I bring this idea up because we see that our people did something remarkable—they aired their dirty laundry for all to see, dealt with their shortcomings, and then moved on to hopefully become better.

The two goats are actually one - they are us as a people.

I want to now transition to what comes after, Acharei Mot, after the death, the name of this week’s parashah. In Israel, Yom HaShoah U’Gevurah, Holocaust Remembrance and Heroism Day, is part of the new Israeli High Holidays. Rabbi Donniel Hartman from the Shalom Hartman Institute explains this idea: 

"Vis-a-vis Yom Hashoah, in the early Zionist narrative, there was a deep rejection of the passivity and the powerlessness of European Jewry and an implied criticism of them for their complicity in their own deaths. For the Zionist, Israel was the antidote to the Holocaust, the land of the new Jew who did not go like sheep to slaughter, but who rather trained in the art of warfare and was capable of defending himself in times of danger. The move from Yom Hashoah U’Gevurah to Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut was a transition from the past, which in many ways we remembered in order to forget, to the new Jewish reality, which is Israel."

In other words, Yom HaShoah was a cautionary tale for Israelis - if we want to thrive, we have to leave the old Jew behind. There was a tremendous cost to this idea - the survivors.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg wrote in his book on Jewish Holidays, The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays: 

“The innocent victims, abandoned and betrayed during the Shoah, were blamed afterwards for not being heroic fighters.  The survivors who were living martyrs should have been gathered up lovingly and nursed back into life.  Instead they were kept at arms’ length surrounded by silence, judged out of context, and made to feel guilty.”

Many of the survivors who came to Israel fought in the IDF, and many gave their lives in the war for Independence. Many of the Jews came with a background in the military, unlike the early Zionists. Two of my great-uncles with military backgrounds were promoted to Captains in the IDF and led Jews into battle. And yet, their struggle for survival during the war went unnoticed. 

We must come to terms with our complicated past so we can evolve. As I mentioned, the goat's sending away was not a hiding of the past but a metaphor that despite our shortcomings, we can move forward into the future. 

There is another way to look at it: for the last 2,000 years, we have been welcomed into a non-Jewish country, we thrive given that freedom to be who we are, the population feels threatened, they rise up against us, we get kicked out, and the cycle starts all over again. 

These holidays are a message to Israelis and Jews: the game will not work in a global world. World War II could have been the end of our journey, but it was a new beginning. On Yom HaShoah u’Gevurah - Holocaust Remembrance and Heroism Day, we remember our resistance to the Nazis and all of our enemies: you may try and kill us, but we will survive and thrive.

We must look at the survivors and learn from them - each survivor could have given up every day during the Holocaust - but they never did. And because they never did - many of us are here alive. 

On Yom HaZikaron, Israeli Memorial Day, we say that we can no longer depend on the nations of the world for our survival - we must take our fate into our own hands and suffer the consequences.

On Yom Ha’atzmaut, we celebrate our freedom in our land after 2,000 years of journeys, times of calm, but also times of great storms, when we almost sank. 

So, a lesson we must learn that can help us today is about survival against all odds—that resistance isn’t about killing our enemies but about making sure we live—Am Israel Chai. 

As a people, we are about the perpetuation of life. Israel is a home for people of all faiths and backgrounds, but our people, the Jewish people, need a home where we can be safe, and ourselves. 

Israel is not a country because of the Holocaust, rather, it proves that case that the Jews need a state of their own in their ancestral homeland.

Yesterday, I heard this very notion challenged by a 19-year-old protestor at Columbia. When asked whether Israel has a right to exist, she gave a long-winded answer. The interviewer stopped her and said, “Yes or no.” She still wouldn’t say because “it’s more complicated.” She went on to say that Israel is a separatist state, and when we force Jews to be separated and we give them a homeland, then it perpetuates antisemitism. In other words, Israel caused antisemitism. To many, including a small number of Jews, Israel is a colonialist mistake, and the only solution is to dismantle the state of Israel. 

This is a dangerous viewpoint leading to our erasure - make no doubts about that. “Jewish Palestinians” will not be welcome in Hamasistan. 

The scapegoat of the parashah teaches us that we must come to terms with our past, but we never forget our past. Our past is complicated; as we know, Zionists were not pure angels; they made mistakes, especially regarding the Arab population of Israel and the disputed territories. We cannot ignore our sins, rather, we come to terms with them as a people. But, to those Jews who say that Israel is an unforgivable entity and must be dismantled, I say, but where will you go? Do we not deserve a place in our ancestral homeland, just like all other peoples? Do you forget the sins of every other nation on earth regarding the Jewish people? When they do this, they send away all of our ancestors and, yes, future Jews who will need a home when their countries fall apart or turn on them into the Wilderness. 

We have to remember that even if you are a Jew surrounded by the comforts of the modern world, all of us are survivors. After death, we rebuild, we keep going, and the journey continues. We never forget where we came from and who we lost along the way, and we never forget where we’re going. 

Rabbi Donniel Hartman writes:

“All Jews are survivors - This is the real meaning of Yom Haatzmaut following both Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron. It reshapes and redefines Israel as a family that mourns together, and through the memory of the price we have paid to be free Jews, it redefines the meaning of Israel. Israel must be that which remembers, and through that memory constantly commands itself to be worthy of the price we paid. It is a memory that commands us to embrace life and challenges us to live it to the fullest, to build lives individually and collectively of greatness. That is the task of Israel; that is the legacy of our past and the challenge of our future.”

Those who think Israel is reaching the end of her journey are sorely mistaken. Our journey as a people in our homeland is just beginning. 

Am Israel Chai - the nation of Israel lives, and will continue to live. Amen.

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