Sunday, May 20, 2007

"Mi-yagon l'simha ume-eivel l'yom tov" - From sadness to rejoicing and from mourning to holiday

The sfira is about to conclude with Shavu'ot this week. It is traditionally a time of semi-mourning when we abstain from haricuts, live musical performances and the like, but it wasn't always that way. Before the hurban, this time was one of intense joy as we celebrated the barley and wheat harvests and prepared to bring bikkurim up to the beit hamikdash. Perhaps in keeping with athalta d'geula, the mourning is giving way to joy as we celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim at this time of year.
I first experienced the joy of Yom Ha'atzmaut in 1967 at Yeshivah of Flatbush. I was a freshman and had worked my butt off all year like I never worked before. Coming into the lunch room festooned with flags and banners I knew that it was all worth it (a feeling that would be reinforced a bit later with a 96 on the biology Regents, an event that would set me on a collision course with "gedolim" 40 years later). The next day, joy gave way to apprehension as Egypt, Jordan and Syria prepared to destroy the medina. Soon the Six Day War broke out and, praise God, ended with victory on all fronts and all of Yerushalayim in our hands for the first time since Bar Kokhba. We were all drunk on joy, and that joy combined with the male hormones flooding my 15-year-old body (barukh shelo asani isha) made for a heady brew. Our neighborhood's streets became full of kippot srugot, even on people who had never been observant but who now wished to identify as Jews. At the time, wearing a kippa on Brooklyn's streets still made one a walking target for rowdy Gentiles, but who cared? Jackie Mason notwithstanding, we didn't walk around with chips on our shoulders, but anybody who would dare knock off our kippot would have been in for a butt whipping. Having been a sickly child, I suddenly stopped getting sick. Was it hashgaha pratit or the normal changes of adolescence? I had begun lifting weights several weeks earlier; what might have been a brief infatuation became a lifelong passion for strength and fitness. I would walk with a confident swagger (and walk fast - nobody could keep up with me) that had people saluting as I passed.
Every year since I would celebrate Yom Ha-atzmaut either with Bnei Akiva or at Yeshivah of Flatbush, until 1991 when I was sitting shiva for my father a"h. It was an experience I wouldn't wish on a dog, made worse by haredi visitors who made no mention of the holiday. I broke into the Yom Tov nigun at shaharit after ha-mahazir sh'khinato l'Tzion, washed for a seuda at lunch time and said shir ha-ma'alot before Birkat Ha-mazon. If I had my druthers Yom Ha-atzmaut would suspend shiva the way Shabbat does. By then I was teaching at Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall H.S., but I promised myself that, work or no work, Yom Ha'atzmaut would never be business as usual. Teaching on that day would be useless anyhow; I'm higher than a kite. I take the day off and return to my alma mater to daven and take part in the festive breakfast with lots of singing and dancing; even now I keep up with dancing high school kids. Being a marathon runner, I do a pirsumei nisa run, donning something that would identify me as Jewish (e.g. a singlet emblazoned with the IDF logo) and running through a neighborhood (Crown Heights this year) where we are not exactly loved. Thank God I came to no harm, but I got bemused looks from hasidim when I'd yell out "hag sameah." Sometime during the day I read Shir Ha-shirim, and I always cry when I get to 5:2, kol dodi dofeq, the tragedy of God knocking and Israel refusing to open the door. Is that not our tragedy since 1967, God knocking and we not opening the door, God putting the pedal to the metal and we timid Jews slamming on the brakes? As the saying goes, you can take the Jew out of the galut but you can't take the galut out of the Jew.

This Wednesday and (in galut) Thursday are Shavu'ot. May we soon celebrate an authentic Shavu'ot with the holiday's special mitzva, bringing bikkurim in heavy baskets on broad Jewish shoulders to the rebuilt Beit Hamikdash.

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