Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Yom Ha'atzmaut 5769

Last week I spent the evening and morning of Yom Ha'atzmaut as I usually do, at my alma mater, Yeshivah of Flatbush. Before Ma'ariv a teacher spoke about the significance of the day. He cited Rav Kook, who taught that the first war waged by the Jews in the conquest of Eretz Yisrael was against Sihon Melekh Heshbon. If we had put our faith in rational calculations - heshbon - we would not have won, not then and not now (see earlier post). A hazan (cantor) who also graduated the Yeshivah led us in Ma'ariv, including Hallel and the conclusion modeled after the end of Yom Kippur, as prescribed by the Israeli Rabbanut. After tfila we had an "Israeli cafe night" that was, if anything, too successful in that there were too many people for the available space. Much money was raised for Todah L'Tzahal.
The following morning tfila again followed the Rabbanut's prescription, including Hallel and the haftara for the last day of Pesah read with ta'amim but without a brakha. A festive breakfast followed, a tradition at Flatbush that I first saw as a student in 1967 (see earlier post), the twentieth anniversary of the state. 41 years later, all but one of my teachers have either retired or passed on. The students, and in some cases their parents, were not even born when I was a student there. Nevertheless, they would pull me into their dancing circles and I was able to keep up. Sometimes one kid would link arms with me for a two-person whirl. I am still able to feel the joy of Yom Ha'atzmaut as only a strong, healthy man can.
In the afternoon I suited up in a home-made sleeveless shirt with "HAPPY BIRTHDAY" and the Israeli flag across the chest and "61 YEARS YOUNG" on the back and ran through Brooklyn's Cobble Hill neighborhood and Atlantic Avenue. This is traditionally the borough's Arab stronghold, though like most neighborhoods in New York it has become considerably homogenized. I sometimes run there "out of uniform" during my lunch breaks at work, and I see Arabic-looking people going in and out of mosques, Arabic bookstores and the like. One might wonder why I would go out of my way to do something some might consider provocative, even looking for trouble. I certainly had no need to assert my right as an American to walk in any neighborhood in America; nobody was contesting that right. We learn the answer from Hannukah, like Yom Ha'atzmaut a time set aside to thank God for restoring Jewish independence through the victory of "the [relatively] weak over the strong, the few over the many." It is not enough to light Hannukah candles on the kitchen table as we do with Shabbat candles, though that is what we do in times of mortal danger, God forbid. We have to light them in a window facing outward, when people passing by can see. Pirsumei nisa is not preaching to the choir; it has to be "in your face," projecting outward to precisely those who would make themselves our adversaries. But on another level, our adversaries too benefit from the miracle. The ge'ula is not only for us; it's for the whole world, urbi et orbi. Emanations from our reborn state spread out and envelop the world in new strategies for arid-zone agriculture, new medical discoveries, new computer tech, the list goes on and on, as in the time of the Beit Ha-mikdash, where it is said that if the Romans had only known of the blessings they were getting from it they would have posted guards around it day and night.
I met up with a volunteer from Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group for non-motorized (bicycling, walking, running) transport, doing a survey of traffic violations. He asked me where I got the shirt and we exchanged Hag Sameah salutes. And, barukh Hashem, I came to absolutely no harm. Nobody did anything, nobody said anything. It was as if God cast a spell on the Arabs and kept them in their homes (see Bereshit 35:5). I am reminded of what happened and did not happen over twenty years ago, when my newborn daughter developed a serious infection and for a while things were touch-and-go. She was in Long Island College Hospital, in Cobble Hill. It was summertime, and I ran to the hospital to be with my wife and daughter. The run took me down Atlantic Avenue, which was more Arabic then than it is today. I don't remember if I was wearing my Israeli flag shirt, but I wore my kippa proudly on my head, which at the time had enough hair to hold it on with a couple of bobby pins. I might have collected a dirty look or two, but nobody touched a hair of my head. And when I reached the hospital I turned to God: Okay, I conquered my fear and ran down Atlantic Avenue to show these people how You are giving Your people health and strength (Tehilim 29:11). Now You conquer whatever is bugging You and give me a healthy child. And He did.

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