Holding Two Truths This Yom Ha’atzmaut

By Pamela Barkley, Chief Growth Officer

Once you hit Purim, the school year is basically over!” That’s what one of my teachers used to say to me when I was Director of Education at a suburban religious school in New York. “I mean, basically once it’s Purim, then it’s a straight shot through the holidays – Passover, Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes Remembrance Day), Yom Hazikaron (Israeli Memorial Day), Yom Haatzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) – and then school’s out!”

We used to laugh about this every year once the groggers and hamantaschen started to fill my office. In part, because working at a religious school during these holidays is such a whirlwind. But also because the whirlwind requires massive shifts in emotions, forcing us to flow between simcha, joy, and sorrow. This is not unique to this time of year, though. Our tradition is steeped in an understanding of needing to be able to hold both elated happiness and profound sadness at the same time.

Judaism teaches that when we get married, amidst the happiness of the day, we break a glass to remember our people’s past suffering and the fragility of life. At Passover, we commemorate the plagues that helped set us free by taking 10 small drops of wine out of our cup so that it is a little less filled, lest we forget that these plagues wreaked havoc on Egyptian men, women and children.  After the Israelites miraculously crossed the Sea of Reeds and were free, the waters closed and all the Egyptian soldiers who were chasing them, drowned.  There is a midrash that says that the angels in heaven were about to break into song and God stops them saying, “How dare you sing for joy when My creatures are dying” (Talmud, Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b).  Still, we also know that God did not stop Miriam as she took her timbral to lead the Israelites in celebratory song and dance.

That midrash feels incredibly relevant in a moment that so many of God’s creatures are dying.  133 innocent people are still being held hostage by Hamas. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in Gaza. IDF soldiers who have stepped up to serve are losing life and limb. There is so much reason to be sad.

And yet: I take birthdays very seriously. I believe in cakes and candles and exuberant celebration. And that’s not because birthdays allow me to forget all the hardships of the world, nor that the person that I’m celebrating is not perfect.  But I still believe it’s important to feel gratitude that person was born and made the world a richer place by coming into being.

When I was a Sunday school director, true to form, I took Israel’s birthday very seriously, too. I remember one Yom Ha’atzmaut setting up an exhibition of the near-miraculous technology that has come out of Israel – Waze, Orcam, Pillcam. We watched a video about how Israel created technology to create robotic limbs for soldiers who had lost a limb during army service. The kids created a drip irrigation garden outside, understanding what it looks like to bring water and life where it wouldn’t otherwise exist. When the kids realized that the iPhones in their hands relied on Israeli technology, they were in awe.

At a more serious level, Israel also provides for me a sense of safety. As I watch rising antisemitism, in America, I am struck by the feeling that there are people in my country who want to do me harm. As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor,  I feel so grateful in this moment that I have another home in Israel. Again, I hold those mixed emotions – awe and pride; fear and anxiety – together at once.

Yes, our tradition has given us exactly the toolkit we need to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut this year.  Because being Jewish means that we understand that life is fragile even in moments of joy. So as May 14th draws near, let us embrace this ancient wisdom and hold the pain of others while also rejoicing in the miracle that is Israel.  This is not an either/or choice; we can, and should, do both.

By the end of the school year those groggers were replaced by both the yahrzeit candles we lit as a school on Yom Hashoah and the flags we used to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, When I think back on my very cluttered office, I see it as a reflection of how important it is that we help our children and their families not let despair diminish the light of jubilation. As Jews, we can cry as we face the immense suffering that is all around AND we can be proud of all that Israel has accomplished in her 76 years of existence.