The journeys of the Jewish people define our very existence – from the time our first ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, left lower Mesopotamia – present-day Iraq – to journey to the land of Canaan. None of our journeys have been straight-forward; we have wandered in the wilderness, we have travelled back and forth, north south, east and west; we have taken flight many times.
We have also journeyed – and continue to journey – each year, from Shabbat to Shabbat; and from festival to festival. This is particularly true of the period from Pesach to Shavuot, when we recall the journey from ‘the house of bondage’ in Egypt, to Mount Sinai in the desert; from liberation and renewal to revelation and commitment. This particular journey is marked by the ‘counting of the Omer’ – in remembrance of the omer, the sheaf of grain that was ‘waved’ by the High Priest in the Temple, during the ‘seven weeks’ between the two festivals (Leviticus 23: ).
In the midst of the twentieth century, this ancient act of remembrance took on a new significance, with the establishment of the State of Israel on 14th May 1948, corresponding to 5th Iyyar in the Hebrew calendar. After almost two thousand years, the journey from Pesach to Shavuot now included the restoration of Jewish nationhood, and so a new day was added to the annual cycle of commemoration: Yom Ha-Atzma’ut – Independence Day. But it wasn’t quite as simple as that: Would the United Nations General Assembly have voted on November 29th 1947 in favour of the partition of the land between Jews and Palestinians, and the formation of a Jewish State, if six million Jews had not been murdered by the Nazis and their henchmen? And so, in a complex way, the State of Israel, representing re-birth and a new beginning, has arisen in the shadow of the Sho’ah, and bears the imprint of that devastating time. And so, perhaps it is fitting that Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, chosen to highlight the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began during Pesach 1943, falls on 27th Nisan each year, just over a week before Yom Ha-Atzma’ut – and less than a week after Pesach.
The parallel of the juxtaposition of Yom Ha-Sho’ah and Yom Ha-Atzma’ut with the Pesach story of slavery and freedom may give us pause for thought – and carries an important message for the State of Israel as it marks its 62nd anniversary: Even the most hideous persecution and most abject misery will finally be defeated; the day of liberation will come; but then as our ancestors discovered, liberation is also only a passing moment – and then, the hard labour of building a just and peaceful society begins.