A Day to Remember
The 5th of Iyar is a very happy day in Israel and throughout the Jewish world. It is Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, the day when the State of Israel was declared a State and came into being. In all places where the importance of this event is recognized, Jews gather to celebrate together. Religious Jews recite special prayers of thanks to God for giving us our own State and country after an exile that lasted for nearly 2000 years.
However, part of the irony that exists in the State of Israel is that the day before the 5th of Iyar is not a happy day at all. The day before the celebration of Yom Ha’Atzmaut is dedicated as Yom HaZikaron, Remembrance Day. On this day we remember all the Jews who were killed defending the State of Israel.
We recall the Jews who came to Israel before the State was declared and fought to defend the vulnerable settlements from frequent Arab attacks. We remember the soldiers of Israel who fought in all the wars during the several decades since the State was established. Jews who were killed in the army, the navy, and the air force. We also remember all those Jews throughout the world who have been murdered in terrorist attacks; the Jews who have been killed by Arab suicide bombers or firebombed on their way back home to their families.
All of these and more are recalled on the 4th of Iyar, the day before Yom Ha’Atzmaut. In Judaism the night precedes the day and so Yom Ha’Atzmaut starts at sundown and Yom HaZikaron concludes at the very same moment. This creates a strange reality for anyone who is not accustomed to it.
In many communities, memorial services are held for victims of wars and Arab terror. These are typically sad personal events. In Israel, where almost everyone knows someone who was killed in a war or in a terrorist attack, these ceremonies have a personal tone. Many tears are shed as we recall friends, family members, loved ones who were killed in Israel or because of Israel.
At one point the day ends and the night begins, and with it starts Yom Ha’Atzmaut. Suddenly the mood changes, people celebrate and are happy. Hallel and other joyous prayers of thanks and praise are said.
This is Israel; sadness and happiness live in the same day, often sharing the same moment. The heart is torn between pain and rejoicing. This is the reality that every Jew, and certainly every Israeli, lives with each and every day of his life. Yom HaZikaron precedes Yom Ha’Atzmaut; Yom Ha’Atzmaut follows Yom HaZikaron. Unnecessary Pain
We could ask ourselves - what is it all for? Is it worth having a State if all we seem to do is fight to defend it? Surely the ideal State would be free from wars and conflict. If the State of Israel really is the beginning of the redemption, why are we still fighting?
These questions are accentuated by the close proximity of Yom Ha’Atzmaut to Yom HaZikaron. Independence and the State of Israel seem to be inextricably linked with war. Is this the way it should be? Is there no other way?
During the First World War, Rav Kook was stranded in Switzerland. He had traveled to a large rabbinic meeting of the Agudat Yisrael to speak about the importance of settling the Land of Israel when the war broke out. Unable to return home, the Rav took up a position as rabbi in a congregation in London and remained there until the end of the war. Only in 1919 was the Rav eventually able to return to Israel and be reunited with his family and students.
During this difficult time in the world and in his private life, Rav Kook wrote an essay called "The War." In it Rav Kook explains certain aspects of war and tries to understand why the Great War was happening. Were there any positive elements of this negative idea, "war," that would help us comprehend how God allows war in the world? We shall use some of the ideas that Rav Kook wrote to help us answer our own questions about the wars of Israel. "The War"
Our original assumption was that a world without war is better than a world with war. This is true, of course, but was such a world ever in existence? Was there ever a time when Jews did not fight to defend themselves?
Rav Kook points out that even our great forefathers fought wars. Even though we think of them as very holy individuals who were gentle and peace-loving, they still fought to defend themselves and others.
Avraham fought a major war against the four kings who had captured his nephew Lot, and he overcame them (see BeReishit 14). Yitzchak had a struggle over wells with the Plishtim (see ibid., 26:14-23). Ya’akov prepared for war against his own brother, Esav. Eventually he managed to appease Esav, but not before he fought an angel (see ibid., chapters 32 and 33). Moshe fought against Amalek and other nations before the people of Israel entered the Land (see Shemot 17:8-13 and BeMidbar 20:14-21, 21:1-3, etc.). All these wars took place before the Jewish people ruled the country of Israel. After the Jews entered Israel there were many wars: to conquer the Land, expand the borders, and defend her from attackers. This is not only our lot, this has been the lot of the Jews since the beginning of time.
Rav Kook explains that these people were great role models for us, not despite the fact that they were willing and capable of fighting wars. On the contrary, they were great due to the fact that they fought wars.
Wars are negative, but they have a positive side to them as well. Nations fight wars, individuals do not fight wars. Therefore war forces a nation to be a nation. Each nation is different and has its own nature. Often the nation does not develop this nature and talent and there is a tendency for it to be forgotten. Nations thus lose their individual character. But when a nation fights a war it is compelled to recognize and defend the ideal that separates it from other peoples, from other nations. War comes to define the special qualities of each nation. There develops from this a sense of national pride and unity.
This itself can be a bad thing and can be a very destructive power. But when we study the life of the Jewish people we see that wars have come to bind us together in a positive sense. Wars have made us recognize our unique nature as Jews. When Jews fought other people’s wars they often fought against other Jews on the opposing side who were also fighting other people’s wars. Here were two Jews fighting against each other and this often had a strong effect on them. It made them realize that they were caught in someone else’s war. The only solution was to leave and set up their own State with their own army.
Such events are said to have occurred during the First World War. Jews fought on the German side and other Jews fought against them. This situation was absurd and caused some of these soldiers later to leave those countries and come to live in Israel.
So we see that one outcome of war is the necessity to define the nation as a nation. The need to fight carries with it unity and singularity of purpose, essential elements of any successful nation. The God of War
What Rav Kook makes clear is that we do not have to be frightened of war. Not that we should seek to wage war on others, but that when we need to fight wars we should realize that there can be positive outcomes.
The Midrash already taught us that the Master of war is none other than God Himself. The verse in Shir HaShirim discusses the guards who kept watch over King Shlomo’s bed. "Here is Shlomo’s bed, sixty soldiers surround it from the strong men of Israel. Each holds a sword and has learned war, each one’s sword is ready from the fear of the night" (Shir HaShirim 3:7-8). These verses need a lot of explanation but for our purposes we will concentrate on the specific question asked by the Midrash. "‘Learned war’ - from whom did they learn? From God, as it says, ‘God is a being of war’ (Shemot 15:3)" (BeMidbar Rabbah 11:3).
On many occasions God Himself waged war on behalf of the Jewish people. The most famous of these times is the war against Egypt, one that is referred to by the verse quoted in the Midrash. God originally fought our wars for us. However, we have now learned war, we have become trained in war tactics and strategy. Who did we learn from? The Midrash asks and supplies the answer; we learned from the Master of war, from God Himself.
There were times when God needed to "fight" against certain peoples of the world. This taught us how to fight for ourselves when such action was totally necessary. God appeared sometimes as the God of war; this taught us when and how to fight wars. Redemption and War
The Gemara explains the order of the nineteen blessings of the daily Amidah prayer. The seventh blessing is the blessing of the redemption, "Blessed are You...who redeems Israel." The Gemara explains that this is the seventh blessing hinting that the Jews will be redeemed in the seventh year (Megillah 17b). This refers to the seventh year of the cycle of the years. We have a seven-year cycle that ends with the Shemitah, the seventh year when the Land of Israel is left fallow and not worked (see VaYikra 25:1-7). The Gemara explains that as we are to be redeemed in the seventh year it is appropriate that the seventh blessing should deal with redemption.
The Gemara then cites another source that seems to disagree with this statement that we are to be redeemed in the seventh year. "On the sixth year voices [of war], on the seventh year war, on the eighth year the son of David [i.e. the Messiah] will come" (Megillah ibid.). According to this source the redemption will not be in the seventh year, but only in the eighth year. During the seventh year, instead of redemption, there will be war.
The Gemara explains that there is no argument between these two sources. In the words of the Gemara, "War is also the beginning of the redemption!" War is the first stage in the redemptive process.
We convey a similar sentiment in our prayers. "He alone does wonders, the Master of war, who sows kindness, and causes the redemption to flourish" (Shacharit prayers, blessing before the Shema).
Rav Kook discusses this as well and opens his essay by stating, "When there is a great war in the world the force of the Messiah is awakened." The messianic process starts with wars and destruction. This destruction breaks down the old forms and leaves a new and fresher world. When the dust settles the world can be renewed and refined and that is the essence of the messianic process and the period of the Messiah. War kills both good and bad people and the death that comes with war is tragic, but in the aftermath of war we have the opportunity to make a better world. When there is war in the world we can hear the footsteps of the Mashiach, the messiah, behind the sound of the guns and the havoc.
Rav Kook then makes an interesting statement. "The greater the war in quantity and quality so, too, is the anticipation of the Messiah greater." The anticipation of the Mashiach is directly proportional to the greatness of the war in quantity and quality.
We can understand what the Rav meant by a great war quantitatively. This refers to the First World War, where a large number of people and countries were involved. But what is a great war qualitatively?
We can explain this to mean that the closer the war is to the Jewish people and to the Land of Israel, the greater is the quality of the war. The wars that we have fought over Israel are a struggle for our very survival as a nation. This is a great war in quality; it is about the things that we hold the most dear to us: our Land, our people, our Torah. Together these are our survival.
When the war is fought close to these then it heralds the messianic era. These are the wars that we are fighting. We do not choose to fight, but we cannot back away from these wars either. We need to survive as a people, and to do that we need to fight.
Our prayer is that, as the Gemara promised us, these wars will bring us closer and closer to that wonderful time that we wait for so anxiously. We pray that "War is the beginning of the redemption."
Rabbi Gideon Weitzman is the Head of the English Speaking Section of the Puah Institute for Fertility and Medicine in Accordance with the Halacha. He studied for many years in Yeshivat Beit El and teaches in various educational institutions.
This essay is taken from his second book, "In Those Days, At This Time - Essays on the Festivals Based on the Philosophy of Rav Kook." The book is available in bookstores or directly from the author. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org