One of my favorite places to visit is an ancient wall in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem with a playground on top. As I watch the children at play, my mind drifts back to what happened at that very wall more than 2,500 years ago, to events described in M’lachim II (Chapters 18-19), Isaiah (Chapters 36-37), and Divrei HaYamim II (Chapter 32).
Assyria, the most powerful empire of its time, had destroyed the Kingdom of Israel and exiled the ten tribes. Sennacherib was the greatest of rulers. He conquered most of the known world of its time, including almost the entire Kingdom of Judah. As Sennacherib approached Jerusalem, King Hezekiah urged people to have faith in Hashem as he prepared to meet the challenge. He built the broad wall that I referred to earlier and a tunnel, which can still be visited today, to protect the city’s water system.
Standing outside the city, Rabshakeh, an apostate Jew, called out in Hebrew to the people inside, speaking in the name of Sennacherib: “Do not let Hezekiah deceive you. Do not let Hezekiah make you rely on Hashem… Lest Hezekiah mislead you saying, ‘Hashem will save us.’… Who among all the gods of the lands has save their lands from my hand that Hashem should save Jerusalem from my hand?”
Upon hearing what happened, King Hezekiah tore his garments, went to the Beis HaMikdash to pray, saying, “And now Hashem our G-d save us from his hand and let all the kingdoms of the world know that You alone are G-d.” The navi Isaiah sent word to Hezekiah. “Therefore, so said Hashem of the King of Assyria, ‘he shall not enter this city, nor will he shoot an arrow there, nor will he advance upon it with a shield, nor will he pile up a shield mound against it. By the way he comes he shall return, and he will not enter this city,’ says Hashem. ‘And I will protect this city to save it (Isaiah 37:33-35).’”
That night, an angel of Hashem killed 185,000 men in the Assyrian camp. Jerusalem and Judah were saved. Sennacherib returned to his capital of Nineveh in humiliation and was assassinated by his own sons a short time later.
The Gemara in Sanhedrin (94b) tells us that it was in the merit of the Torah learned in the batei midrash that Jerusalem was saved, saying that in those days they checked from Dan to Beersheba and could not find a single boy or girl who was not fully fluent in the laws of tum’ah and taharah, which are extremely complicated.
But earlier, on the same daf, Bar Kapara tells us that Hashem wanted to make Hezekiah the Messiah, and to make the war against Sennacherib the war of Gog and Magog. But the midas ha’din asked, “If David who sang so many shiros – songs and tishbachos – before You was not made the Messiah, should Hezekiah who did not sing shirah before You despite all the miracles you performed for him be appointed as the Messiah?” Think of the implications of this Gemara. One of our greatest kings, whom Hashem wanted to make the Messiah, missed out on the opportunity because he did not sing shirah for the miracles of his time.
This Gemara is cited by Don Isaac Abravanel in his commentary to Isaiah 10:32-12:6, which is the haftarah for the last day of Pesach in the Diaspora and for Yom HaAtzmaut. The association of this haftarah with Yom HaAtzmaut should set us to thinking.
At the end of World War II, the Jewish people were shattered. Six million Jews had been murdered in the Holocaust. The Torah centers of Europe were destroyed. People were predicting the demise of the Jewish people. If anyone had predicted what would happen over the next 77 years, they would have been dismissed as crazy.
Today, the reborn State of Israel, with a united Jerusalem as its capital, is a homeland for Jews around the world. There will never be another Holocaust, because Israel stands ready to welcome Jews who are in danger. Israel is a vibrant democracy whose achievements in high technology, hydrology, medicine, and agriculture have benefited the entire world. The exodus of Jews from the former Soviet Union was the greatest mass rescue of Jews since the Exodus from Egypt.
There are more people learning Torah at a high level than ever before. A generation ago, the number of people learning Daf Yomi would not have filled a medium size shul. The last Siyum HaShas filled MetLife Stadium. We can be proud of the acts of Torah, mitzvos, and chesed that are performed in our community every single day.
To be sure, we still face many difficulties. The Palestinians and their allies are still threatening to wipe out Israel. The threat that Iran will develop nuclear weapons is real. Anti-Semitism in America is on the rise. Assimilation, intermarriage, and the assault of popular culture on Torah values are serious challenges.
But by any objective measure, the condition of the Jewish people today is better than at any time in the past 2,000 years. The date 5 Iyar 5708, the day on which Jewish sovereignty was restored in the Land of Israel, was one of the greatest turning points in the history of the Jewish people. In Israel, Yom HaAtzmaut is celebrated with great festivity. I will have my pick of dozens of special t’filos and special events to attend. Yet many in the Diaspora and even in parts of Israel, who see the Yad Hashem in everything, who thank him daily “for your miracles that are with us each day (Sh’moneh Esrei),” steadfastly refuse to sing shirah on 5 Iyar or to even acknowledge the significance of the day.
We need to ask ourselves a lot more than four serious questions about what statement we are making when we refuse to acknowledge Yom HaAtzmaut. Are we saying that the hand of Hashem was not present in the establishment and development of Israel? Are we saying that the events surrounding the rebirth of Israel, the triumph of the few over the many, of refugees and Holocaust survivors over seven professional armies were not a miracle?
True that Israel is not everything we want it to be. But would we think to not light Chanukah candles because many of the later Chashmonean kings were r’sha’im whose infighting led to the Roman conquest and the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash? Does the fact that our prayers have not been fully answered, as we would have liked, absolve us from giving thanks for the miracles we have been fortunate to witness? Do we think that Hashem does not have the power to help us overcome the challenges that remain before us?
Granted, many people have turned Yom HaAtzmaut into a frivolous holiday, given credit to secular Zionists for the establishment of Israel, or used it as a day to proclaim, “My strength and the power of my hand have acquired this wealth for me (D’varim 8:17).” Doesn’t that make it all the more incumbent on us to proclaim the truth? “This was from Hashem; it is wondrous in our eyes. This is the day Hashem made; we shall exalt and rejoice on it (T’hilim 118:23-24).”
Perhaps most troubling, could it be that World War II was meant to be the War of Gog and Magog, that the rebirth of the State of Israel was meant to be the dawn of the Messianic era, and that we have not merited to see the complete redemption because of our failure to sing songs of praise to Hashem for the miracles of our own time?
I understand that some of us have difficulty saying Hallel and reading a haftarah on a day that was not established by Chazal. But can’t we all find an acceptable way to praise Hashem for the miracles we have been zocheh to see?
On Yom HaAtzmaut, I will once again visit the wall that Hezekiah built. For that is the wall that was built by King Hezekiah as he prepared to defend the city against Sennacherib. It was at that wall, at that very spot, that Rabshakeh told our ancestors it was over, that the time had come to give it up. There have been many Sennacheribs and many Rabshakehs in our history. Those among our enemies and among our own ranks who have told us to give it up, it is over. I think about that, and I shed tears of joy. For Sennacherib is gone, Rabshakeh is gone, and the descendants of Hezekiah have come home to play on the wall.
Doesn’t that merit all of us coming together to say, “Thank Hashem, call in His name, publicize his deeds among the nations, remember for His name is exalted. Sing to Hashem for He has performed mighty deeds, that is known through all the land. Shout and praise dwellers in Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel (Isaiah 12:4-6).”
By Manny Behar