As rabbi of the only Sephardi congregation in Western Canada, I am frequently asked about the Sephardi perspective regarding the holiday of Yom Ha’atzmaut. Do we celebrate it? How, historically, do the Sephardi sages regard the Land of Israel?
I usually answer that our sages attach a great deal of importance to the Land of Israel, making it clear that it is a focal point of our existence.
Besides the fact that the Torah speaks about the Land of Israel as the Promised Land, promised by God to the Jewish People, Sephardi chachamim throughout the generations have expressed their love of the Land through song and poetry.
In modern times, immediately following the creation of the State of Israel, Yom Ha’atzmaut was celebrated in Sephardi countries by the entire community.
The emphasis, however, was different than it is today.
The rabbis emphasized and embodied the religious perspective – the beginning of our redemption – through thanksgiving and celebration on Yom Ha’atzmaut. For them, it wasn’t about “Hallel with or without a brachah.” It was about giving praise to HaShem through the recitation of Tehillim and Hallel for the great miracles and gifts that we recognize on this special day.
Well before modern Israeli poets wrote of their love for the Land of Israel, Sephardi poets – Rabbi Yehuda Halevy (12th-century Spain), Rabbi David Hassin (18th-century Morocco), Rabbi Yosef Haim (19th-century Baghdad) and Rabbi Raphael Antebbi (19th-century Aleppo), among others – wrote about the beauty and holiness of the Land.
Subsequently, after the establishment of the State of Israel, there were Sephardi poets and rabbis – for example, Rabbi David Bouzaglo of Morocco, Asher Mizrachi of Tunisia, and Rabbi Frija Zuartz of Libya – who wrote of their love and renewed appreciation of the Land of Redemption. Their moving words often elicit tears when I read or sing them.
These words also bring me much hope and comfort at times when it’s hard to avoid becoming despondent over our future and what’s going on in the world in general. These rabbis often experienced atrocities, even death, in their countries of birth. Just as they took comfort in the Almighty, we, too, must strive to develop our faith and to strengthen our resolve in our times.
One of the stories – a story about faith – that I cherish most is about Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, the former Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel who visited Vancouver in 2008. A certain individual asked the rabbi for his thoughts concerning a new book discrediting the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. The rabbi responded simply, “The author of the book is an idiot!” The rabbi said that his parents taught him about that event and their parents them, asking finally, “All of them were wrong and the author of this book is right?”
On Yom Ha’atzmaut we are reminded that our faith and our history have been transmitted to us in an unbroken chain from one generation to another, from Sinai to this day. Let us thank God as we celebrate both our Jewish history and our national renewal by rejoicing on this Day of Independence.