The Kabbalah of Yom Ha‘Atzmaut

This Wednesday, the 5th of Iyar, is Israel’s Independence Day, Yom Ha‘Atzmaut. That the State of Israel was born on this date in particular is no coincidence. On the surface, the reason it happened on this date is because that was when the British Mandate expired, and was the earliest opportunity for the Zionist leadership to declare independence. Behind this, however, there is a far deeper mystical reason.

Back in the 18th century, the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797), one of the greatest kabbalists in history, taught that the time had come for Jews to return to their Promised Land. He devoted the last years of his life towards making this a reality. The Vilna Gaon attempted to make the journey himself, but was unable to complete it. He instructed his students do so, and they did, in three waves. The first wave of Perushim (“separated ones”, as they called themselves) was led by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov. When they got to Israel, they discovered they could not settle in Jerusalem because a ban had been placed on Ashkenazi immigration by the Ottoman authorities. The ban came as a result of an earlier group of Ashkenazis that had journeyed there, led by Rabbi Yehuda haHasid Segal (c. 1660-1700, not to be confused with the 12th century Rabbi Yehuda haHasid of Regensburg, and not to be confused with rabbis of the later Hasidic movement).

Rabbi Yehuda haHasid was another kabbalist who fervently sought to get Jews back to Israel and launch the Redemption. In 1697, together with 31 other families, Rabbi Yehuda set forth from Poland towards the Holy Land. Along the way, he successfully convinced some 1500 Jews to come with him (not all of them made it). To get there, Rabbi Yehuda and his group had to bribe many Ottoman officials, taking on large debts. They arrived in Jerusalem to find an impoverished Jewish community of about 1000 Sephardis and 200 Ashkenazis. Their arrival instantly doubled the Jewish population, and was a huge strain on the community who didn’t have the resources to help them.

Rabbi Yehuda himself died within days of arrival. His followers started building a synagogue of their own—in his name—on the site of an earlier synagogue from the 15th century. (That earlier synagogue had, in turn, been built upon an even earlier synagogue thought to have belonged to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi in the 2nd century. In 2003, archaeologists digging there discovered three ancient mikvehs dating back to the 1st century!) Rabbi Yehuda haHasid’s followers ended up taking on many more debts from the Ottomans and Arabs to finance their construction. When they couldn’t repay their debts, a band of Arabs burned down the synagogue in 1720. The Ottoman authorities then banned all Ashkenazis from Jerusalem, blaming them for all the recent ills that had befallen the community.

Due to this ban, Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s group settled in Tzfat. There they encountered some of the disciples of another Rabbi Menachem Mendel (of Vitebsk, c. 1730-1788). This rabbi was one of the early Hasidic leaders, a disciple of the Maggid (Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch, c. 1704-1772, who was the disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement), and a close friend of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812, founder of Chabad). In 1777, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk brought a group of 300 Jews to Israel. They also had to settle in Tzfat since the door to Jerusalem was closed. Several years later, most of his group was forced out of Tzfat and moved to Tiberias. Others dressed up as Sephardis and succeeded in settling in Jerusalem.

Top left: the Hurva Synagogue in 1930; bottom left: the ruins in 1967; right: the Hurva today (photo credit: Chesdovi). After many years of struggles, Sir Moses Montefiore intervened and got the Perushim the permission (and funds) they needed to start rebuilding the synagogue. More than half of the money for construction came from the wealthy Iraqi-Jewish family of Ezekiel Reuben. The synagogue was completed in 1864 and originally called Beit Yakov in honour of Edmond James (Yakov) de Rothschild. It was considered the most beautiful building in Jerusalem, and nicknamed “the glory of the Old City”. The Arabs destroyed it in 1948 during the Independence War. Israel reclaimed it with the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967. The synagogue was rebuilt, more beautiful than ever, and reopened in March 2010. Two months later I came to Jerusalem to study in yeshiva and prayed shacharit there each morning!

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov (the disciple of the Vilna Gaon, that is) and his group didn’t stay in Tzfat very long. Eventually, they managed to get permission to settle in Jerusalem, and started reviving its Ashkenazi community. They took on the project of rebuilding the synagogue of Rabbi Yehuda haHasid, which was still lying in ruins. They saw this as a symbolic mission that represented the first step in rebuilding all of Jerusalem. The day that they arrived in the Holy City, as well as the day on which they began rebuilding what was known as the Hurva Synagogue (hurva meaning “ruins”), was the 5th of Iyar. This was also the day that they established Beit Midrash Eliyahu, a yeshiva named in honour of their master, the Vilna Gaon.

The lower 7 sefirot correspond to the 7 Shepherds of Israel

The Perushim chose this date in particular because the Vilna Gaon had taught that this was the most auspicious day to start the process of Redemption. The prophet Ovadiah had said that one day the flame of the “House of Jacob” and the “House of Joseph” would be reignited, and burn up its enemies, and re-inherit the land that was rightfully theirs (Ovadiah 1:17-18, see also Psalms 77:16). On a mystical level, as is well-known, Jacob represents the sefirah of Tiferet, while Joseph represents the sefirah of Yesod. Thus, the opportune time to begin rebuilding Israel was when these two sefirot meet: the day of Yesod sh’b’Tiferet, which is the 5th of Iyar.

[For those who need a little more background: The period between Pesach and Shavuot is the time of Sefirat haOmer. This is when we recite a special count for each day of the seven-week period. On a kabbalistic level, the purpose of this time is to rectify the seven major middot or character traits, corresponding to the seven lower mystical sefirot (see: The Spiritual Significance of Sefirat HaOmer). Each of the seven weeks parallels one trait, and each of the seven days within each week also parallels one of the traits. The sixth day of each week is for the sixth sefirah, Yesod, while the third week is for the third sefirah, Tiferet. Therefore, the day of Yesod sh’b’Tiferet is where these two sefirot meet, which is the 20th day of the Omer, always falling on the 5th of Iyar.]

In kabbalistic texts, the land of Israel is associated with the sefirah of Tiferet. (The Jewish people, too, are rooted in this same sefirah.) Meanwhile, Yesod means “foundation”, and sits at the very bottom of the “male” qualities of the sefirot. It really is the “foundation” of the sefirot, and the most important one in attaining true righteousness and holiness. This is why Joseph—who embodies Yesod—is the only Biblical figure to be given the title HaTzadik, “the righteous one”. Yesod sits right before the final sefirah of Malkhut, “Kingdom”, representing the final messianic era. Therefore, the only thing standing in the way of Redemption is the rectification of Yesod.

The mystics teach that the final generation before Mashiach comes will be faced with the greatest test: repairing Yesod. All the other rectifications have already been completed by earlier generations. (The Arizal taught that there are a total of 288 such rectifications, a number we will come back to.) And so, the Vilna Gaon saw within the 20th day of the Omer—Yesod sh’b’Tiferet—the perfect time to start the final process of rectification.

On a mystical level, Yesod sh’b’Tiferet can literally be read as “Foundation in the land of Israel”. This is why the Vilna Gaon’s disciples made it a point to establish their work on this day. And this is why, not coincidentally, it would turn out that the British Mandate would expire on this day, and on this day in the Holy Land the Jewish people would declare an independent state for the first time in over two thousand years.

The 50 Gates and the Revival of Israel

Each of the fifty days between Pesach and Shavuot also corresponds to the mystical 50 Gates of Understanding, Nun Sha’arei Binah. (Over the past several years, I’ve been working on a book to explain each of these gates, and how they correspond to the sefirot and the days of the Omer, among other things. Stay tuned!) The 20th day of the Omer parallels the 20th gate. While there is some variation in the naming of these gates, the text that is most frequently used (and appears in some Havdalah prayers, as well as in the “Great Kaddish” recited by Sephardis during the High Holidays) lists the 20th gate as tal u’matar livracha, “dew and rain for blessing”.

This is the gate that is most connected to the land of Israel, as we pray daily for God to bless the land of Israel with  abundant dew and rain. The Torah makes it clear that Israel is a unique land, the survival of which is entirely dependent on rain (Deuteronomy 11:10-11). Unlike the neighbouring lands of Egypt and Babylon—which rely simply on periodic flood cycles of their great rivers—Israel has no water without rain from Heaven. God did this on purpose so that the Jewish people would pray to Him for sustenance, and not rely on nature alone. The general word for rain, geshem, shares a root with gashmiut, “physicality” and “materialism”, for the Jew is meant to see all of his material wealth as “raining down” from God.

Reviving the land of Israel means bringing down the dew and rain upon it once more. For the soil to flourish and bring forth produce, Israel needs rain. The Sages state (Sanhedrin 98a) that the greatest sign of the Redemption is when Israel becomes an agricultural marvel once again, producing an abundance of fruit that is enough both for itself and for export, as prophesied by Ezekiel: “But you, O mountains of Israel, you shall shoot forth your branches, and yield your fruit to my people of Israel, for they are at hand to come.” (Ezekiel 36:8) And also prophesied by Isaiah: “In days to come, Jacob will take root, Israel will bud and blossom and fill all the world with its fruit.” (Isaiah 27:6) Needless to say, we are living this reality today, where Israel has recently reached self-sufficient status (meaning its citizens will not starve if all food imports are stopped) and now exports nearly $2 billion of food every year.

Therefore, the 5th of Iyar takes on even more significance, as it is the day that the Heavenly “gates of dew and rain for blessing” can be opened. Miraculously, this has happened for Israel, which has been blessed with incredible abundance. We have seen Isaiah’s prophecy fulfilled before our eyes: “The wilderness and the parched land shall be glad; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice…” (Isaiah 35:1-2)

The realization of this prophecy is a sign that the rectifications are nearly complete. (For those who like numbers, the gematria of tal and matar is 288, that value which represents the totality of rectifications.) Ezekiel told us that Israel would first experience a horrible catastrophe, then return to the Holy Land “from the sword” and rebuild a prosperous state:

in the End of Years you shall come against the land that is brought back from the sword, that is gathered out of many peoples, against the mountains of Israel, which have been a continual waste; but it is brought forth out of the peoples, and they dwell safely all of them… to turn your hand against the waste places that are now inhabited, and against the people that are gathered out of the nations, that have gotten cattle and goods, that dwell in the middle of the earth. (Ezekiel 38:8-12)

In his Ma’amar HaGeulah, “Discourse on the Redemption”, the Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, 1707-1746) explains that there are two stages to the Redemption: Pekidah and Zechirah (see ch. 20-22). The first stage (Pekidah) will be a long process, and will involve the rectifications of the body and the material realm. The second stage (Zechirah) will be quick and involve spiritual rectifications. Fittingly, the Ramchal says that the first stage is in the sefirah of Tiferet, and the second in Yesod, once again showing us the importance of Yesod sh’b’Tiferet in the process of Redemption.

One of the Ramchal’s primary sources is a well-known passage in the Zohar (Ma’amar Derakh Kokhav miYaakov in Zohar Chadash on Balak), where it says that the preparatory period before Mashiach, or the “birth pangs” of the messiah, will take 70 years (partly based on Psalm 20, which has 70 words). This 70-year period corresponds to the lengthy phase of Pekidah, the first stage of Redemption, rectifying the material realm. We should be especially mindful of this as the State of Israel turns 72 this week. The stage is set.

Yom Ha‘Atzmaut Sameach!