I have always found it difficult to find an observance of Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut that feels meaningful and authentic as a Jew living in the Diaspora.  In Israel, the observance of these holidays is effortless and all-encompassing: you simply have to be present and you are in it, flowing from the intensity of Yom HaZikaron to the joy of Yom Ha’Atzma’ut.  It’s the music on the radio, it’s the tzfirah (siren) in the streets that brings everything to a halt in a moment of silence, it’s the communal get-togethers on Yom Ha’Atzma’ut.  In America, I feel far from all of these observances.  In my home, on these days, we tune into Israeli radio, we stop for the tzfirah, we try to make that tricky transition from grief to joy as Israel moves from a spirit of mourning to celebration.  But, I am distant.  Short of a couple of pieces of liturgy on Yom HaZikaron and hallel and a special Haftarah for Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, there is little to mark these days outside of Israel.  If I’m honest, my observance of these days in the past has felt shallow, like a well-meaning observer trying on someone else’s clothes, copying someone else’s rituals, in an effort to feel close.  (continued below)

This year, Yom HaZikaron seems too overwhelming to face.  It won’t be mostly about memory of past events, but about being mentally flooded with events unfolding before us.  Still burning in my brain are the images and thoughts of the horrifying Simhat Torah massacre, the hundreds of hostages, and the fallen and injured Israeli soldiers.  There’s almost never a moment when my mind is not burdened down by this.  As sad and terrible as war is, I think about Avraham (in Bereishit Rabbah 44:4), who went to wage war for even one single captive.  And I also think of the midrash which teaches us that in taking up arms to rescue the captive, he also prayed to God because he did not want to have killed any innocent people.  So as crippling as everything is already, my heart is also burdened down by the staggering loss of Palestinian lives.


And with all of that, I’m still here in the Diaspora, at a tremendous distance from it all.  I’m both under the avalanche of horrifying news, and yet also removed from it all in the safety of my own home.  


So how do I as a Jew living in the Diaspora participate in these holidays in a way that feels close and authentic and real?  Are these my holidays to observe and celebrate or, are they Israeli holidays from which I will always feel a step removed as someone living outside of Israel?  And, for those of us for whom these holidays may feel more complicated in light of the current war or for any number of reasons, how do we mourn and celebrate alongside our community in the context of the devastation in Gaza and shattering loss of life?


Distance is built into the very beginnings of our relationship with the Land of Israel.  Moshe, who led the people through the wilderness for 40 years with the explicit purpose of getting them—and presumably himself—to the Land of Israel, never set foot in the land.  Denied entry by God supposedly for striking the rock back in Bemidbar (20:8-11), Moshe climbs up on Mount Nebo in the very last moment of his life.


דברים לא:א-ד

וַיַּעַל מֹשֶׁה מֵעַרְבֹת מוֹאָב אֶל־הַר נְבוֹ רֹאשׁ הַפִּסְגָּה אֲשֶׁר עַל־פְּנֵי יְרֵחוֹ וַיַּרְאֵהוּ ה׳ אֶת־כָּל־הָאָרֶץ אֶת־הַגִּלְעָד עַד־דָּן׃ וְאֵת כָּל־נַפְתָּלִי וְאֶת־אֶרֶץ אֶפְרַיִם וּמְנַשֶּׁה וְאֵת כָּל־אֶרֶץ יְהוּדָה עַד הַיָּם הָאַחֲרוֹן׃ וְאֶת־הַנֶּגֶב וְאֶת־הַכִּכָּר בִּקְעַת יְרֵחוֹ עִיר הַתְּמָרִים עַד־צֹעַר׃ וַיֹּאמֶר ה׳ אֵלָיו זֹאת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב לֵאמֹר לְזַרְעֲךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה הֶרְאִיתִיךָ בְעֵינֶיךָ וְשָׁמָּה לֹא תַעֲבֹר׃


Deuteronomy 34:1-4

Moshe went up from the steppes of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the summit of Pisgah, opposite Jericho, and God showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan; all Naphtali; the land of Ephraim and Manasseh; the whole land of Judah as far as the Western Sea; the Negeb; and the Plain—the Valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar.  And God said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’akov, ‘I will assign it to your offspring.’  I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there.”


God shows Moshe the land but God reinforces that Moshe’s relationship to Israel must be one defined by distance.  He can see it but not enter into it.  It is central to his identity and to his purpose, and yet he will remain one step removed from it.  It is of note that the Hebrew reads that God makes Moshe look at the land; Moshe doesn’t seem to look of his own accord.  Surely, it is difficult for Moshe to look upon a land that has been his North Star for so many years—yet a land to which he is forbidden to enter.  Perhaps, it is too painful to be so close and so far?  Perhaps, looking at it will bring up feelings of anger, resentment, sadness, disappointment.  But, God shows it to him and he looks.  I wonder what he feels when he looks at Eretz Yisrael.


Yosef’s relationship to Eretz Yisrael is also a complicated one defined by distance.  Canaan is the place of his birth, and it is also a place of brutality and betrayal at the hands of his brothers: it is the place of his father and it is also the place of his abandonment.  He ultimately builds a life for himself in Egypt.  It is in Egypt that Yosef finds success.  It is in Egypt where he becomes indispensable to Pharoah, responsible for ensuring food for an entire people during a famine, gets married and is blessed to father children and grandchildren.  Yet, he chooses not to be buried in Egypt.  Before his death, he asks that his brothers take his bones with them on their journey and bury them in the land promised to Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’akov (Genesis 50:24-26).


Eretz Yisrael is not really his land.  It hasn’t been home to him for many years.  It’s a complicated place for him.  But, it’s the place of his people.  It’s the place where he personally helped to bury his father Ya’akov alongside his great grandfather Avraham.  And, it’s the place that will be the focal point for his people for generations to come, even beyond his death.  Despite a geographic—and perhaps emotional—distance, he feels a pull to the Land of Israel and recognizes the land’s pull on him.


The experience of observing Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, Israel’s holidays of mourning and celebration, cannot be in the Diaspora anything remotely close to what it is like to experience these holidays in Israel.  And for some with more complicated relationships to Israel and perhaps specifically these holidays, they might not want the experience of observing them in the Diaspora to parallel their observance in Israel.  


What Moshe and Yosef have taught us is that one can be at a distance from Israel and still be closely connected.1  One can have a nuanced—and even complicated—relationship with Israel and still consider it a home.  A person can choose to make their life outside of Israel and still recognize it as the place of their people.  Perhaps, for those of us in the Diaspora, we cannot experience these days as we might were we living in Israel.  It is not permeating the very air, the sounds that we hear, each interaction on the street.  But, even for us in the Diaspora, Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut are still our holidays and, to some extent, they are an open canvas for us to create our own rituals, our own practices, to find our way in.  Maybe we listen to Israeli songs on the radio and pause for the tzfirah—or maybe we don’t.  Maybe instead we find our own ways in: we read books about Israel’s history, we listen to podcasts about the land’s people, we act in the places where we live in a way that makes us feel connected to the people and Land of Israel.  We don’t have to enact pale imitations of these holidays and try to recreate them in America.  They are a part of us like the land was a part of Moshe and Yosef; we get to find our own way in.


Even in our distance, may we find a way to feel close, looking on Israel and all of its inhabitants with love and compassion.

1. I am deeply grateful to my havruta and colleague, R. Effy Unterman at Hadar, for pointing me toward Moshe and Yosef as examples of what it means to be in relationship to Israel at a distance.