During the first decade of Israel’s statehood, the Knesset passed a series of laws establishing new holidays—days of commemoration or celebration—which were added to the national calendar: Holocaust Day (Yom Hashoah), Memorial Day (Yom Hazikaron), when fallen soldiers are remembered, and Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut).
These newly-consecrated days were placed in a deliberate sequence between Pesach and Shavuot, with the intent of undermining the traditional Jewish calendar. Instead of emphasizing, as the Passover Haggadah does, God’s “strong hand, and outstretched arm” (Ps. 136:12), and God’s giving of the Torah at Sinai, celebrated on Shavuot, a new narrative was created. This alternative narrative focused on the end of slavery and the fight for freedom, on the transition, accomplished by dint of human effort, from exile to independence.
The essence of the narrative was that no divine miracle had been carried out on our behalf, but we ourselves had struggled, taken action, and created a new society.
This narrative resonates deeply with me, and I identify with its central theme of the Jewish people’s taking responsibility for altering the course of its history. Slavery did indeed teach us to value and seek freedom, despite the heavy price–the great loss of life–this entailed. But I think the notion that the traditional narrative has nothing to teach us should be revisited.
Having put an end to the years of victimhood, we must remember the dangers of unbridled power. Perhaps a return to the timeline that culminates in Shavuot will revitalize our awareness of the ethical imperatives at the heart of the Jewish tradition, even if we believe that they were not given by God at Sinai, but rather formulated by humans, by prophets and sages who sought to inculcate the message that the power arising from nationhood must always be guided by moral purpose.
Dave Mendelsson is Director of the Year in Israel Program at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, Israel. Click here for a more extensive biography.