My friends never quite believe me when I say that I have always liked math. Much to their chagrin, I usually point out that when it comes to math, when you know what you are looking at, there are no questions left when you are done. No matter how complicated the equation, it always adds up. In the past four months living in Israel, I have found that while this place will often astound me at a first glance, more often than not things tend to add up in one way or another.
There are a number of aspects of Israeli culture, society, and calendar that provoke my questioning mind from the second I encounter them. One prime example of this comes this week in which we celebrate both Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) and Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Independence Day) in a 48-hour period. For all the explanations in the world, it has always seemed bizarre to me that these two days are juxtaposed together on the calendar. I have struggled with the juxtaposition of these two holidays for years, but only recently have I considered drawing wisdom from the weekly Torah portion to address my questions.
This week, in Parshat Shemini, we read about yet another setback in the desert for the Israelites. When the children of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, offer up a sacrifice that they were not commanded to perform, they are consumed by fire on the spot. At first glance it might even feel like on the most abridged level, the final two thirds of the Torah are almost entirely composed of either God delivering laws, or things going poorly for the Hebrews crossing the desert! Consider that after the Exodus from Egypt, the Hebrews experience the assault of Amalek and the Golden Calf, leprosy descends on the community, Korach tries to usurp leadership from Moshe and Aaron, and Moshe hits the rock instead of talking to it. There are positive and transformative events that happen in the Torah after the Exodus, but it is clear that the deaths of Nadav and Avihu are links in a chain of challenges that Israel faces in the desert.
So why does it matter that the Israelites faced such adversity in the desert? The rabbis offer many answers to this question, and to theirs I add one of my own. On one hand, each event that they experienced brought its own lessons and values. However, I would argue that the collective experience of struggling in the desert (and even in Egypt beforehand) is essential to the culmination of the story of the Torah in the entrance to Eretz Yisrael. The people of Israel could only fully appreciate the land and all it had to offer in the light of the adversity they faced getting there.
I see a similar equation in our holidays of Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’Atzmaut. Yom Ha’Atzmaut in its own right ought to be a day of joy and celebration in Israel. The fact that there is a Jewish state in the modern world is an amazing truth that we should be proud of. However, we must not forget all of the adversity our predecessors faced in putting Israel on the map. We must remember all of the sacrifice and all of the hardship Israel has faced, and yes, we also need to acknowledge the issues and mistakes Israel has made. Once we come to terms with the mourning of Yom HaZikaron, the euphoria of Yom Ha’Atzmaut will only be greater. The calculus of our calendar during this time of year is admittedly a bit tricky, but in a way it all adds up in the end.