For us Jews, independence has a different meaning, for us, it is the hard-won freedom to be left alone to define who we are and to chart our own destiny
Tonight is the eve of Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s Day of Independence. In one instant, the country is transported from sorrowful contemplation of the price of independence to boisterous celebration thereof. I find it rather interesting to note the very different roots of the English and Hebrew words for independence. In English, the meaning clearly has a lot to do with freedom, with the lack of need to depend on any one or any thing and hence being free to chart one’s own destiny.
In Hebrew, the root of the word for independence is different. It has to do with self, “etzem”. The literal translation of the word atzmaut is thus more about a different kind of freedom, the freedom to be true to oneself, to one’s origins, religion, ethnicity, rather than being independent of others. The Hebrew word for independence is self-contained, it does not reference any one or any thing else. There is a closer coinage in Hebrew to the English independence, but when the word for independence, which does not appear in the ancient sources, was created in the early days of the Zionist movement, atzmaut won the day.
To me, there is something telling about this rather unique choice. It speaks of a yearning to be free not only financially or militarily, but above all to have the freedom to define one’s own identity without reference to any external sources, to anyone else’s opinions. The word atzmaut brings us back to Balaam’s half observation half curse on the Israelites when he looked down on their encampment on the eastern shore of the River Jordan, just before they set out to conquer Canaan. “These people,” he said, “this nation, will always dwell alone and will never mingle with other nations of the world.”
Jews have paid an unspeakable price over two long millennia for the right to do precisely that; to be self-referential, exclusive, unwelcoming to others except on a carefully vetted case by case basis. Earlier today, we remembered over twenty four thousand that gave their lives for that privilege since 1948 alone. A week ago, we wept over the six million that were slaughtered only because they wanted to mind their own business as Jews.
It is a hard choice, this aloneness and one easily confused with aloofness. It is also a choice that every Jew must positively affirmatively make should he wish to remain Jewish. The default is to mingle, intermarry, assimilate. Staying separate is the harder choice, but it is the essence of being Jewish.
What we celebrate today is that finally there is once again a place on our planet in which Jews can be separate together. A place where they can continue charting their unique course through human history on their own terms without asking anyone’s permission, approval, or even opinion. That, my friends, is what true independence is all about.
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