Hebrew Liberation of the Land

(by Yehuda HaKohen)

Between Israel's slavery in Egypt and the final Redemption in Jerusalem, the story of the Exodus continues throughout time. In every generation we find challenges and heroes in our unbroken struggle for complete liberation as we inch ever closer towards history's goal.

The festival of Pesach is the holiday of Israel's initial emancipation, marking the birth of the Hebrew Nation and HaShem's great love for us. It was on this day that G-D took Israel out from Egyptian slavery in order that we become His national expression in this world. We were brought from subjugation to freedom in order that we establish the holy Kingdom meant to bless humanity with the light of His Truth – a light which can only be illuminated through Israel existing as a sovereign and independent national entity over the entirety of our ancestral homeland. It is therefore precisely on Pesach – on the birthday of the Hebrew Nation – that we must educate ourselves to the true value of freedom.

Rashi teaches that the miracles of the Exodus began on the tenth of Nisan, the Sabbath directly preceding Pesach. It was on this great Sabbath that Israel overcame our fears and liberated ourselves from psychological slavery. Each household sacrificed a lamb, the national deity of Egypt, and displayed it defiantly for all the gentiles to see. Although the Egyptians would naturally seek to punish their Hebrew slaves for such an offense, the Children of Israel were miraculously unharmed. This was therefore the day on which the miracles of Redemption truly began and when Hebrew courage was first demonstrated after so many years of persecution.

On Pesach of 5707 (1947), the last year of British occupation over our homeland, an important seder took place in the Jerusalem central prison. A few days before their scheduled executions by the foreign regime, six young men were conducting the Pesach seder with Rabbi Yaakov Goldman. They were Dov Gruner, Mordechai Alkahi, Yehiel Drezner, Eliezer Kashani and Meir Feinstein from the Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organization) and Moshe Barazani from the Lohamei Herut Yisrael (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel). Dressed in their red death row jumpsuits, these boys were provided with haggadot and food so that they could sit together and celebrate the holiday of Israeli freedom for the last time.

The young men eventually arrived at the part of the haggadah which relates Rabbi Akiva and other Sages discussing the Exodus from Egypt all night in B'nei Brak. When dawn broke, their students came to inform them that it was time for the morning prayers – it was time to say "Shema Yisrael."

The Jewish prisoners sitting around the table discussed where these rabbis might have been that they could not see the light of day in order to know the time. It is well known that these rabbis had supported the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Roman Empire and that Rabbi Akiva had even served as Bar Kokhba's personal arms bearer. Acting as the spiritual leader of the insurrection, Rabbi Akiva had gone so far as to proclaim Bar Kokhba the Messiah. These rabbis must have been hiding in caves from where they were organizing the revolt. They were discussing the Exodus – the importance of freedom and independence for the Hebrew Nation – all night long and when dawn broke, their students came to tell them that it was time for "Shema Yisrael" – time to sanctify G-D's holy Name through liberating the Land of Israel from foreign rule.

Nearly two thousand years later, these six boys – Jewish freedom fighters captured and sentenced to death – were reading the story of the rabbis in B'nei Brak. Dov Gruner said to the others, "It is a shame that the Jewish Agency does not learn what Rabbi Akiva said, that if the Egyptians had not received fifty makot (strikes) and another two hundred and fifty makot at the sea, they would never have granted the Hebrews their freedom. If Rabbi Akiva understood that in order to become free, there had to be makot, then why is it so difficult for Israel to understand now that we must give makot to the British in order to win our freedom?"

Dov Gruner, who was scheduled to be executed by the British authorities, understood the teachings of Rabbi Akiva, who had been brutally and publicly executed by Rome. Now, after nearly two thousand years of terrible degradation, the students of Rabbi Akiva had at long last arrived. The students that history had been waiting for had arrived to proclaim that dawn was finally braking. The students – all dressed in red and eating a prison seder only days before their executions by a modern incarnation of Rome – had arrived to reestablish a sovereign Hebrew state on the foundation of their sacrifice. These were students who walked in the path of Rabbi Akiva, knowing that it was their final Pesach seder before singing HaTikvah and mounting the gallows. And without fear or regret, they wondered why the Jewish leaders of their generation had not understood the teachings of Rabbi Akiva.

Prior to his execution, Dov Gruner wrote a farewell letter to his commander, Menachem Begin:

From the bottom of my heart I thank you for the encouragement which you have given me during these fateful days. Be assured that whatever happens I shall not forget the principles of pride, generosity and firmness. I shall know how to uphold my honor, the honor of a Jewish soldier and fighter.

"I could have written in high-sounding phrases something like the old Roman `Duce est pro patria mori,' but words are cheap, and skeptics can say `After all, he had no choice.' And they might even be right. Of course I want to live. Who does not? But what pains me, now that the end is so near, is mainly the awareness that I have not succeeded in achieving enough. I too could have said: `Let the future take care of the future' while enjoying life and being content with the job I was promised upon my demobilization. I could even have left the country altogether for a safer life in America. But this would not have satisfied me, neither as a Jew nor a Zionist.

"There are many schools of thought as to how a Jew should choose his way of life. One way is that of the assimilationists who have renounced their Jewishness. There is also another way, the way of those who call themselves `Zionists' - the way of negotiation and compromise, as if the existence of a nation were but another transaction. They are not prepared to make any sacrifice and are therefore forced to make concessions and accept compromise. Perhaps this is a means of delaying the end but, in the final analysis, it leads to the ghetto. And let us not forget that in the ghetto of Warsaw alone there were five hundred thousand Jews.

"The only way that seems, to my mind, to be right, is the way of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, the way of courage and daring without renouncing a single inch of our homeland. When political negations prove futile, one must be prepared to fight for our country and our freedom. Without them the very existence of our nation is jeopardized, so fight we must with all possible means. This is the only way left to our people in their hour of decision: to stand on our rights, to be ready to fight, even if for some of us this way leads to the gallows. For it is a law of history that only with blood shall a country be redeemed. I am writing this while awaiting the hangman. This is not a moment at which I can lie, and I swear that if I had to begin my life anew I would have chosen the same path, regardless of the consequences.
Your faithful soldier,

Dov Gruner fully internalized the message of Rabbi Akiva. He understood that resistance to foreign tyranny and the struggle for Jewish freedom in Eretz Yisrael is the highest and truest service to HaShem. After receiving Gruner's letter, Menachem Begin wrote:

"Great is the courage in Israel at a time of destruction and in this time of resurrection. We will be proud of them all and in all of them we will recognize holiness. But in the ladder of Jewish heroism, there is one level which is supreme. And from that level arise those who are Harugei Malchut. They were fighters whose fighting was not passive. It was active. They were revolutionaries whose revolution was not without choice but initiated. They went to the gallows and their heroism was not once. It is eternal. From their bleeding hearts, a song of freedom was sung. The song that sang how there is no purpose in being slaves anymore and that liberty would win and justice would arrive. And now, G-D of Israel, I tell You: Because You have given Israel such children as these, I say `Yitgadal V'Yitkadash Sh'mei Rabbah.'"

Menachem Begin says "Yitgadal V'Yitkadash Sh'mei Rabbah" – "May His Great Name be exalted and sanctified." The evidence that G-D's Name is exalted and sanctified is that Israel has sons who are prepared to give their lives for the freedom of their people – boys ready to sacrifice themselves on the alter of Redemption so that the next generation will see a Hebrew flag over Jerusalem.

The famous tzadik of Jerusalem, Rabbi Aryeh Levine, came to see Yehiel Drezner before he was taken to the gallows. When Drezner asked the sage for help with the confessional prayer before death, Rabbi Levine began to cry. He told the young fighter not to worry about death and that the confessional prayer would not be necessary.

And dawn broke. The British retreated from Eretz Yisrael shortly after the execution of these courageous boys. A flag of Jewish independence once again soared over portions of our homeland, initiating the first flowering of Israel's Redemption.

The Talmud (Brachot 20a) asks why Israel experienced less open miracles in Talmudic times than in Biblical times. The Sages question if it might be because the Jewish people in Talmudic times were less immersed in the study of Torah. But the Talmud dismisses this and answers that it can be proven that there were Biblical generations that studied less Torah but still experienced greater miracles. The Talmud continues by revealing that the difference is not due to a distinction in learning but rather to a distinction in self-sacrifice for the Hebrew mission. Israelis in Biblical times were more willing to give up their lives for the sanctification of G-D's Name.

The Talmud therefore concludes that miracles are a result of courage and selfless devotion.

When Israel is ready to meet HaShem half way, we are rewarded with assistance and great Divine kindness.

So dawn breaks not when Rabbi Akiva has students who simply study the Torah but rather when he has students willing to give their lives for Israel's national liberation.

These young boys in prison understood what the haggadah means when it proclaims that next year we will be free men. In blood and fire Judea fell and in blood and fire it shall again rise. The haggadah is not simply a book that teaches Jews what took place once upon a time in Egypt. Nor is it merely an instruction manual for conducting a proper seder. The haggadah in every generation is meant to teach the Nation of Israel how to liberate our people and to understand the basic laws of our freedom. The valiant martyrs of the pre-state Zionist underground were not simply fighters. They were educators – educators for a generation who did not yet understand the true meaning of freedom. And when the Jewish Nation will understand the significance and value of freedom, there will no longer be any need for such martyrs.

The lesson is clear. Freedom is a miracle and miracles require valor. It is the destiny of history that Israel be the world's next cultural leader – a holy Kingdom that will bring blessing and prosperity to all of humanity by revolutionizing the thinking of man and liberating the world from profane cultures and false dogmas. But in order to accomplish this lofty mission we must first psychologically liberate ourselves, as did our ancestors on the tenth of Nisan back in Egypt. The sooner we believe in ourselves and in our ability to stand proud as a strong moral force among nations, the closer we will come to a swift and miraculous Redemption – a Redemption without suffering that will bring glory to G-D's Name and ultimate peace to all humankind.

Chag Kasher v'Sameach.

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