Yosef and Yom HaAtzamut: On Chesed and Interdepence

This is a very busy time of year. A two months ago we celebrated Purim, a month later Pesach, last week we had Yom HaShoah, today we commemorated Yom HaZikaron, tonight we celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, and then in few weeks we will celebrate Shavuot. Between the slavery and genocide of our ancestors Yom HaShoah, Purim, and Pesach represent the nadir of our history. And the reception of the Torah centuries ago and founding of the modern state of Israel are the zenith of our existence. I wanted to pause for a moment in preparation for Yom HaAtzmaut to reflect on this modern experience during our current crisis.

Before I get to that I need to confess some sadness that I have been carrying for that last few weeks while in COVID-19 social isolation. Over the last 20 years when I can I volunteer in the local chevra kadisha. Preparing a body for burial is a Chesed Shel Emet –  “Charity of True Loving Kindness”. This is an activity in which the recipient of the Chesed by design cannot repay the debt. The dead person is completely dependent on the Chesed of others. We have had to suspend our activity during this plague due to the risk to the volunteers.

When I think about the obligation to take care of a  corpse I think about Yosef at the end of his life. There we read:

So Yosef made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up atzmotai- my bones from here.” (Genesis 50:25)

Yosef was not asking for a random act of chesed. Despite having been sold by his brothers into slavery, when they showed up in Egypt to escape the famine in Canaan, Yosef helped them without stipulation or retribution. Yosef is the model of Chesed to his brothers. And in the end he was not asking for anything in return, but to return his bones back to his ancestral home.

In this context Yosef’s bones unlock a profound understanding of Yom HaAtzmaut. Atzmaut – independence shares the same root with atzem-bone. On Yom HaZikaron we commemorate the sacrifices, like those of Yosef, made for our nation. This day we celebrate our brother’s long awaited return home. This day we celebrate repaying one Chesed with another. Yosef’s long aspiration to have his atzmot bones returned home are echoed in the Hatikvah. There we read:

Our hope is not yet lost,
The two-thousand-year-old hope,
To be a free nation in our land.

As much as Yom HaAtzaut is the acme of being Jewish in our expression of independence from nations who have put us in slavery or wanted to kill us, it is also an expression of our interdependence between brethren over thousands of years of hope.

As for now I stand in awe of our doctors and nurses who are doing real Chesed by working on the front line of COVID-19. Here is a picture from the Boston Globe of my brother who is doctor at BMC who is also a proud member of his chevrah Kadisha in Boston.

Boston Medical Center patient Candace Samayoa waved goodbye to nurses as she was being released from the hospital. Samayoa had been admitted to BMC two weeks earlier after testing positive for COVID-19.

I am sad that in social isolation I cannot do a Chesed shel Emet. I feel independent and cut off. More then in years past I yearn to be interdependent and connected with my family, local community, and nation. Have a great great Yom HaAtzmaut. Stay safe and connected.

-Inspired by Yishama’s Bar Mitzvah speech

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