In Israel when you think of Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut) you think barbecue. Unlike the U.S., Israel observes a six day work week with Sunday being a regular day. Banks are open, mail is delivered and children go to school. It should be no surprise that when we are given a day off, Israelis en masse will head to any open space, plunk down a grill and barbecue. What many Americans will do every Sunday all summer long has become almost a religious ritual here to celebrate our independence.
But that is not all. Each year on Independence Day you can watch on TV the finals of the International Bible Contest. When the State of Israel was founded in 1948, David Ben Gurion our first Prime Minister initiated the first contest which was primarily for adults and secondarily for high school students. Eventually the adult contest was pre-empted by the high school contest.
Throughout the year, Jewish communities in various countries such as the U.S., Canada and Australia will hold their own domestic Bible contests and the national winner will compete in the International Bible contest in Jerusalem held on Independence Day. The final contest covers approximately 400 chapters from the Bible and is sponsored by the State of Israel.
While Jews have excelled in many areas, at the end of the day we are still known as the people of the Book. That book of course is the Bible. The fact that the Bible is celebrated with this wonderful international contest for Jewish high school students says worlds about the values of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. We have an expression in Jewish tradition that “Studying the Torah is equal to all the commandments.” In other words, if you would take all the commandments derived from the Bible, and we have lots of them---613 to be exact----and place 612 of them on one side of the scale, the one command to study the Bible would equal them all.
Why is this true? Why is it so important to study the Bible? Admittedly it is important but is it really that critical that it would equal all of the commandments?
Here is where we need to broaden our understanding. It is not so much that studying the Bible in and of itself outweighs everything else. It is that studying the Bible is the gateway to everything else. When you study God’s word and you learn about the importance placed upon helping the widow and the orphan, you must activate that and go out and help. When you learn that you must pay your workers in a timely fashion, you then go and pay your workers in a timely fashion. When you learn about the Sabbath and the Festivals, you incorporate them into your life. Being a people of the Book requires us to live by that book and bring its light to the world as we are told to be a light unto the nations.
Every Israeli soldier when they are sworn in to the army is given a gun in one hand and a Bible in the other. The Bible is instructions for life including how we conduct ourselves on the battlefield. It is not just a book that we read, it is called ‘The Living Torah’ because it is very much alive in our behavior. Colonel Richard Kemp, British Army office had this to say in his testimony to the U.N. in 2009. “Based on my knowledge and experience, I can say this: During Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli Defense Forces did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare.” Our army’s morality comes from the Bible placed in the soldier’s hand when he is sworn in.
With millions of other Israelis I celebrated Independence Day with a wonderful, tasty barbecue. So much has been accomplished here in a short 65 years and we have much to be proud of. More importantly though was when I later took out a Bible and sat with my children studying it hoping that one day they would be able to compete in the International Bible contest. Now that is how you celebrate!