Don't Just Sing Am Yisrael Chai, Live It!

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When the Jews of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp were liberated on April 20th 1945, they sang Hatikvah. At the end of the anthem, British Army Chaplain Rabbi Leslie Hardman, cried out, “Am Yisrael Chai – the People of Israel live!”


When Golda Meir visited the Great Synagogue in Moscow as the Israeli Ambassador in 1948, the crowd of 50,000 ecstatically welcomed her with shouts of “Am Yisrael Chai!”


In 1965, in order to energize the Soviet Jewry movement, Shlomo Carlebach was asked to compose a song. He wrote the famous version of Am Yisrael Chai.


In 2009, Prime Minister Netanyahu visited Wannsee Villa in Berlin, where the Final Solution for the destruction of Europe's Jews was planned in 1942 by Hitler and leaders of the Third Reich. In the visitors' book he wrote just three words in Hebrew and then translated them into English: “Am Yisrael Chai – The people of Israel live.”


As a slogan, Am Yisrael Chai affirms that despite the systematic attempts to exterminate and annihilate the Jewish people, thanks to God’s guiding hand and the tenacity and resilience of the Jewish People, we stubbornly persevere. God has made an eternal covenant with the Jewish People; He has their back.


Am Yisrael Chai is also a tefilla, a longing for a united Jewish people living together in safety, security and with unity and harmony.


Explaining the words “I will take you to Me as an “עם”, a people (Shemos 6:7), Rav Soloveitchik writes:

The political-historical unity as a nation is based on the conclusion of the covenant in Mitzrayim, which occurred even prior to the giving of the Torah at Sinai.  This covenant forced upon us all one uniform historical fate. The Hebrew word עם Am, nation, is identical to the Hebrew word עם Im, with. Our fate of unity manifests itself through a historical indispensable union…No Jew can renounce his part of the unity…Religious Jews or irreligious Jews, all are included in one nation, which stands lonesome and in misery in a large and often antagonistic world…

In the ashes of the crematoria, the ashes of the Chasidim and pious Jews were put together with the ashes of the radicals and the atheists. And we all must fight the enemy, who does not differentiate between those who believe in God and those who reject Him.


The secret to a strong Am Yisrael is a sense of Im Yisrael, being in it together, united, loyal, giving one another the benefit of the doubt and judging each other favorably.

The Torah relates that at the end of the first day of creation, ויהי ערב ויהי בוקר, יום אחד – “It was evening and it was morning; the first day” (1:5).  Rav Zev of Strikov advances a beautiful chassidic reading of this pasukערב (evening) represents the gloom of exile, periods when we are thrust into “darkness,” struggling, suffering, and in distress.  בוקר (morning), then, symbolizes the “light” of the redemption, the joy of salvation.  The way we proceed from ערב to בוקר, from the darkness of suffering to the light of redemption, is יום אחד – having days of oneness, days of achdus, unity, togetherness. 

This is a major gut check moment for those who live outside of Israel.  Do we feel connected to the plight of our brothers and sisters there? Are we in profound pain by the events unfolding?  Are our lives severely interrupted and different while this is going on? 

The Rambam (Hilchos Teshuva 3:11) writes that a person who vigilantly and righteously observes Jewish law, but separates himself from the Jewish People, has no portion in the World to Come.  How does he define separating from the people?  Someone who doesn’t identify with the tzarah, with the crisis and tragedy Jews are enduring, has no portion in the World to Come. 

There is so much we can and must be doing.  We are all called to serve in this war, our courageous and brave heroes on the front lines but also Jews and decent people everywhere in the world.  Daven, learn, send funds and supplies, text, call and check in on family and friends in Israel.  Rally, advocate, write letters in gratitude to elected officials and media who are getting it right, and stand up to and protest those who are grossly wrong.

As we recite in the beracha of יוצר אור each morning, עושה שלום ובורא את הכל (“Maker of peace and Creator of everything”) – once there is shalom, then there is “everything.”  If we are embroiled in conflict and strife, we will remain in darkness.  It is only when we transcend our differences and join together in mutual love and harmony that we can emerge from ערב to בוקר, from the darkness of exile to the light of redemption.

It must be clarified that unity does not mean uniformity.  We do not need to be the same, act the same, think the same, or hold the same opinions, in order to achieve the “light” of יום אחד.  We need simply to focus on all that we share in common – which far exceeds that about which we disagree – and build and strengthen our bonds of friendship despite our relatively few differences.

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, standing in Auschwitz-Birkenau at the March of the Living several years ago said, “We always knew how to die together. The time has come for us to know also how to live together.”

During this most difficult time, may the people of Israel learn to live with one another in harmony and unity. Am Yisrael Chai!