Behar Bechukotai


In the 1960s, Jews in the Western world had become aware of the struggle faced by Jewish people in the Soviet Union living under communist oppression. The campaign for Soviet Jewry was initially spearheaded by students and was then taken up by the mainstream community. In April 1965, the student leader, Jacob Birnbaum asked Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, one of the twentieth century’s most influential Jewish folk singers, to compose a song that would give hope and strength to the Russian Jews and be an inspiration to those in the West seeking to help them. In response, Rabbi Carlebach wrote “Am Yisrael Chai,” the People of Israel live!

It is a quintessential Carlebach song. Three simple words and a tune that can be repeated again and again without any loss of excitement. Am Yisrael Chai, Am Yisrael Chai, Am Yisrael, Am Yisrael, Am Yisrael Chai.

The song was first sung at the April rally outside the Soviet diplomatic buildings in New York. It became the anthem of Soviet Jewry’s struggle for emancipation and is still sung worldwide by the People of Israel as a rallying cry for Jewish life to continue and thrive.

The great Jewish rabbi and thinker, Rabbi J B Soloveitchik (d. 1993) points out that the word, Am or ‘people’ is connected to the word (spelled the same) Im, meaning ‘together’. It is togetherness that especially defines Jewish peoplehood. We feel a kinship with our people whoever and wherever they may be. Indeed this is expressed in halachic terms in the principle Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Bazeh, ‘All Jews are responsible one for another.’

Being part of Am Yisrael is not simply a privilege. It is also a responsibility that demands we feel that responsibility towards others as well.

Sadly, we have had to exercise that responsibility in the wake of the tragedy at Har Meron last week. We feel the pain of our brothers and sisters who lost 45 precious souls and the many more who were injured and even more who were traumatized by being there.

In the second of the two sidrot we read this week, G-d tells us: “I will walk among you and be your G-d, ve’atem tihyu lee l’Am, and you will be My people.” (Vayikra 26:12). We have embraced this peoplehood for thousands of years and have kept the light of Jewish life shining even under the most difficult of conditions. Am Yisrael Chai!