Every year on Yom ha-Shoah and Yom ha-Zikaron a siren is sounded, bringing life — and traffic — to a halt. The entire State of Israel pauses for a few moments to remember those who lost their lives in the Holocaust, and those who made the ultimate sacrifice defending our land, or were murdered by acts of terror.
Some, however, question if sounding a siren, or taking a moment of silence, is a ‘Jewish practice.’ Citing the verse, “And do not follow their traditions” (Lev. 18:3), they suggest that this ‘modern innovation’ violates the Biblical prohibition of “imitating the gentiles,” and has no place in Judaism. Some will instead use the opportunity to recite Psalms, while others defiantly make noise during those brief moments of reflection, intentionally disrupting this sacred space in time.
But upon careful examination, the prohibition of “imitating the gentiles” applies only to practices that have their root in idolatry. A practice observed by gentiles that has a rational, reasonable explanation is permissible (See Rema, Yoreh De’ah 178:1).
Many conveniently forget that Judaism itself does indeed have a ‘siren.’ The Shofar, or ram’s horn we blast on Rosh ha-Shana, along with silver trumpets, were also sounded when the Jewish Nation went off to war, as well as in times of great distress (See Rambam, Laws of Fasts 1:1,4). The primitive, primal scream of the Shofar and trumpets cause the Jewish Nation to stop dead in their tracks and turn inwards in repentance and prayer, silencing them.
A moment of silence too is no modern innovation. Silence is an integral part of the process of grief and mourning in Judaism. When the two sons of Aaron the High Priest die, what is his response? “And Aaron was silent” (Lev. 10:3). Silence. Paralysis. Stillness. Aaron finds solace in his silence, and is indeed praised for the way he responds (Zevahim 115b). The prophet Ezekiel is told “be silent from mourning” (Ezek. 24:17) after his beloved dies, which represents that the destruction of the Temple is beyond consolation. And following the death of Job’s family, his friends sit with him for seven days in silence (Job 2:13).
Silence provides the mourner with the space he needs to reflect.
In fact, Jewish Law teaches that one who enters the home of a mourner is not to speak until he is first acknowledged by one of the mourners (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 376:1). One must instead sit quietly and respect the silence.
Sometimes God Himself speaks to us through silence. When the Jewish People stand together at Mt. Sinai, they witness thunder and lightning, fire and smoke, and hear the blast of the Shofar (Ex. 19:16-19). But many years later, when Elijah the prophet stands on the very same mountain, the experience is drastically different:
And He said: ‘Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord.’ And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a small, still voice.”
(I Kings 19:11-12)
This time, God was not found in the strong wind or earthquake or fire, but in a small, still voice, choosing to communicate instead in this subtle, yet sublime way.
Our tradition teaches the power and beauty in taking time to pause and reflect. To seek out God in the “small, still voice.” Those few precious moments when the siren is sounded on Yom ha-Shoah and Yom ha-Zikaron give us time to reflect on all we have lost and all we have gained.
To me, there is nothing more Jewish than that.