Those legendary words, attributed to Yosef Trumpeldor as he fell in defense of Tel Chai in March 1920, are intricately connected to the establishment of the State and to Yom Hazikaron. Whether he actually uttered them or not – a point for debate – this phrase became a mantra for the fighters who would achieve statehood. However, Yosef, I have to differ, I have to adjust that slightly. I think you will agree.
Another Yom Hazikaron, and it doesn’t get any easier. Especially after a year like we just had, but then again, we seem to say that that many a year, don’t we?
The sadness felt is on three levels. The first is the national level, the entire nation bowing its head in respect, the somber mood and attitude. We all feel that.
The next level is the personal, non-intimate level: the close friends who are gone. This level hits me hardest, as one who served in a combat unit in both the regular IDF and the reserves, and one who has made his life here. I see my friends who are no longer with us. I see their brilliant smiles, their exhausted faces, their triumphant looks and their frustrated expressions. I see my brothers-in-arms who gave the ultimate sacrifice, and I simply miss them. Like the biblical story of David and Jonathan, the deep connection between soldiers, comrades in battle, is not easily understood or explained, and is rarely replicated in the normal world.
The deepest level, of course, is the families and loved ones. To the vast majority of us, thankfully, this is not comprehendible. How terrible it is when a parent buries a child. How unthinkably awful when a boy or girl is killed on the altar of our country. Mind-numbingly painful.
Which brings me around to Yosef, mumbling out his final words in 1920, about being good to die for your country, and to the glory that this phrase attained in the annals of our history. For years during and after my army service, that got me angry. NO! I would want to shout. It is not good! How can you call that good?? My friends did not want to die! I know they didn’t, so stop claiming that it is a good thing! My army buddies, my childhood friends, did not want to be buried at such a young age, their lives before them.
I understood on a rational level that the spirit that phrase imbued into the fighters decades ago was necessary, but I didn’t like it; it felt cheap, a phrase used by those who didn’t understand the situation and were erroneously trying to speak for those who could no longer talk. Why die for your country? As General Patton said: One doesn’t win a war by dying for your country, one wins a war by getting the other guy to die for his country. I learned that there is a high likelihood that Trumpeldor didn’t even say it, and the phrase became even more difficult in my eyes.
I missed my friends, and I knew they didn’t want to die. Simple as that.
It took me a while to finally come to terms with, and adjust what Yosef said, to something that works for me. To something that I can not only swallow, but use to educate as a tour guide. To something that I can teach my students on Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim (TRY), as we tour the country, learn its complex history, and grapple with its dilemmas. To something that, as Director of Jewish and Israel Studies at Ramah Israel in Jerusalem, I can use to teach the future generation of leaders of the Jewish world.
Not good to die for our country.
Good to have a country worth dying for.
How incredible it is to have a country worth putting our lives down on the line for.
How awesome it is, after so many centuries of powerlessness, of inability to control our destiny, of pogroms, persecutions and Shoah, that we are living in a generation and in a place that we have this blessing.
How inspiring it is that for the first time in millennia, we can don the green of a Jewish army, of the IDF, and protect ourselves, that we can proudly shoulder the yolk of the responsibility of the security of our families, to make sure that never again will our existence be threatened.
How magnificent it is that we are living in the Jewish State, with all of its problems, and that we are able to make a choice to value that country high enough that it is worth endangering ourselves.
How good it is to have a country worth dying for!
May these words comfort us on this sad day, and make it meaningful for all of us.