Today we mark Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers. Unlike in the US, Memorial Day here is what it should be: a somber, reflective day when we collectively remember the Israeli men and women who paid the ultimate price and sacrificed their lives for our freedom. We also remember the hundreds of innocent civilians who were murdered in terrorist attacks on our country’s soil.
The current period in the Israeli calendar is as difficult and emotional as there is all year. There’s the high of celebrating Pesach, the holiday of freedom and redemption followed just six days later by Yom HaZikaron L’Shoah v’L’Gvura, Holocaust Memorial Day. A week later follows Yom HaZikaron, which gives way tonight to Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day.
Of course this is not a coincidence. While Yom Ha’atzmaut is celebrated on Hey B’Iyar, the date on which David Ben-Gurion read the Declaration of Independence in 1948, the decision to commemorate Yom HaZikaron the day before reflects the acknowledgement that the Jewish people suffered greatly for the establishment of our own country, and unfortunately, continues to do so to defend it. Just about every single Israeli is either the descendant of a Holocaust survivor, has lost a family member in a war or terrorist attack or knows someone who has.
I am fortunate to not personally know the effect this kind of loss has on a family: all eight of my great-grandparents left Europe just after the turn of the 20th century, and all four of my grandparents were born in North America. I did have the opportunity of being at Yad VaShem last week for the national memorial ceremony attended by Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Peres. The touching ceremony included a special honor for six survivors who each lit a torch to symbolize one million of the 6 million Jews murdered. As each survivor was spotlighted, a 4 minute video played to tell their story, the story of their community in Europe, what happened to it and to their families, and finally, how they survived and made it to Israel. As sad and tragic as each of their stories was, it also gave hope, that after experiencing the single worst atrocity ever committed on this planet, each of these people could come to Israel and contribute to the building of a Jewish State. That, I believe is what is most powerful about these Israeli High Holidays, and why they must lead up to our Independence Day.
Far too often, we get caught up in the minutia of daily life: all the little things we each have to do that day, that week. It’s not often enough we get to stop and think about what it all means. For a country that elicits such impassioned responses, both positive and negative, domestically as well as internationally, it’s not only healthy, but imperative, that we step back and internalize all that that this country stands for, regardless of our differences of opinion on policy and politics. The creation of Israel has forever changed Jewish life all over the world and has finally made the Jewish people a people with a home.
Thus my tribute to Israel’s fallen is simply my presence: that while the horrors of the Shoah are unimaginable for anyone who did not suffer through them, and while we mourn the thousands of men and women who have given their lives to create and defend the State of Israel, the pain, trauma and loss is not in vain. We have built here in our historic homeland a country and a society that those living here even 100 years ago could not have dreamed of. I give thanks to them each and every day by living here and by being a part of the country they helped create. May their memories be a blessing.
אם תרצו, אין זו אגדה
בנימין זאב הרצל –
“If you will it, it is no dream”
– Theodor Herzl