The transition between Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day) is perhaps the most compelling and powerful experience on the Jewish calendar – an unparalleled illustration of the depth, richness, and meaning of what it is to be a Jew in our times.
There are those who say it is difficult to abruptly shift from the mourning, sorrow and pain of Yom HaZikaron, to the celebration, gratitude and joy that we feel on Yom Ha’atzmaut.
While indeed this transition is not an easy one, it is very real. After high school, I came to Israel and joined the Israeli army and with each passing year in Israel, the shift between Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut becomes less of a transition and more of a journey – less abrupt, less jarring, and more holistic.
I have found that the level of joy and gratitude that I feel on Yom Ha’atzmaut is directly related to the pain and grief that I feel on Yom HaZikaron and while deep emotions often evade both description and explanation, I will attempt to share the reason why.
First let us consider – what is so special about the more than 23,000 fallen who will be in our hearts this Memorial Day?
One of the unique aspects of Memorial Day in Israel is that it is not only soldiers that we remember. We also commemorate the men, women and children who have been so brutally taken from us in terror attacks for no other reason than that they were Jews who decided to cast their lot with Israel and to fundamentally strengthen the Jewish State by making it their home.
We remember Mikey Levine – just a few years younger than me. I immediately connected with Mikey and identified with him, because of the similarities in our journeys – albeit his claim was that his army unit – the paratroopers – was far superior to my Golani infantry unit. This battle lives on.
Mikey was a lone soldier. He so badly wanted to serve in the IDF that when they said that he couldn’t serve, he scaled the walls of the induction center sneaking through the window of the directing officer who was so moved by his tenacity that he made an exception and allowed him to join. Now, every lone soldier is given one week a year to visit their families around the world and that is exactly where Mikey was when the 2nd Lebanon war broke out – visiting his family in Philadelphia. Despite the fact that his commanders said he was not obligated to return, and his family begged him not to, he jumped on the first flight back to Israel and joined his unit on the front lines. Mikey was shot by a sniper while bravely serving alongside his fellow paratroopers protecting our northern border.
We remember Ro’i Klein. Roi Klein was a decorated commander, who was revered, admired and respected by his fellow soldiers and all who knew him. He was modest, quiet and gentle, as well as an accomplished musician and Torah scholar. During the Second Lebanon War, Ro’i volunteered to lead his unit into a very dangerous battle in Bint Jbeil in which his unit was caught in a Hezbullah ambush. A grenade was thrown amongst his fellow soldiers, and in a split second decision of unimaginable bravery, Ro’i lunged on top of the grenade. With his last breath, he shouted “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad,” the prayer that Jews have prayed for centuries declaring their knowledge and the supremacy of G-d in the world. Ro’i sacrificed his life to save the lives of his fellow soldiers, for Israel.
We remember Koby Mandell, a 13 year old boy, who was murdered by Arab terrorists almost 7 years ago today. Everyone loved Koby Mandell, who was magnetic, loved learning and laughing and was brilliant, compassionate and respectful. Koby had a very special love for The Land of Israel and told everybody that he wanted to know the rolling Judean Hills behind his house “like the back of his hand.”
We remember Ari Weiss. All who knew him, remember him as a gentle, sensitive and empathic soul. He always had a smile on his face, in good times and in bad, and was a source of joy and pleasure to everyone that knew him. Three weeks before his 22nd birthday, Ari’s elite combat unit was on a joint mission with the Mossad trying to capture Hamas headquarters in Shchem, during which they uncovered lists of terrorists and planned attacks on countless Jewish lives. At the end of the mission, Ari and his dearest friend Shai Chaim, were attacked and Shai was shot. Instinctively, and overcoming the natural survival mechanism of running away when fired upon, Ari ran to rescue his friend as he took a bullet to his neck, puncturing his lung and killing him.
Each of the above brave fallen is a living embodiment of selfless volunteerism, dedication, idealism, sacrifice and courage. And on Yom HaZikaron we mourn their loss. But it is not only their loss. It is our loss. We have lost them and in this lifetime we will never see them again. And we are left here feel the searing pain of that separation.
But if the pain we feel on Yom HaZikaron is the pain of separation, then the joy we all feel on Yom Ha’atzmaut is the joy of connection.
A story told to me by Rabbi Stewart Weiss of Ra’anana, the father of slain soldier Ari Weiss, best illustrates this critical point.
He shared that after his son was killed, a woman, knocked on his door, crying. She went on to say:
I was born and raised in Israel, but when my son turned 16, my husband and I decided to leave. We feared for our boy’s safety. We knew he would soon have to go into the Israeli army – he was already telling us of his insistence on joining a combat unit – and we could not bear the thought of him standing in harm’s way. So we packed up and we dragged him away to California, far from the Middle East war zone.
The woman lowered her head and sobbed for a few minutes more until she mustered up the strength to speak again.
When he was 18, still pining away to serve in the IDF with his high-school friends, we bought our son a car. We hoped that this would lift his spirits and make him happy. He loved his car, like all kids would in California. Three months ago, just after his 21st birthday – the same age as your son – he was killed in a car accident, and I came here to tell you what a fool I was for taking my child away from Israel.
If he was destined to die young, he should have died in an IDF uniform, not in a car in California. He should have been a hero, like your boy, and not just die, being another statistic.
Since his creation, man has struggled with his mortality and the need he feels to be remembered – and to make an impact. There are those who embalm to preserve the physical body, yet this is temporary, and of little consequence to the living. There are those who seek to perpetuate their names, yet our names are no more than titles and labels whose meaning eventually fades.
Our ONLY true legacy, the only lasting impact we have in this world, is the way in which our actions, our lives, have influenced those we have left behind – how our lives have changed other’s lives, and all who they encounter.
All those who die leave an indelible impression behind, a personal influence that lives long after them. But those who we are remembering gave their lives for Israel and the Jewish People, and in that way, they will never die.
Mark Twain, when speaking of the timelessness of the Jews, said:
All things are mortal, but the Jew. All other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?
In Bereishit (Genesis), G-d ties in the eternal nature of the Jewish People with His very own existence
And I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and your descendants after you, throughout the generations. An eternal covenant to be your G-d, and the G-d of your descendants after you (Genesis 17-7)
The Prophet Ezekiel speaks of our everlasting connection to the Land of Israel:
And they shall dwell in the land that I have given unto Jacob, My servant, wherein your fathers dwelt; and they shall dwell therein, they, and their children, and their children’s children, forever.
Even Winston Churchill perceived the historical scope of Israel observing:
The coming into being of a Jewish State in Palestine is an event in world history to be viewed in the perspective not of a generation or a century, but in the perspective of a thousand, two thousand or even three thousand years.
On Yom HaZikaron, we mourn the death of more than 23,000 heroes, but on Yom Ha’atzmaut we celebrate their lives.
Israel is our past and our future. Israel is forever. All those who have paid the ultimate price for Israel are now a part of Israel forever. And through Israel they will live forever.