“There’s a grief that can’t be spoken, there’s a pain goes on and on / empty chairs at empty tables…” (Les Miserables)
Tonight, less than two hours ago, the country stood in silence with only the wail of the siren sounding in our ears. That, and echoes of those we knew and loved, or those people we love knew and loved. And if they are names and faces we and our circles did not know, we yet feel their loss, because they were a stone in the waters that nourish our country, and their ripples have spread and continue to touch all those who live here, who LIVE here, in their merit.
During the wail, the second this week though not yet last, my thoughts went to those I have known personally or whose lives (or deaths) have touched me. Avraham David, Sarah and Matthew, Eyal, Gilad and Naftali, Dalya, Eliav, Rav Yakov and Ezra, the Fogel family, Gilad, Koby and Yosef, Hallel, Shalhevet, Yuval, Hadar Cohen, Hadar Goldin, Nava and David, Dafna, Natan Cohen who I “met” only today through his sister, a co-teacher, and last, Eliyahu Drori, a soldier who was killed only two days ago. My heart was not silent but pounding, crying, as during those last moments I was trying to think who else, who had I missed? But there are too many. The minute was far too short to think of each of the more than 23,646 soldiers who died defending our country and 3,134 Jews killed by terrorists.
We have not invited this grief to a seat at our table, and I hope and pray we never do. But as a resident of this country, we take part in it, we try to relieve the pain of others who have given everything to be here, to live in this Jewish State and to keep it free. This day is for the soldiers in green, but it has expanded to become the day we also remember those wearing everything from pajamas that I picture 4 year old Daniel Tragerman wearing, to any type of headcovering or none at all, or even a forgotten yellow sweater; it is also for all of the citizens who have been killed while waiting at bus stops or drinking in a café, eating pizza or taking a bus around Chaifa or Yerushalayim.
We are learning, as a Jewish community, not to point to the big numbers as a group. More and more each year, I see that with both the Shoah and Yom Hazikaron, we are recounting names, telling stories, showing pictures. Today at school a teacher spoke about her brother, Natan Cohen. It is his story I will tell as best I can, because his was also one of the few pictures shown in the tekes (ceremony) I was privileged to be part of tonight, as well as suddenly seeing his name mentioned as someone with whom my friend’s son had gone to school. Naama spoke of the brother who was only 11 months older than her, who she loved so much and was close with. She shared that he was not always called Natan but was, for a large part of his life, Matan. When he was Matan he seemed to want everything given to him; after his name was changed, he only wanted to give to others. As a soldier he even walked 8 kilometers so that a member of his unit would be able to eat; during one tense moment in Gaza he got out of his tank to give another soldier, who had been working in the tunnels without food for a few days already, his own meal. Both Natan and Naama were engaged at the same time. On the day they heard the news, Natan’s mother and Naama had gone out to buy dresses for the two upcoming weddings. But this was in the summer of 2014, and Natan was fighting in Tzuk Eitan, and one of the weddings was not to happen. When they heard the news, Natan’s mother could not grasp it, could not stop saying “But he was getting married!” Yet, after they began to pick up the pieces, the family did what many here do; they chose life. They decided to honor his memory by giving to others, like special needs children. They reached for the light instead of the darkness.
The program we attended tonight, run jointly by Nefesh B’Nefesh, KKL and World Mizrachi, was beautiful and heartfelt. The organizer had a personal connection to Koby Mandel, having met him when they were both on their bar mitzvah trips was affected by him, so he asked Sherri and Seth Mandel to speak to us. They painted a picture of a boy who loved Israel deeply, and was thrilld to be living here. But then Seth said that one of his immediate thoughts right after hearing about Koby was to pack up their remaining children and leave Israel. I understand that. We were still in America at that time, with Koby’s death coming just after our oldest son’s birthday. I had planned to make Aliyah all my life, but this was the second event that made me ask if this was a good idea, and how I would feel if we made Aliyah and then, Lo aleinu, something happened to our children because of our choice. This was May of 2001; shortly after that came 9/11, with its many stories of “chance” survival, and the reminder that we don’t decide. When Sherri spoke, she talked of how she survived, after. Because this was beyond, so far beyond many people’s ability to handle. But the Mandels, also, chose light, chose life, and with the help of each other, their friends and community, they continued to live in our Jewish country and to bring what relief they could to other families who had to deal with the same grief through Camp Koby.
When I began to think about tonight, about what there was left to say about Yom Hazikaron for those who sacrificed their lives to help the Jewish State live on, only two words went through my head: no more. Even as I heard about Eliyahu Drori, that was my prayer, my hope, my dream; that the song my friend’s father sang to her could finally come true: “Ani mavtiach lach, yalda sheli haktana, shezeh yihiyah hamilchama haacharona.” “I promise you, my child, my small daughter, that this will be the last war.” But I know that even as I write these words our forces are gathering, that the light may repel the darkness once more.
Last week when I assigned my students to write about Israel at 70 and what it means to them, a few wrote about our wars, listing so many yet not even including some of the “small” ones as they were just Operations. I had misgivings about what we are raising our children to, what mindset we are giving them. But after all the pictures last week and this with IDF soldiers on one side and either Shoah victims or Nazis on the other, with the slogan ‘Never again’, I see the message. Our message is to keep fighting, to trust in our strength and in God, because this is how we go on. We know that whatever the count is of our wars, we can never give up and say they can win one, because that will be our last war and we will have lost everything. Vehi Sheamda—in every generation they rise up, but God saves us. We are still here, and we are strong.
At the end of the tekes we sang Hatikva, the Hope. In that room in Yerushalayim, filled with more than 2,000 people, we sang of our 2,000 year hope to live as a nation in our land, free. For that hope our people have given and continue to give so much.
Our son is wearing green and is on his base tonight. Tomorrow night as we celebrate our Independence after we finish mourning for those who have been part of keeping that independence, he will be among those watching over us. We are so proud, and so scared, and we can’t think of any more real way to celebrate tomorrow night’s holiday. But for tonight and for tomorrow, we share in the pain of those who do not think of their lost ones just once a year but always, constantly. We think of those who have lost cousins and uncles and aunts they were named after who they never got to meet.
We pray for them and for all the soldiers, and for the safety of all our citizens here and abroad. We pray for the tough Israeli families new and old who are strong so that our country can be, and the families from elsewhere who are far from their Lone Soldiers, that these boys and girls, brothers and sisters and sons and daughters, will all be safe through this night and the many to follow, that they all will see the light and be part of it, that no one will have to light a candle for them.
May we be delivered from pain to redemption, from darkness to light. May all the children of Israel know no more sorrow.