For me, as for most Israelis, the yearly Yom Hazikaron/Yom Haatzmaut commemoration/festivity is the quintessential Israel experience, the embodiment of the duality that is our life. The conflicting, conjoined emotions of sadness and joy, bitter and sweet, highlights the great cost paid for our freedom, as well as confirming that those who sacrificed everything in building and securing our homeland did not do so in vain. This year’s observances, in the setting of the fog of discontent and discord that has settled over the country, seem more complicated, less stirring. Speaking to others, I find that I am not alone in feeling anxious and hopeless rather than somber or mournful on this Day of Remembrance.
You see, Jews have a particular knack of keeping memories, especially bitter ones, alive. Haman, Emperor Titus, Bohdan Khmelnytsky and the like were unaware of their great fortune in persecuting the Jews, as their names and deeds, which would have otherwise been relegated to the dustbin of history, are still recalled vividly, albeit in disgust. Even Napoleon, as the apocryphal story goes, marveled at the sight of Jews mourning the long-gone Temples with fresh tears. Why do we do it? This question may be posed in its most extreme, perhaps even sacrilegious form regarding the Holocaust, commemorated last week. In terms of cold numbers, there have been other dark epochs of mass murder or genocide, including millions massacred in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge or millions starved and murdered under Stalin. Why do our children need to be raised in the constant shadow of the Holocaust, whereas other communities sweep the pain under rug of forgetfulness? A cynic may point to a secondary gain of Holocaust remembrance, of lording our victimhood over others for sympathy or reparations. There may be a grain of truth in that, but in the true reason Jews remember lays the uniqueness and strength of the Jewish People.
Firstly, we remember the pain of the past, because it is our pain. The victims of the Holocaust or the Crusades or ancient Egypt weren’t nameless victims but members of our extended family. Secondly, our recall gives the suffering of the past meaning and purpose. The greatest cruelty of suffering is the feeling that it has no reason, no purpose. A friend of mine, who lost a child in a tragic accident, confided that the hardest part was the pointless randomness. “Better he had died a valiant soldier in battle” I was told; the absence would be the same but emptiness perhaps a bit less.
והיא שעמדה, “And this (the promise to Abraham of his descendants enslavement and consequent freedom) is what has stood by our fathers and us”, we read in the Haggada, Seder night. Jews survived throughout the millennia only because of the knowledge that our ups and downs are part of a greater picture, the dark chapters part of a brighter book, hopefully with a happy ending. We persevere and perhaps perseverate on the past because it is part of a story, our story.
Which brings me back to Yom Hazikaron. We remember Israel’s fallen soldiers because they are our bothers, daughters and neighbors, because we are one big family. By remembering, we also testify that their death has a purpose, that dying for their country was a bitter price for a greater good. Certainly, the precise issues currently splitting the country are gravely important. Truly, in the balance lies the very soul of a country, threatened by self-interest, injustice and hate. However, at risk are also our two greatest strengths – our unity and our sense of purpose. Which is why this week is a tough one. I can’t help but think of the close of Steven Speilberg’s Saving Private Ryan, as an old Ryan, having to justify a life secured by the self-sacrifice of others, implores his wife-“Tell me I’m a good man”. As a nation, we too must be worthy of accepting the gift passed to us on a silver platter.