Israel’s practice of connecting Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) and Yom Haatzmaut (Independence Day) is highly unusual. The U.S. has five weeks between them (last Monday in May + July 4); France four months (July 14 + Nov. 11)! Then why does Israel have the latter follow immediately after the former? The answer in a word: the Jewish approach to always link joy with sadness.
For anyone residing in Israel for the first time on the 4th and 5th of Iyar (this year, next Wednesday and Thursday), the dual holiday is extremely jarring. On the first day (Yom Hazikaron), somber gatherings at cemeteries and other remembrance venues – not the “shopping spree” day we find in the U.S., but rather 24 hours of serious reflection and remembrance for the more than 23,000 Israelis who gave their lives over seven decades for their country. And then, as if flipping a switch, one goes from sadness to elation with bona fide festivities galore that evening and through the ensuing day of Yom Haatzmaut. Why such a strange socio-psychological “union”?
In fact, Israel is merely continuing the age-old Jewish tradition of combining, mixing, and otherwise joining sorrow and gladness. Some examples:
* At the Passover Seder we dip our finger into the cup of wine and remove ten drops, one for each plague brought upon the Egyptians. Our cup cannot “runneth over” when others – even enemies – are being destroyed.
* In Israel (not in Diaspora), the Shakharit (morning) service on Simkhat Torah includes joyous dancing with the Torah (seven cycles) followed soon thereafter by Yizkor, remembering our deceased family members and those who died through Jewish history sanctifying God’s name (kiddush hashem).
* Under the wedding huppah, the groom shatters a glass at the end of the nuptial ceremony, a reminder that even during one of life’s most joyous occasions, we have to recall national travails – in this case, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (for the surprising connection, see below).
* When one buries a relative a few days or even hours before a Yom Tov (one of the three major holidays), Jewish Law requires the end of mourning when the holiday starts.
* And when a parent dies leaving an inheritance to the child/ren, two blessings are recited: barukh dayan emet (acknowledging that God is a truthful judge), and shehecheyanu (giving thanks for the newfound wealth).
What’s the lesson here? Why this immediate duality approach to Jewish life? One answer: Judaism recognizes that there is no such thing as an “up” without a “down” – and vice versa. Nothing can stay “up” forever, and within each “up” is the seed of “down” as well. Conversely, “down” situations can be dealt with more easily when we understand that an “up” will follow. In short, there is a psychological truth here providing people with emotional balance in any “extreme” emotional situation, as in the cases above of a loved one passing on.
A second answer relates less to the micro-personal level and more to the social or national plane. Jews are not merely individuals but also – perhaps mostly – part of a larger entity called the Jewish People, or Jewish History, or the Judaic Heritage & Religion. Thus, even when we have great personal happiness (or sadness), we mustn’t forget the opposite that relates to the larger Jewish picture. That’s why personal shiva ceases when the chag starts. That’s also why the glass is broken under the khuppah.
Indeed, this last example suggests an inversion of what this custom generally is taken to mean. Normally, we view this as a personal event being impinged upon by the larger historical picture. But perhaps the opposite is the case. Why was the Temple destroyed? According to Jewish tradition, because of “sinat khinam”: unreasonable and unadulterated hatred, born of “intolerance”. So what’s the point of bringing this historical event under the wedding canopy? To warn the new couple that if they want their house (symbolized by the khuppah) to remain standing, they have to avoid mutual intolerance at all costs! In other words, this is not a dry “historical” lesson but rather a deeply personal message and warning to a couple that starts out in love, but there will inevitably be “downs” ahead…
In short, the Jewish approach to joy and sadness is not a mishmash thrown together haphazardly. Rather, it is an attempt to offer greater perspective to anyone in the throes of despair or at the height of elation – not only will the “other” emotion show up soon enough, but we are not alone in either of these two emotional settings. For a Jew, the personal is also national, while joy and sadness are two sides of the same coin.