On Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance, let the politicians and generals talk of “heroes” and “commemoration.” I can speak only of children. Heroes, after all, are just children who grew old enough that we forgot their childhoods. In this forgetfulness, we put rifles in their hands, ran their sore feet through mud and sand, and sent them out to fight.
To speak of heroes is to speak of ourselves, not of them, of our own gratitude as though it is more important or real than the lives they never got to live. Our fallen boys and girls died too young to have loved as men and women, too young to have carried their newborn children screaming into the light, too young to really know what it was that they gave up so that we – so that I; I foist this burden on no one else – may live.
Our Sages knew that grief was no mere emotion. It was an act, undertaken with care and attention according to a set calendar. Our Sages knew, too, that grief is not really for the dead, but for the living, that the tasks of mourning must serve to restore the lives disrupted by the passing of the dead.
But what of the dead? What of their amputated lives, their singular worlds crushed into dust by the needs of the many?
On other days of the year, we crave happiness. On this day, standing beside the grave with small stone or wilting flower in hand, we realize that our fallen soldiers did not really understand what they were giving up for us, what pleasures and melancholies they renounced for our sake, what vast joy a life may hold in store for one who manages to walk its winding paths and bear witness to its splendor. On this day, our happiness is too much to bear, a clear and terrible reminder of every last shred of love and laughter and beautiful heartbreak they lost. For us.
As legions of politicians and hordes of well-meaning dignitaries and schoolteachers declaim our children’s heroism, I can’t bear to offer anything so grand on a day like this. There is too much earnest devotion in the world already, too many magnificent words and promises. The national commemoration ceremony on Mount Herzl is the work of stage directors and sound engineers and dutiful drill sergeants. We ordinary sort, we fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of soldiers past, present and future, we who are weighed down by the inadequacy of our commemoration and our gratitude, have nothing to offer over the gravestones of our honored dead except one small honest thing: our sorrow, as plain and unencumbered as death itself.
When the great Hebrew poet Leah Goldberg died and was buried in Jerusalem’s Har Hamenuchot (“mountain of rest”) cemetery, Yehudah Amichai wrote an elegy to her in which he gave voice to the power of this simple grief. I offer a short extract from that poem about the death of a friend and mentor – and not of a soldier. Our fallen heroes deserve to be remembered as more than mere heroes and soldiers. They were our children. In their graves, they are all our children.
The translation is Robert Alter’s.
On this mountain, which they call “resting place,”
I think now of the words
“in sorrow to the grave” that are in the Torah:
sorrow should be something
lovely and very precious, like
silver and golden vessels placed with
dead kings in their tombs. So with you.
Go to your resting place, weary Leah.
As for us, what’s left but standing
with head raised and awaiting
evil and good tidings
mingled with the scent of pines.