David Walk

In Your Blood, There Is Life

It’s truly appropriate that we read the Torah portion of Emor during the week of Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day for all the fallen in Israel’s wars and terror attacks. In this parsha, we read: You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people—I am the Eternal, Who sanctifies you (Vayikra 22:32). This Mitzvah is the job description of an IDF soldier, but the precept finds its ultimate expression in those who have fallen for our Homeland. It is to them that we dedicate that precious day, and I, my feeble efforts.

Rashi immediately expresses our deepest feelings about this Mitzva: And when offering oneself to martyrdom, one should offer himself under the condition to die if necessary, for he who abandons his life cherishing the hope that God will not exact the sacrifice and that a miracle will happen to save him will not have a miracle performed on his behalf; for thus we find in the case of Chananyah, Mishael and Azariah that they did not offer themselves for martyrdom expecting a miracle, as it is said (Daniel 3:17, 18) ‘And God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace and He will deliver us out of thy hand, O king’. 

In other words, we don’t want to die AL KIDDUSH HASHEM, ‘for the sanctification of God’s Name’, but are willing to do it, if absolutely necessary. We cherish those who fulfill the precept, without glorifying the death itself. Please, understand the greatest KIDDUSH HASHEM is a life well lived. But, tragically, we have too many examples of precious lives cut short to fulfill this aspect of KIDDUSH HASHEM. 

The Torah Temimah (Rav Baruch Halevi Epstein) writes concerning our verse that we should connect it to the verse V’CHAI BAHEM (‘live within them’, 18:5). We observe and cherish TORAT CHAYIM, the Torah of life. It’s no coincidence that our favorite toast is L’CHAYIM, ‘to life’.

We don’t stand at these graves on Har Herzl thinking about some glorious reward in Gan Eden. We stand there thinking about the parents and spouses left behind, children and grandchildren never born, great lives of amazing contributions to the world never lived. Our gratitude doesn’t glorify the act; it extols the sacrifice and our benefits from their heroism.

When I visit Har Herzl (my wife and I have been there too many times in the past months for funerals), and when I look at the lists of hundreds of names of those who have fallen from October 7 until today, please forgive me, but I can’t help but think, ‘Is it worth it?’ 

A far greater thinker and ZADIK than I, Rav Yehuda Amital Z”L asked this question before me, and with greater depth and insight. He emerged from the Holocaust to fight in our wars and bury many friends and, hardest of all, students. Perhaps, the greatest lesson of fifty years in Jewish education is the statement by CHAZAL, ‘Our students are our children!’

Rav Amital said:   On the 5th of Iyyar, 5708 (May 14, 1948), there occurred a major historical shift…The fact that a Jewish regime now governs almost half of the world’s Jews is a clear step towards the Redemption. That Jews can be killed in a war in which they are fighting in a Jewish army, rather than at the mercy of anti-Semitic thugs, is something worthy of recognition, as it shows our rise to the status of a sovereign people on its own land…Many people expected – if not outright wished – that the end of the Jews was near, and felt certain that the Holocaust would be one of the final nails in our national coffin. However, just the opposite occurred only three years after World War II ended, the Jews assumed their place as an independent group on their own soil. This downtrodden people were quite similar to their ancestors who, upon leaving Egypt, were experiencing the first steps of redemption, ge’ula…Yet, the reality of an incomplete redemption should act as a motivation for us to continue this process, rather than to impede our recognition of the miracles involved therein…Many years ago, there was an elderly European Chasid who worked in the Yeshiva. He was not raised on the values of Zionism, yet he danced with tremendous fervor on Yom Ha-atzmaut. He would say, “After what I went through in Warsaw, how could I not dance?”…Orthodox Jews find themselves asking if it is appropriate to make a blessing over Hallel, rather than asking, “What is the long-term religious and social significance of the return of the Jewish People to their homeland?” These are not the questions that are discussed in the Shulchan Arukh, yet they must be examined by Jews today…We must rely on our instinct to dance when it seems obviously appropriate to do so, and to appreciate the tremendous blessings bestowed upon us by God. Let us remember Yechezkel’s prophecy: For I will take you from among the nations, and gather you out of all the countries, and will bring you into your own land, And you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and you shall be My people, and I will be your God. (Yechezkel 36:24, 28).

We can’t go through Yom HaZikaron without tears for those who made the ultimate sacrifice for us and our country, but we, also, can’t go into Yom Ha’Atazmaut without gratitude and joy for the blessings of God to have come so far.

Rav Yisrael Meir Lau Shlita tells the story of that great Gadol and Zadik Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach Z”L: A student at Kol Torah approached the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Shlomo Zalman and asked if he could leave the Yeshiva for a few days to visit the graves of Zadikim in the Galil. Rav Shlomo Zalman said that it was better to stay in the Yeshiva. The Student then asked if there was a time to go visit the graves of ZADIKIM, and if the Rosh Yeshiva ever went to such graves. Rav Auerbach answered, “In order to pray at the graves of tzadikim, one doesn’t have to travel up to the Galil. Whenever I feel the need to pray at the graves of tzadikim, I go to Mount Herzl, to the graves of the soldiers… who fell Al Kiddush Hashem, for the sanctification of God.”

When we go through the transition from Yom HaZikaron to Yom Ha’Atzmaut we must remember another verse in the book of Yechezkel: Then I passed by you, and saw you wallowing in blood, and I said, ‘In your blood, Live. In your blood, Live (16:6). First, we mourn the blood, then we LIVE. Have a meaningful Yom Hazkaron, then a thankful Yom Ha’Atzmaut!

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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