As Jewish people worldwide were starting to prepare various blue and white regalia, to mark Yom Haatzmaut in the colors of Israel’s flag, the shirt I was wearing unfortunately offended my Mother.
When I appeared on her screen in Jerusalem via video chat, she was perturbed. How, she wondered, could I wear a blue and white striped shirt? She is in her mid-eighties, and worked as a librarian with pre-Yad Vashem era archives. In her eyes, my stripes were a distasteful reminder of concentration camp uniforms
And suddenly, I understood this roller coaster time of the Jewish calendar so much better. A week ago we marked Yom Hashoah, commemorating the Holocaust and paying tribute to its heroes – Survivors, rescuers, and those who dared to rise up in ghettos. Today, we’re commemorating those who have fallen defending our homeland, or at the hands of terrorists who wanted to attack it. And tomorrow we’ll celebrate the establishment of the State of Israel and Jewish independence and sovereignty for the first time in two millenia.
All three days are intertwined in a most complex web. We can’t celebrate Israel without thinking about the fallen. We can’t think about the Holocaust without reflecting on our gratitude that we have a homeland. There are many other links, but my overwhelming feeling as I consider them is simply that of hakarat hatov, a recognition of the myriad blessings that fill our lives today and the sense that we, as Jews, relate to events by appreciating and focussing upon the positive.
“Blue and white stripes don’t just represent the Holocaust, they represent Israel’s flag too,” I said to my Mother. “They actually make me think about the children’s playground beneath the kitchen window where you’re standing now.” I felt her angst as I unwittingly prompt her to think about the Holocaust and she can’t shake the blue-stripe association. But I also feel the deep joy that the very same stripes have a very different symbolism for a younger generation. For many Jewish people today, blue and white stripes in themselves are a powerful expression of how Jewish life reinvents and reinvigorates itself.
Who would have imagined that the colors used in the garments of oppression would be recognised internationally as the colors of the Jewish State’s flag just three years after the end of the war?
Who would have imagined that in January 2020, 75 years after Auschwitz was liberated, dozens of world leaders would gather in Jerusalem, where they would pay tribute to victims and marvel at the sight of a thriving Jewish State?
Who in my family would have imagined that, also marking this anniversary, a delegation of 120 Auschwitz Survivors would return to Auschwitz, where an Israeli flag flew, with myself as the JRoots Rabbi in situ?
It took dreamers to create such a reality. And this week, when we focus intensely on what it means to have the State of Israel as a living reality, so many of us feel the famous line from Tehillim, the Book of Psalms, resonates with such poignancy. “When God restored the captives of Zion, we were like dreamers.”
But today, we remember that Israel was built, and is sustained and defended, by doers as well as dreamers.
So many of us, in these difficult hours, remember doers who paid the ultimate price.
I remember my cousin Benji Hillman, a company commander in one of Israel’s elite commando units who was killed in the summer of 2006 just three weeks after his wedding day. He led his men from the front in the first IDF foot incursion to attempt to rout out the Hezbollah terrorists during the Second Lebanon War.
Benji was softly spoken in the main, a ‘bitzuist’ – one who doesn’t talk talk talk talk-rather one who does.
In a double blow, the very soldier who told the family of their bereavement, Major Roi Klein was killed just a few days later. At the Battle of Bint Jbeil he famously spotted a live enemy grenade which was endangering his men, cried out the Shema, and jumped on the grenade to save the lives of his soldiers.
In the Shema prayer – “Hear O Israel” – we call upon fellow Jewish People to listen. Many years after Roi’s prayer, followed by his ultimate act of altruism, one which tragically silenced him forever, we are still left with a crystal clear voice calling upon us to do selfless acts each day.
King David, in Tehillim, wrote that even in life’s hardships “l’man yezamerchah chavod velo yidom,” which means “I will sing to you and not be silent.” Roi was killed but his call of Shema shall never be silenced.
And the third young man who is always in my thoughts on Yom Hazikaron is another cousin- Daniel Gomez. He was one of CH-53 helicopter pilots who transported combatants deep into Lebanese territory, shot down on August 12, 2006, two days before the Second Lebanon war ended. I shall never forget his Father’s choking words through tears as he enveloped the four or five IDF reservists who had rescued the bodies of Danny and his comrades the previous day. “It is Friday afternoon, soon we bring in Shabbat with the words ‘ tov lehodot’ – it is good to say Thank You. Dear friends, despite the pain, we say thank you. We had a son who gave his life for us, the Jewish People and for the Land of Israel.”
Some will ask how, after marking such tragic loss of life, we can celebrate the next day. I would say that the answer is rooted deep in our Jewish consciousness. We constantly live an emotional drama.
On Seder Night, along with our children we relive the transition that our ancestors made from slavery to freedom. We are instructed not just to read about an event in a book but to feel it. “In every generation, each person has an obligation to see themselves as though they personally were among those who went forth from Egypt,” states the Haggadah.
This transition was the very making of the Jewish People. It was what shaped us into a nation. It’s also the refrain of our liturgy. And our tradition reveals profound pedagogical wisdom to make us actually experience it, giving us the emotional and intellectual range to live life in a Jewish way.
Chanukah, a festival we associate with joy, actually marks the aftermath of a period that was terrible for the Jewish people both physically and spiritually. We mark even the saddest day in the calendar, the Fast of Av, hoping that it will be the date of a future redemption.
As Jews we always have lots to weep about, and we always have lots to be thankful for.
This balancing act is what has sustained us and kept us strong for millenia. And this year, I wonder if this ability is something in which we can see a whole new value, and perhaps share with others.
The national roller coaster this year comes amid turbulence related to the coronavirus crisis. My family and many others mourn personal loss too. Those who have stayed healthy are also grappling with the impact of both restrictions and the frailty of life.
But let’s apply our national quality and imperative of hakarat hatov to these times.
Does confinement to home reflect an awful imposition, or reassure us that even as Jews thankfully we live in societies that are prepared to take such drastic steps to safeguard life?
Do the flashing lights of an ambulance represent the horrors of a medical emergency, or a compassionate society of doers both in Israel and the Diaspora, who are prepared to risk their own health to care for others in the midst of a pandemic?
And what about after the crisis? Will we emerge as better people, more resilient families and communities and perhaps as less dysfunctional societies? Is there room for optimism in the sense of awakening in which we see people talking about lessons learned? Could the brush with our fragility make moral voices and caring initiatives more prominent in our world?
The Jewish message of hakarat hatov, of recognising and appreciating the good and our national tradition of ensuring that hard times are followed with positivity has rarely been more relevant to us, and to the broader conversation in our societies. It’s worth cherishing, it’s worth sharing, and if we’re not heard, King David told us exactly what to do. “I will sing to you and not be silent.”
Rabbi Naftali Schiff is the Founder and Chief Executive of Jewish Futures