Perhaps there is no greater way to understand what someone stands for than to understand what they are willing to die for. That was the thought that crossed my mind standing on the hillside of the beautiful community of Neve Shalom in the moments before the somber start of Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Day of Remembrance for those who lost their lives in service to their nation.
To be in such an inspiring place at a moment of heartbreaking recollection was a juxtaposition of goodness and grief — a reminder that even among beauty, there is an ever-enduring shadow that we sometimes need to pause and see.
Following the custom, at 8 p.m. sirens wailed across the nation to mark the start of the solemn day of remembrance and, echoing among the hills, the sound pierced not only the unusually quiet evening in this unusually noisy nation, but it also rang in my mind. As I stood in the shadows of a unique community that was created within the aspirational commitment to coexistence by Israeli Arabs and Jews (its name, Neve Shalom, is Wāħat as-Salām in Arabic and means “oasis of peace”), the sirens were a coarse reminder that there can be no commitment without casualty and that the ever-enduring aspiration for gain inevitably results in some amount of unbearable loss.
The fact, however obvious, bears repeating: no nation endures without the commitment of its citizens to defend not only its borders but also its ideals. In this sense, Israel is no different. But what feels unmistakably different about Israel is that the history of its people, as well as its modest geographic size in an enormously complex region, make this commitment feel youthfully raw and incredibly intimate. Given the number of wars and conflicts this relatively young nation has had, the sense of loss isn’t distant — it is all too recent and all too real.
Similarly, given the small size of the population, the fact that so much of the nation has served in the armed forces and far too many souls have been lost to acts of terrorism that is a result of the conflict, means every single person, in some way, has been touched by the loss of a family member, a friend, a compatriot or a member of their community.
With such a pervasive connection to loss, Israel reminds us that recalling casualty as a nation is undeniably important. It gives space for public grief and a sense of commemoration that is deeply communal inasmuch as it is personal. But it is also a moment to ask, when appreciating those who have been lost in the fight, what are those ideals that one fights for? What are those commitments that one is willing to die for? What are the values for which sacrifice is an understandable, even if ideally avoidable, commitment?
This week, as Israel celebrates its 69th anniversary, those questions feel as relevant and pressing as they did on the day David Ben-Gurion declared Israel a sovereign nation, fully knowing that commitment meant that there would be casualties of war almost instantly. The earliest days of Israel were marked by a courageous commitment to the idea of a nation resuscitating its long dormant national sovereignty in its historic land. But it was also marked for a commitment to the ideals of that nation as well, of a country that would become a melting pot of peoples and possibilities, and of very real constraints serving as a basis for very necessary creativity.
In that spirit, and perhaps regardless of one’s direct sense of loss on Yom Hazikaron, the day should also serve as a reminder to all of us of the nexus of commitment and casualty. To set an intention is one thing, but to be willing to make a sacrifice in the pursuit of realizing that intention is something different. Today far too many people think of sacrifice in the context of compulsion — something that is the result of mandate, not inspiration. For many, the pursuit of ideals that feel distantly behind or unreachably ahead seems like folly. In these individuals’ minds, casualty is a consequence of incompetency, not of inspiration.
But it doesn’t, and it shouldn’t, need to be this way. Commitment (and recommitment) is not only a collective act but a deeply personal one as well, and can be renewed by a deeper understanding of the values and ideals one is called to serve. As the clock turns from Yom HaZikaron to Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day) and the same sirens that call us to commemorate call us to celebrate, the questions still remains …
What are we willing to fight for? What are we willing to die for? And will we remember only the consequences of the past, or will we be in service to a commitment to our future?
In seeking to understand our own personal commitments, perhaps the greatest casualty of all would be if we don’t answer those questions for our nations and ourselves.