I remember the day when I first realized that the soldiers on the bus were younger than I was. I had to stop — literally stop — and then stare, right there on the crowded bus, because this knowledge hit me and I couldn’t really wrap my mind around it. I looked, and the young people in green all around me were still what they were moments earlier. They still exuded the same aura of capability, they still wore their uniform, and they still held their guns on their laps.
But they were also young, younger than I was. They were also still teenagers.
“Nu, you’re blocking the passage,” someone grumbled behind me, so I resumed walking. But I carried my perplexity with me all the way to the free seat in the back of the bus, all the way to my home, all the way to this moment.
* * *
There’s this odd thing that we do when we think about heroes: we set out to honor them, but we also slowly, methodically, strip them of everything that makes them themselves. We focus on their courage; but what about the doubts and fears that make each person’s courage so outstanding? We speak about their perseverance under pressure. But what about the little jokes they tell just so, because they like to, and not as some grand gesture to fend away despair?
When I talk with my children about Yom Hazikaron, I look at their faces and can practically see how they’re doing just that to Israel’s fallen soldiers. I can see it in the sudden somberness that settles on their features. I can see it in the kind of questions they ask, in the way they say “chayalim” (soldiers) and clearly envision some mythic perfect creatures. They don’t mean the actual kids in green who sit on buses, and let each other nap on their shoulders, and share crude jokes at times, but also happy banter. They don’t mean my neighbor, who reads high fantasy on the way to her base, or the gangly kid who hit me with his gun by accident when we both leaned over to pull our bags out of a bus.
And I know: my children are lucky. Only those who have never known dead soldiers can think about our fallen in such somber generalities.
I can’t. I still think of them as heroes, of course. As Yom Hazikaron draws close, I mourn our fallen as such, since it is their death that I remember today, their sacrifice, their service. But I can’t help but remember specific eyes, specific temperaments, specific sorrows. The national grief is vast and true and somber. But this is also a day of personal remembrances. And the empty spaces in our lives are not uniform in nature: every person we lost has left his or her individuated imprint. Every person we lost was a whole irreplaceable world.
* * *
Large spotlights illuminated the stage, and some of my classmates lay upon it in white skirts. I was thirteen at the time, and short, and had to lean over to see them lying there. But as the music picked up, my friends started rising. “I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live again,” another girl read into the microphone. “I will lay sinews upon you, and cover you with flesh, and form skin over you. And I will put breath into you, and you shall live again. And you shall know that I am the LORD!”
Ezekiel’s ancient words kept ringing as my friends danced their way from a symbolic death to a symbolic revival, representing the dry bones and the scattered nation that will rise once more in the time of redemption. All of us – performers and audience alike – wore the “dam hamakabim” (blood of the Maccabees) stickers with a picture of flowers against a sky blue background that all schoolchildren wear on Yom Hazikaron in Israel. We had already stood for a minute of silence as the day’s siren tore its way across the land. We stood, and then sat again with our entire school around us, and then we watched our friends perform, and knew what it all meant.
On this day of mourning, on this day of loss, our teachers wanted us to remember the purpose of our sacrifices. They wanted us to know that we were not merely fighting for survival in a hostile neighborhood: our presence in Israel was a form of redemption. And this redemption, this revival, was worthy of its cost.
* * *
“I left Israel and I never looked back.”
I was sitting on a plane on the way to a family vacation, and I was separated from my parents. I refused to be uncomfortable about it: I was a teenager, after all, and should not need them by me all the time. But the man beside me made me nervous, despite this. He was saying the kind of things that the adults in my life – driven, idealistic, optimistic – never said.
“I fought in 1973,” he told me. “After that, I couldn’t stay.”
Here was a man who fought for Israel, who believed in Israel, who paid in blood and grief for his belief. And he was also a man who could not stay there. Who somehow felt that our revival, as a sovereign nation, wasn’t worthy of the cost he had to pay.
I listened. What else was I to do? And I thought back to the white-clad girls who tried to represent revival on a stage by dancing. In the grim light of the man’s words, I couldn’t remember why it felt so natural to associate that beautiful dance with a day when we remember our losses. An entire world lay between the pretty dancers and this stranger’s pain.
* * *
It’s hard to forget how young the soldiers are once you have children.
“Chayal,” my children yell, full of excitement, and I think – dear God, soon, so very soon, it will be you.
Am I worried? Yes, I am. And scared. And sometimes frantic. But I’ll be honest: as I walk under Jerusalem’s sun, as I watch my fellow Israelis laugh and dance and trade and joke and hug and even protest, I remember that dance on that stage so very long ago, and I think that my teachers were right.
This is, indeed, a time of redemption. How can I think otherwise, when I have neighbors whose families come from the USA and from France and from Morocco, and when my parents’ fight to come here meant that I got to grow up in my own country, and walk its streets happy and free? I may not see revived bones walking and dancing down the alley, but I see the words of another ancient prophet grow into facts in my reality. I see old men and women sit on the benches of Jerusalem, just as Zechariah promised. And I see my own children “playing in the squares.” (Zechariah 8:5)
One day, these children – our children – will bear some of the burden that’s inherent in being a sovereign nation. One day, they too will serve.
I pray for their safety, for their joy, for their survival. And I also cry with pride, knowing that my kids will be a part of this era of revival. I cry, knowing that we are taking it upon ourselves to be responsible for our national destiny; responsible for one another’s lives.
* * *
When the siren tears the air tonight, I will hold onto this pride, and onto those dancing girls in my memory, but also onto the sorrow of the man I met on that plane all those years ago. I will hold onto the national grief and the heroic sacrifice of our fallen, but also onto the specific eyes and smiles I remember, the specific, individual empty spaces that nothing can ever refill.
I will hold onto the prayers I pray for my children, for all the children, really: let there be peace, let them be safe, let them retain their health and fortitude and joy and may their service not require sacrifice. I will hold onto this hope, even if it will leak between my fingers as I cup it to my lips like water.
We all need water to live.
And I will hold onto one solemn promise, one solemn resolution: to do my best to make this place worthy of our service. You cannot measure pain in terms of ‘worth,’ not really. Who can say that someone’s loss is “worth it”? But we can do our best to be worthy of what we offer to each other. We can do our best to be worthy of each other’s willingness to serve.