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Why we celebrate Memorial Day

We go from sorrow joyousness, understanding the enormity of the sacrifice of those who gave their lives

As we approach the double days of Israel’s Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and terror victims) and Independence Day, I once again find myself reflecting on the meaning of this juxtaposition of official holidays, one representing the ultimate sadness of a people; the second, the ultimate national joy.

Last year, we read the weekly Torah portion of Emor on the 3rd of the Hebrew month of Iyar, which would have been on the eve of Yom Hazikaron, were it not to have fallen on Shabbat. After studying the verses of Emor at the time, I wrote a short piece and sent it to a number of friends. One of my friends, who reread it recently, suggested it worthwhile to share my personal reflections with a wider readership. I hope those who choose to read it will agree:

In Parashat Emor it is written: “And I will be sanctified among the Children of Israel…” (Leviticus 22, 32). The great medieval commentator Rashi explains that this verse implies a positive act of sanctification, that this act of making holy G-d’s Name is understood to mean that, if necessary, in certain circumstances, one sacrifices oneself and by doing so, one makes G-d’s Name holy.


The concept of dying al kiddush Hashem (in sanctification of G-d’s Name) is well known. But Yom Hazikaron in Israel puts it in a definitive perspective.


Rabbi Moshe Zvi Neriyah of blessed memory, the founder of the Bnei Akiva educational network of yeshivot and ulpanot in Israel, points out in his book of commentaries on the weekly Torah portions — “Ner LaMa’or” — that in Judaism we connect the concept of death with the perception of tumah (spiritual uncleanliness). Why? This is because taharah (spiritual cleanliness) is only connected to creation, to creativity, where its inherent holiness is achieved only through an action. Death, on the other hand, is a cessation of creativity, the ending of the creative act. Hence, it is tumah. But this not the case when death comes on the altar of a higher idea. When death comes through mesirut nefesh – self-sacrifice – to sanctify G-d’s holy name, then such a death is holy. It is a death that is not the end of creativity; rather it is the ultimate creative act.


As a veteran IDF rabbi in the reserves, part of my job is to deal with fallen soldiers on the field of battle. Thank G-d, although I have served in three wars and several major military operations, dealing with fallen soldiers has been only a small part of my total military rabbinic activities, albeit an important and holy one. And after having had the merit to fulfill such a mitzvah more than several dozen times with fallen soldiers and terror victims, I can state that I have been able to understand the great distinction between the death of tumah and the death of taharah – having dealt with the latter.


It must be understood that according to Jewish law, even with the death of the greatest Torah scholar, should he pass away in a normal manner, via old age or illness, the body is considered to be tumah and it must go through a taharah procedure prior to burial. And yet, the most irreligious soldier, should he fall in battle defending his nation and the land — and his uniform and equipment if they are soaked with his blood — is buried as is, without taharah, because he is considered to have died a holy death.


His very act of fighting Israel’s enemies gives his death this special meaning. He has sanctified G-d’s holy name by his last actions. His death has meaning: it is not merely life leaving his body; it is the ultimate sacrifice a Jew can make, and by making that sacrifice, whether or not he totally understood the full meaning of it, his death is “Al Kiddush Hashem” and his body is tahor.


It is not by accident that we celebrate – yes, celebrate – Memorial Day as a prelude to Independence Day. It is in order that we put true spiritual context into Independence Day. We go from yagon (sorrow) to simha (joyousness) and we do so understanding the enormity of the sacrifice of the generations that preceded our own and that of our own generation in returning our nation to our Holy Land. Thus we are also able to better understand our own responsibility and commitment to build the land and the nation in a manner that will also sanctify G-d’s holy name in life.

About the Author
Yedidya Atlas is a veteran journalist specializing in geo-political and geo-strategic affairs in the Middle East. His articles have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, Insight Magazine, Nativ, The Jerusalem Post and Makor Rishon. His articles have been reprinted by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in the US Congressional Record.