Driving up route 98 on the eastern tip of Israel’s Golan Heights is one of the most beautiful and relaxing rides one can take. The cows grazing peacefully from the sun-dried hay on the side of the road, the smell of the volcanic rocks that make up the high and mighty Golan, and the endless beautiful view allowing you to see far as possible and see nature in its purest form. Despite the beauty of the drive, I find myself compelled to pull over again and again on the side of the road with tears in my eyes. The reason for this compulsion? The memorial monuments that fill the side of the road, disrupting the peaceful beauty of the Golan, as the lives of the beautiful young soldiers were disrupted by the Yom Kippur War, never to recover.
The first monument that caught my attention was Tel Saki, an army base and lookout into Syria captured by the Syrians during the Yom Kippur war. I pull over in the parking lot and climb to the top of the base. I see tunnels through which the soldiers walked, the lookout post, and the dirt roads from Syria. I can imagine the 20-year-old boys – kids – fighting off a vast Syrian army beginning on Yom Kippur 1973 and the days that followed. Thirty-two of them never came back. The haunting memorial on-site includes cutouts of soldiers in full gear, holding their guns, remaining in that position – and age – forever.
After looking around, reading the names and staring at the terrifyingly young faces on the memorial monument, I resume my journey, get in the car and continue heading north. As I begin picking up speed, I suddenly notice another – much smaller – memorial on the side of the road. This one is a simple rock bearing the names of eight soldiers who died there, with the skeleton of a heavy military vehicle, a silent testimony to the heavy fighting of the day. I recite a chapter of Psalms and a Yizkor memorial prayer for those soldiers, get back in the car and continue driving.
Once again, I hardly pick up speed and see a rock stood up with an Israeli flag next to it. I pull over and see this carries one name – Yitzchak Berashi. I later learn he was a tank commander and was just 31 when he died fighting to stop the Soviet-armed Syrian army from coming into Israel. Once again, I say a prayer, get back into the car and continue driving.
As I drive through the now twisty road, inching my way north, I notice a group of cannons painted black – pointed up – yes, another memorial. As if caught by a spell, I pull over once again. This memorial is in memory of the Barak unit, 79 of whom died within less than a mile, fighting off the Syrian army. Once again, I say a memorial prayer. The whisper of the wind and weeds moving in unison highlight the quiet around me. No cars. No people. Just me and the memory of the fallen. I can imagine the young soldiers thrust out of their Yom Kippur prayers into the cruelty of war. I can imagine the horror in their eyes as they see the endless columns of Syrian Soviet tanks creeping towards them – on their way to crush the rest of Israel.
These stories gained broader recognition with the filming of Valley of Tears, memorializing the struggle, pain, and heroism in the fateful days of the Yom Kippur War, focusing on the story of one base in the northern Golan (Chermonit).
Wondering why I felt so compelled to pay tribute to each and every one of these memorials, I was reminded of the story about the young yeshiva student who told his Rabbi – Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Aurbach – he wanted to travel away from his Yeshiva in Jerusalem up to northern Israel to pray on the graves of the great rabbis buried in northern Israel. Rabbi Aurbach, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, famously told his student: “why do you need to go all the way up north to pray on the graves of righteous rabbis when you can simply go to Mount Herzl in Jerusalem where you can pray next to the graves of righteous fallen soldiers?!” The rabbi went on to share that when he feels in need of his prayers to be heard with urgency, he goes to Mount Herzl and prays at the side of the grave of fallen soldiers as he believes God will listen to his prayers in merit of their righteousness. Rabbi Auerbach believed that even though many of the fallen soldiers came from secular homes and did not study Torah and keep the mitzvot to the extent the great rabbis of yore did, yet in his eyes, there was something more righteous about those soldiers.
I was reminded of the rabbis and how they had spoken about those who sacrifice their life, for the sake of Jewish life – in the land of Israel. The Midrash says about the verse in the Ten Commandments, which states about God “and [I] perform loving-kindness to thousands [of generations], to those who love Me and to those who keep My commandments.”
The Midrash, cited by Rabbi Moses Nachmanides (Ibid, translation by Sefaria), states: “Rabbi Nathan says that the verse, of them that love Me and keep My commandments refers to those who dwell in the Land of Israel and give their lives for the commandments. The reference is obviously to the persecutions by the Roman emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE), when Jews in the Land of Israel were forbidden from the practice of Judaism. Their determination to remain in the Land of Israel and practice their faith instead of emigrating to more peaceful lands such as Babylon was at those times constituted as a special manifestation of their love of G-d. ‘Why are you being led out to be executed?’ ‘Because I have circumcised my son.’ ‘Why are you being led out to be burned?’ ‘Because I read the Torah.’ ‘Why are you being led out to be hanged?’ ‘Because I ate the unleavened bread.’ ‘Why are you being lashed with the whip?’ ‘Because I took the lulav.”
The Midrash recognizes a superior spiritual level – unattainable by others – for those who sacrifice for the sake of something greater than themselves. Those who sacrifice – some even sacrificing their own life – are recognized on a far higher spiritual level than others. American president Calvin Coolidge once said: “Heroism is not only in the man but in the occasion.” Often it is the occasion that makes us who we are, rather than us making the occasion.
Young soldiers who have given their lives to defend Jewish life in the land of Israel are the axis holding up the three sacred aspects of who we are as a people: the land of Israel, the people of Israel, and the Torah of Israel.
While thousands of years have passed, the circumstance has remained in place. The story of the many soldiers who gave their lives defending the people of Israel in the land of Israel evokes the Talmudical story of Pappus and Lulyanus (see Taanit 18b). The story took place in the city of Lod during the first century. Someone had killed a Roman noble’s daughter, and he decided that unless he found the perpetrator of this murder, he would kill the entire city of Lod. The people of the town were terrified.
No one knew who committed this horrendous crime, and the whole city was headed towards annihilation. Suddenly, two brothers named Pappus and Lulyanus got up and – despite not having committed the crime – decided they would turn themselves in to the Romans and admit to the crime they had not committed so as to save the entire city. No great miracle or happy end took place. Pappus and Lulyanus were executed by the Romans, though they did save the entire city of Lod. The rabbis declared “Harugei Malchut En Lemalah Mehem – there is no one with a higher place in Heaven than these two brothers.” Having made the ultimate sacrifice – giving their very own life – posthumously elevated their souls higher than anyone else.
Speaking on August 20th, 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said with regard to members of the Royal Air Force, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” So much owed by so many to so few is also true of Pappus and Lulyanus and the Israeli soldiers whose lives were taken from them as they heroically defended the land and the people of Israel. The debt owed to those soldiers is both physical and spiritual. They are owed so much, yet having given away their very soul for the sake of others, their soul rises to a high level like no one else.
Writing in a very different context, the great Moses Maimonides shared the exact same idea. Writing to the Jews of Spain and Morocco in the year 1165 as they were facing religious persecution and forced conversion, Maimonides reflected on the tragic cases in which Jews were killed for no reason other than being Jewish. In this letter known as Iggeret Hashmad (Letter of Apostasy) or Maamar Kiddush Hashem (Essay on Sanctifying God’s Name), Maimonides writes: “and a person who merits by God to ascend to this high virtue, that is to say, they are killed sanctifying God’s name (i.e., killed just because they are Jewish), even if their sins are numerous like those of [the wicked] Yerova’am son of Nebat, he has a share in the world to come, as it is said, “Harugei Malchut En Lemalah Mehem – there is no one with a higher place in Heaven than these two brothers.”
While Judaism sanctifies life, strictly forbids voluntary martyrdom, and asks us to do everything we can to save lives, it also recognizes those who have given – in the language of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address – “the last full measure of devotion.” This is why I felt compelled to stop at each and every memorial on that narrow road in the Golan Heights, in the heat of the Israeli summer. I could not just drive on physically, nor can any of us continue to drive on metaphorically, and it is Yom Hazikaron gives us exactly that opportunity – to stop and recognize those who have altruistically given up everything.
And how did my trip up the road continue? I continued my drive north to the bottom of the beautiful mount Bental, overlooking Qunaitra, Syria. Looking at the border, I can see the fence between Israel and Syria and the little homes and fields of Syrians across the border. Right in the middle of the border, I saw the hospital where my friend Lt. Col. Eyal Dror helped treat and feed more than 200,000 Syrians during the brutal Syrian civil war in the IDF’s Operation Good Neighbor. I could not help think of the fact that Lt. Col. Eyal Dror’s uncle was killed and father was injured in the Yom Kippur war. I thought if only the Syrian soldiers attacking Israel during the Yom Kippur would have known that their own family members would be rescued and treated by family members of the same soldiers they were attacking – a thought I later shared with Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon.
Yom Hazikaron is the time we all pull over, no matter how fast our drive, and remember those who selflessly sacrificed everything for the land and the people of Israel. Those who ran into merciless enemy fire, those who charged towards thundering tank fire, and those who were ambushed just because they wanted to live as Jews in the land of Israel. We take this day to show the fallen just a little of the recognition and respect they deserve. It is the least we can do for those soldiers whose lives froze forever on Yom Kippur afternoon 1973 in the Valley of Tears, or for any other soldier and terror victim who fell for the sanctity of the land and the people. We also stand with too many parents whose hearts are bleeding the words of Jeremiah “My dearest son Ephraim, a child whom I delight, For whenever I speak of him, I still remember him: therefore my heart yearns for him” (Jeremiah 38)