Living in America, I cannot help being struck by the stark contrast between Yom Hazikaron in America and Yom Hazikaron in Israel. Yom Hazikaron in America is Memorial Day. It is a federal holiday in May that honors and mourns the United States military personnel who have died while serving in the United States armed forces. How does the average American feel about Memorial Day? Barbecues. Long weekend. Extra day off work. There are some notable exceptions, and there are events throughout the country that pay tribute to the American soldiers who sacrificed their lives in defense of the United States, but that is not the dominant feeling amongst the average American citizen on Memorial Day.
In Israel, the mood couldn’t be any different on its memorial day. In Israel, for 24 hours all places of public entertainment are closed. A siren is heard throughout the country, during which the entire nation observes a two-minute silence and cessation of all activities. All radio and television stations broadcast programs portraying the lives and heroic deeds of fallen soldiers. Most of the songs played on Israeli radio that day convey the mood of the day.
Why is that? Why is Israel’s Memorial Day, its Yom Hazikaron, so solemn compared to America’s Memorial Day? First, the loss in Israel is so personal. We don’t merely remember Joseph Trumpeldor, the one-armed Russian soldier who fell at the Battle of Tel Hai in 1920, and uttered on his deathbed, “ein davar, tov lamut b’ad artzenu” – “no matter; it is good to die for our land.” We don’t merely remember Yonatan Netanyahu, the lone Israeli soldier killed at the heroic Entebbe rescue mission in 1976. We don’t merely remember Yossi Tabeja, the Ethiopian immigrant who was killed at the beginning of the Second Intifada in September 2000 by his Palestinian patrol partner outside of Kalkilya. We don’t merely remember Michael Levin, the American who made aliya after going to Camp Ramah, USY, and Alexander Muss High School in Israel, and was killed during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. We don’t merely remember the 24,213 fallen soldiers and 4255 victims of terror.
We remember Boaz Gol, Yonatan Havakuk, Oren Ben Yitfah, Shalom Sofer, Tamir Avihai, Michael Ladygin, Motti Ashkenazi, Aryeh Shechopek, Tades Tashume Ben Ma’ada, Eli and Natalie Mizrahi, Rafael Ben-Eliyahu, Asher Natan, Shaul Chai, Irina Korolova, Ilya Sosonsky, Shlomo Liderman, Yaakov Yisrael Paley, Asher Menahem Paley, Hallel Yaniv, Yagel Yaniv, Elan Ganeles, Or Eshkar, Lucy Dee, Maia Dee, Rina Dee, and Alesandro Parini, the twenty-seven victims of terror since last Yom Hazikaron. We are living the tragedy of Yom Hazikaron not as avelut yeshana, a tragedy that has happened in the past, but we remember it as avelut chadasha, a tragedy that is happening in the present, when parents are mourning the loss of a son or daughter and when a fiancée or a new bride is mourning the loss of her fiancé or new husband. Yom Hazikaron is not only about the past. It is about the present, the very tragic present, that we remember each and every year.
But there is a second reason why we approach Yom Hazikaron in Israel with a great deal of solemnity. We are a people of memory. In 1982, the Jewish historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi published a book entitled, “Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory.” Yerushalmi’s main argument in the book is that the obligation to remember is central to our identity as Jews. After all, the Hebrew word for remember – zachor – is repeated nearly 200 times in the Torah. For the Jew, to remember is “a command delivered many times in the Bible, and it is possible to see Judaism itself as a technology of memory, a set of practices designed to make the past present.” For the Jew, zachor, or memory, is not simply about remembering a past event. It is about utilizing a memory from the past to shape our present and future.
Yom Hazikaron is more than just mourning the past. It is more than even expressing eternal gratitude for those who sacrificed their lives in defense of medinat Yisrael. It is those things and much more. Yom Hazikaron is about remembering our heroes and their mission and by extension understanding our mission. And maybe once we understand our mission, the day of Yom Hazikaron can provide us with some comfort.
One of the greatest Rabbis of the 20th century was Rav Yisrael Gustman, zt”l, a brilliant individual who survived the Holocaust and founded the yeshiva Netzach Yisrael in Yerushalayim. Once a week he gave a shiur to Rabbis, intellectuals, religious court judges, a Supreme Court justice and various professors and others who sought a high-level gemara shiur.
One of the regular participants was a professor at Hebrew University, Robert Aumann, who ended up receiving the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2005. In 1982, Israel was at war and the reserve units were activated and among those called to duty was a university student who made his living as a high school teacher, Shlomo Aumann, Professor Aumann’s son. On the eve of the 19th of Sivan, Shlomo fell in battle. Rav Gustman attended the funeral and then paid a shiva call to Professor Aumann, who said: “Rabbi, I so appreciate your coming to the cemetery, but now is time for you to return to your Yeshiva.” Rav Gustman turned to Professor Aumann who was sitting shiva and told him. “I am sure that you don’t know this, but I had a son named Meir. He was a beautiful child. He was taken from my arms and executed in the Holocaust. I escaped. I later bartered my child’s shoes so that we would have food, but I was never able to eat the food — I gave it away to others. My Meir is a kadosh — he is holy — he and all the six million who perished are holy.” Rav Gustman then added: “I will tell you what is transpiring now in the World of Truth in Gan Eden — in Heaven. My Meir is welcoming your Shlomo into the minyan and is saying to him ‘I died because I am a Jew — but I wasn’t able to save anyone else. But you — Shlomo, you died defending the Jewish People and the Land of Israel.’ My Meir is a kadosh, he is holy — but your Shlomo is a shaliach tzibbur – a Chazzan, a Cantor, in that holy, heavenly minyan.” Rav Gustman continued: “I never had the opportunity to sit shiva for my Meir; let me sit here with you just a little longer.” Professor Aumann replied, “I thought I could never be comforted, but Rebbi, you have comforted me.”
The sadness and the tragedy of Yom Hazikaron in Israel is so personal, but perhaps the small comfort is that those who died did so out of a sense of mission, of building and defending our historic homeland, each one being a holy shaliach tzibbur, a chazzan, for our nation, and maybe we who live in America should think about this day as being, yes, a day of sadness, yes, a day of gratitude to those who sacrificed their lives to defend medinat Yisrael, but also it a day to reflect upon about the mission that they died for and how we can continue that mission even from America.
How do we do this? First, financially support Israel. Buy Israeli products. Give tzedakah specifically to causes in Israel. Visit Israel if you can. If you run a tzedakah project, try to run one that supports Israel.
Second, be a political advocate for the State of Israel. In recent years, support for Israel is shrinking in the United States, especially among young Americans, even young Jews who assert that Israel is a racist state that has committed the crime of occupation on Palestinian land. Educate yourself about the State of Israel and then find opportunities to engage in political advocacy on behalf of our beloved homeland and to educate others in the media or on social media who wish to demonize Israel because they don’t know the facts.
Third, study Torat Eretz Yisrael. Supporting the Zionist enterprise means more than visiting the country, buying Israeli products, donating to charitable causes in Israel, political advocacy, reciting the prayer for the soldiers of the IDF and for the State of Israel in our shuls, and marching in the Israel Day Parade. We need to ask ourselves the following questions. How does a return to Israel impact our lives as Jews? What does it truly mean from a religious perspective to return to our homeland after 2000 years in exile? What does it mean for a Jewish state made up of religious and secular Jews to observe Torah and mitzvot? For thousands of years, we were Jewish communities observing Torah and mitzvot and now we are an Am Yisrael – a nation with a land. What does that mean? How does a Jewish army function in a moral and ethical way? What about Israeli hospitals that are run according to halacha? What does that look like? What should a Shabbat look like in the State of Israel, in a country with both religious and non-religious Jews? These are questions that religious Jews in Israel are grappling with and this is the Torah that we should learn – the Torah of an Am Yisrael – of a nation of Israel with new practical questions of halacha that we are facing for the first time in 2000 years. We should study Torat Yisrael.
Finally, aliya. I think each one of us should think about a future in Israel, because ultimately when moshiach comes, that’s where we will all be. The question is whether we want to actively be part of that process. We don’t need to make any decisions today, tomorrow, or the next week, but this is something that every Jew in America must think about. Even if we may not be able to recognize our future in Israel, we should hope at the very least that our children will consider joining the destiny of klal Yisrael in our historic homeland.
May our memory of Yom Hazikaron be an opportunity to mourn, to say thank you and to re-energize us to utilize the past to shape our future in the State of Israel.