We visited Israel on the Seventieth Anniversary and were there during the period of the three Yom’s (Days) of Yom HaShoah[i], Yom HaZikaron[ii] and Yom HaAtzmaut[iii]. We experienced those auspicious occasions like nowhere else in the world. I can’t help but reflect on the mix of emotions we felt that made it so unique.
First came the Yom HaShoah observance. It was unlike any I had experienced in the US. Both my father Z”L and father-in-law Z”L were Holocaust survivors, who had lived through the horrors of Auschwitz. It was thus an especially solemn and even grim day, as we remembered them and all the others who perished in the Holocaust and since. We usually attended a Yom HaShoah program; but the atmosphere was somewhat restrained. We typically kept our emotions in check. When the program ended, we exited the auditorium to witness a world that was unaffected by the seriousness of the moment. It was just another regular day outside, with business as usual.
However, in Israel, it’s not just a local event attended by a few interested persons. It’s a whole nation marking the occasion. Everywhere we went, we felt the gravity of the moment. While we were told what to expect when the siren sounded, it was nevertheless stunning to be a part of the scene. Everyone, everywhere around us, just stopped in their tracks. Traffic came to a standstill and people stood respectfully next to their vehicles. We all bowed our heads in silence, as we quietly remembered. The feeling of seeing everyone join in the observance was overwhelming and my eyes welled up in tears. This time it wasn’t just a few Jews huddled together or even an assembly of many; it was an entire nation observing the moment in unison. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride too in the respect and sensitivity everyone displayed to each other.
A few days later came the observance of Yom HaZikaron. We attended a number of programs marking the occasion. We heard heart-wrenching tales of suffering from parents who lost children in terrorist attacks. There was not a dry eye in the audience; everyone shared their pain. And, then, just like that, it was night and in a blink of the eye the atmosphere changed.
As Yom HaZikaron ended and Yom HaAzmaut began, it was suddenly music and celebrations; there was no transition. The non-stop partying continued into the wee hours of the night. We met friends from all over the world, as we soaked up the festive atmosphere and danced the Hora in circles and sang. The next day there were more celebratory events and programs to enjoy. It was a thrilling experience.
I can’t help but marvel at the extraordinary resilience and determination of everyone present. One moment, we were bemoaning the tragic loss of life in the Holocaust and in defense of Israel, including in horrible terrorist attacks. The next, we were celebrating the miracle of survival and triumph of modern day Israel, with all its incredible successes and beauty. We were bonded together by the shared emotions, memories and values we collectively experienced and treasured. This existential reality set these moments apart from the other times we had observed these three days and our feelings in the moment were incomparable.
This bittersweet theme of confronting and overcoming all manner of challenges together, memorializing and sharing in the grief for those lost and then joining with one another in celebration of the survival and triumph of Am Yisrael resonates throughout the ages. Soren Kierkegaard[iv] might have explained this all as a matter of exercising the moral courage to grieve and religious courage to rejoice. However, what we felt in Israel on those three days was a whole other dimension of experience. The Talmud[v] expresses it most succinctly in the artful phrase that a person should not celebrate among those weeping or weep among those celebrating. We must be respectful of each other’s circumstances and somehow manage to offer support despite how we might personally feel at the time.
The Pele Yoetz[vi] offers a nuanced explanation of how this antithetical mix of emotions is reconciled. He notes we don’t allow an individual to suffer alone in grief. We also don’t permit a person joyously to celebrate good events alone. We are all brethren and feel and act as if we are all figuratively of one heart and body. Thus, if one part of the body public hurts then we all hurt. Our empathetic hearts feel the suffering of others, as well as, rejoice in their success. Even if don’t exactly feel that way because of personal burdens, nevertheless, it is unseemly to act otherwise. We are, therefore, compelled to sublimate our personal feelings and channel them in support of our brethren on these occasions.
Visit Israel as soon as it’s possible. There’s no substitute for actually being there, meeting the people and personally soaking up the extraordinary atmosphere of this very special place. Our entire trip to Israel was wonderful. However the unique experiences we had on those three Yom’s are among our treasured memories.
[i] Holocaust Memorial Day.
[ii] Memorial Day.
[iii] Independence Day.
[iv] Soren Kierkegaard Journal and Papers 2179.
[v] Tractate Kallah Rabbati 10:2, Derech Eretz Rabbah 7:7 and Derech Eretz Zutta 5:5.
[vi] Pele Yoetz (Chapter 99:2), a 19th century book of Jewish Musar (ethics), composed by Rav Eliezer Papo.