To Be Israeli

Usually, on Yom Hazikaron I go to Har Herzl. Not for the big ceremony, but afterwards. Just to walk around and listen to stories from family members, about the deceased heroes. This year I can’t. So, I’m doing this literary tour of the Israeli mindset on Yom Hazikaron. 

I’m going to tell 3 very short stories in reverse chronological order.  

On Tish B’av 5766 (August 3, 2006), Michael Levin was laid to rest on Har Herzl. He was a 22-year-old Lone Soldier from Philadelphia.  His story is an amazing one, and is worth looking up (https://www.timesofisrael.com/why-the-life-and-death-of-lone-soldier-michael-levin-still-resonates-a-decade-after-the-war/). But I just want to say something about his funeral. 

His parents, of course, came in for the funeral. In the movie “A Hero in Heaven,” Michael’s father, Mark, told the story about pulling up to the cemetery in a cab, straight from Ben Gurion Airport: 

We were concerned that there wouldn’t be a minyan. As we arrived, we saw thousands of people walking in the hot sun on a day many of them were fasting. We asked a young man in a black hat where he was going, and he said, ‘To the funeral of a Zadik.’ It made us even more depressed that there would be a massive funeral near our tiny one. Imagine our surprise when we found out that they were all there for our Michael. 

The Levins didn’t yet understand what all Israel feels for its fallen. They do now. They have endowed many programs for Lone Soldiers, in memory of Michael, their Hero in Heaven. 

After making Aliya in 1983, we moved to Efrat. In 1986, a neighbor lost a son to a truck accident in the army. I made a shiva call, and told his father that this was the first time I personally know someone who died in uniform. His father got up from his low stool, embraced me, and said, ‘Now you’re an Israeli.’ 

It’s true. The stories are very moving, and as an adviser in NCSY, I wrung every ounce of emotion from my audiences, telling stories of Israeli sacrifice. I had the chutzpah to brag about how many people I got to cry. But it’s not real until you put a known and familiar face to the name, story and headstone. Sadly, my neighbor was the first of many. 

But the first time I ever heard this emotion expressed was by Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik, the ‘Rov’ (1903-1993). He had just finished delivering a Saturday night lecture at the Maimonides School cafeteria, in Brookline, MA. It was June 10, 1967. He was just leaving the room, when a young woman got up to make an announcement, ‘To celebrate the miraculous victory in this week’s Six Day War, there will be a rally tomorrow at noon on Boston Common!’ There was cheering.

The Rov stopped in his tracks, turned around near the exit door, and raised his hand, bringing total silence, ‘Of course, you can all do what you want. But I can’t celebrate. 600 young Israeli boys just died. I know you’re happy about the Kotel, but those stones aren’t worth the blood of even one of those boys.’  

The hush sucked the air out of the room, as we slowly filed out.  

I was moved by what the Rov said. But I didn’t get it. I went to Boston Common and had a great time. Here’s the takeaway: There’s always time to celebrate the victories, but first we must recognize the sacrifices. Yom Hazikaron is always before Yom Ha’Atzmaut.

Generally speaking, only Israelis get it. 

Next: A Home of Our Own  

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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