The pictures that fill our screens on Yom Hazikaron this year are powerful and evocative. Rows of identical tombstones stand side by side, flanked with flags of blue and white, with black ribbons as a sign of mourning. No mothers whisper to sons cut down in their prime. No brothers stand silently between the trees. No grandmothers weep at their granddaughters’ graves. The cemeteries are empty, silent and still.
The images are eerie. On Mount Herzl, a handful of dignitaries are seated, two meters apart. An honor guard stands at attention, with six feet between the soldiers. Everyone is wearing a mask.
Three years ago today, I went to Mount Herzl for the siren. My two soldier sons, one of whom was being trained for combat, were both there, standing beside graves of Israel’s fallen; if they could confront their mortality, I felt I should be able to confront my fear of loss.
When I arrived, I was overwhelmed by the mass of humanity there, bound by a common history, a common fate, and common purpose. Shoulder to shoulder, the pilgrims inched their way up the winding paths until they arrived at the grave of a specific soldier or someone they never knew.
When the siren pierced the air, everyone froze. Thousands of people stood alone with their thoughts, while together at the same time.
Today the scene is very different. The people who would usually be at Mount Herzl – the families of the fallen – are shuttered in their homes. No standing at attention next to the graveside during the siren, no graveside Kaddish, no hugs from friends and relatives, no annual meetups with comrades of the fallen later at home. They, like those of us who would have been there with them to express our solidarity, are in front of their televisions. The lockdown is affecting all of us — even our fallen soldiers.
The siren is different this year than other years. It catches us at a time when we are lonely and isolated, when we are vulnerable, confronting our own mortality, and fearing for the health of our loved ones. It catches us during a struggle to survive, when we are being attacked by an invisible force. Living in the shadow of the coronavirus has heightened our awareness of what it means to live with fear. It has increased our appreciation of those who put themselves at risk to protect and serve us, whether soldiers protecting our national home, doctors and nurses protecting our bodies, cashiers at the stores where we buy our food, or delivery men and women who bring us provisions.
The siren this year also catches us when we are missing our children. We see them on Zoom and on WhatsApp, but our adult children and grandchildren cannot visit us and we cannot visit them. We find ourselves going into their rooms, sitting on their beds, caressing their clothes, wondering when family get-togethers will be safe for at-risk parents and grandparents, longing for a hug. When the siren sounds, the thought that there are parents whose children are never coming back is overwhelming. It hits us in a different way.
At the end of the ceremony, after Yizkor is recited and “El Maleh Rachamim” is sung, the plaintive strains of Hatikvah fill the air. This hope that is 2,000 years old is what brought us to this country, is what keeps us here, and is what ties us to each other. This hope and camaraderie is what makes it so hard for us to think of bereaved families sitting home alone. This hope is what convinces us that however bleak the situation may look for Israel’s economy, it will recover. This hope is what makes us pray that our political situation will be okay.
As we reach the end of the song, sequestered in our homes and on our balconies, the idea of being a “free people” in our homeland suddenly takes on new meaning. We look at the masks on our television screens, curse this virus, and long for the day when we will be able to once again inch our way up Mount Herzl as part of a mass of humanity to stand side by side with bereaved families.
As three fighter planes zoom over Mount Herzl and past the towers of Jerusalem, we are one with those families, we dream of hugging our own soldiers close, and are ever grateful for what we have.
This post is an updated version of When the siren sounds on Mount Herzl, which was published on The Times of Israel on Israel’s Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers in 2018.