Tonight in Israel at 20.00 (8pm) there will be a siren, which will bring in Israeli Remembrance Day. Cafes, shops and public places of entertainment will be closed. The TV stations will broadcast the list of the fallen for 24 hours. Names will flash on the screen for a second and then disappear, but the people behind the names will remain indelibly burned into the memories of those left behind.
The country falls into a 24-hour coma of quiet melancholy and reflection, there are ceremonies, and parents who have buried children are comforted for a day. Suddenly, we all remember them. If you hang around this country long enough you’ll inevitably be touched by the clammy hand of bereavement or trauma – I have two friends who were affected by terror attacks – but life, as it must, continues.
People deal with grief and trauma in different ways. Some turn to education. My father served in the Royal Air Force for 22 years, and he took me to dozens of Commonwealth graveyards in Europe, to teach me the cost of war. Some turn to reconciliation, hoping for peace so their loved ones won’t have given their lives in vain, and for the cycle of blood to cease.
The Jewish People grieves communally. We analyse our grief, as individuals and as a nation, and we have a long history of collective response to grief, trauma and existential threats. One of the major religious objections to Remembrance Day at the establishment of the State was its perceived departure from the collective – the Hebrew month of Iyar is a month of happiness, and we already have the Ninth of Av as a day of national mourning. While this is of course correct, there are other days of mourning or collective contemplation before days of great happiness: In Adar, for example, we have the fast of Esther, broken by the feast of Purim.
The traditional response to national and collective grief is to fast, yet it is not a mainstream observance. Why? One might say it is because no religious figure has come forward to mandate it. But while it’s true that there is no rabbinical or halakhic requirement to fast on Remembrance Day, we don’t necessarily need it.
Today is our opportunity to take ownership of our grief. I choose to fast. It helps me to concentrate, access and examine my relationship with our collective trauma, and express – in the smallest way I can – empathy with the victims of terror, and the families of those who have fallen on guard.