Apr 23, 2007

Memorial Day in Israel

Yom Ha'Zikaron has begun. The siren blared tonight at 8pm and will sound again tomorrow morning at 11am. We will have our ceremony at work after the siren.

Yom Ha'Zikaron, Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers, is a day of mixed emotions for me.

On the one hand I have not lost any family or friends in battle. t makes it difficult to relate, to a certain extent. Think of it like this - how many of us think of Memorial Day in the United States as a day of anything more than a great day for picnics and baseball? Not too many, unless you have a relative who served in the US Army or some other connection, which in the Jewish religious community today is not too common. So the Yom Ha'Zikaron day is missing the "oomph" for me.

On the other hand, we are all brothers, and it is not like the United States here. If you turn on the radio you will here somber music, as it is a day of national mourning and remembrance. You will here a list of names being read of over 22,000 fallen soldiers. You will hear stories of many of the soldiers who fell. So despite not being personally connected to the day, I still feel a national connection to the day. And even though I do not listen much to the radio (we do not get good reception at home, so basically I only listen when in the car and a bit at work), one cannot avoid but feeling the pain and grief of the families who have lost their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.

I was in the car this evening as Memorial Day began and they were telling over stories of some soldiers who had died. Every single soldier has a story. Each one had his aspirations and dreams. One had just been accepted into Officers School and was overjoyed at his prospects for leadership in the army when he fell in battle. Another died while saving other soldiers in his unit. Another died trying to liberate Jerusalem. And on. And on. Everybody has a story. Each soldier was a person.

Yom Ha'Zikaron comes the day before Yom Ha'Atzmaut. We first mourn our fallen brethren and then rejoice in the gift they fell fighting for, either liberating or defending. It is a confusing juxtaposition of days. We go from a day of mourning to a day of joy.

I remember when I was younger, in Yeshivah, and in my curiosity I would go to downtown Jerusalem to see the revelers celebrating on the night of Yom Ha'Atzmaut. It was exciting as everybody was in the street having a great time. But it was strange, as they had just finished mourning a couple of hours prior. It was like people are expected to "throw the switch" and go from mourning mode to celebrating mode.

I think that placing these days so close to one another is similar to what we do in Judaism. When we have celebratory events, we are meant to temper them. We tone down our simchas by remembering the churban - the destruction of our temple. We often do not know what that means and just go through the motions.

I remember at my wedding when the Rosh Yeshiva put the ash on my head. Everybody is concerned about where to get the ash and who smokes and what to burn and where on the head to put it. Nobody told me what it was supposed to mean. Sure I knew it was to remember the churban, but that meant nothing to me. It was just a curious custom.

We break a glass under the chuppa. As soon as the glass is broken everybody screams out mazel tov and the band starts playing its music. Do we remember that breaking the glass is another custom meant to evoke thoughts of the churban?

When one builds or paints a house he is meant to leave a square unpainted in a place visible when he walks into the house. His joy is supposed to be tempered by remembering the destruction of the temple. But what do we do? Some of us decorate that square so it looks beautiful. Some of us just don't bother with the square at all (though it is more common in Israel).

These memories and thoughts are difficult to effect, as we get further and further from the destruction. Yet we are still supposed to recognize it as an embedded trauma in our nation.

There are many other similar customs in Judaism. They are meant to evoke these thoughts. At the time of our joy, we are meant to remember our sadness. No joy can be complete as long as the national trauma is still festering.

Our Yom Ha'atzmaut is joyous as we celebrate the gift of the Land of Israel. But we have to temper that joy by first remembering those who fell fighting for us. They fought so that we could live here safely. Today we will hear some of the names and some of the stories, and tomorrow we will celebrate.

I wish to conclude this post with some words my brother, the volunteer soldier in the Israeli army, wrote in his weekly email to his relatives and friends. While he wrote it for Yom Ha'Shoah, it is just as relevant for Yom Ha'Zikaron. And here it is:

yom hashoah was a very moving day. one of the things i never had was a proper Zionist education and i feel bad that there are religious jews that oppose these days so strongly. first, our commander sat down with us and we spoke about the day and what it means to each and every one of us. some guys said they didnt really relate to the day at all other than it has to be remembered. also, these kids are 18 years old and not really comfortable with saying how they really feel about things so i got up and spoke about what the day means to me.

i remember my bubby kupfer when she came home from the hospital after her alzheimers had gotten really bad. i remember her looking at my tzitzit, grabbing them and crying. she asked me if i was a jew and if there was kosher food. she asked me if there were other jews alive. she told me to take them off before someone catches me. she asked if i was allowed to go out in the streets with tzitzit on. i thought she would keel over and die when i showed her my tefillin. she asked if we were safe. if we were allowed to be jews.

i remember going to shul on that july 4th weekend in '99 the morning after the white-supremacist, Benjamin Smith, opened fire on members of my synogague as they were on their way home to their families and their friday night meals. in high-school, shortly after 9/11 when in the middle of the night someone threw Molotov cocktails at our dormitories.
i remember in college when a fellow student came up to me and said - "are you jewish? ive never met a jew before. they tell me you killed christ."

there are people that hate us for being jewish. just for being born a Jew. for having a heritage and history that is a foundation of modern western society. for writing a book that changed the world.

and i know that if not for medinat yisroel and tsaha''l, there isnt a single jew in the world who would have the balls today to walk in the streets with his tzitzit out. or to wear a black hat in public let alone to go visit our psychopath cousin Ahmajenidad. there isnt a single jew out there who doesnt feel the chills of pride when he hears the story of how the tsankhanim recaptured the kotel and Motti Gur shouting into the radio "har habayit biyadenu, ani chozer, har habayit biyadenu." tsaha'l and Medinat Yisroel give us in chutz la'aretz the strength, the pride, and the courage to stand tall. to be jews. secular or religious, it gives us the strength to be proud of who we are. it keeps us safe by providing a home that any jew at any time can go back to.

afterwards, there was a ceremony for the entire base. poems were read, songs were sung, yizkor was recited and a torch was lit. the M.C. had this clipboard painted black with a yellow magen david in the center. we had a moment of silence, saluted, and sang hatikvah.


  1. Nice that you were able to feel and express your feelings about these days.

  2. taanis esther to purim... thats a good example. I noticed how you were talking about the customs of midinas yisrael and then compared to how Judaism is similar. Some may argue that it is one in the same.
    Almost every year without fail my father asks me if i said Hallel on Yom Ha'tzmaut. I always say no, and ask if he did, and if the minyan he was at did. I remember him once telling me that when we got the Kotel back in 1969 was one of the greatest miracles for him that he had ever seen, and he grew up barely jewish on a farm in New Jersey.
    I think, like you, i take these days with a certain seriousness and introspection, and at the same time a certain "Torah distance". I want to say mishnayas during the siren and i like having a BBQ on Yom Ha'atzmut. It certainly means a lot more than buying furniture and watching baseball. But at the same time, im not sure I will start saying Hallel until the entire Knesset is shomer shabbas and Torah is the main value of the government. Until then, i recognize the importance of having an Eretz Yisrael, I will live here, raise my kids here (BE"H) and pay my taxes. But i dont celebrate a victory half way through. Wait until the war is over, then we will sing Hallel together, every Jew in the world. together.

  3. whats - you have a point, but I was not saying otherwise. I was not implying that medinat yisrael is not or has nothing to do with judaism. I actually am preparing a yom ha'atzmaut post in which I will say just the opposite. How connected they are.
    I was simply comparing the idea of these days with various customs we have that are not connected to these days.

    Hallel is another issue that confuses me every single year. I agree with your point about not saying hallel in the middle of a process, but on the other hand the events of 1948 stand on their own as well.

    BTW, you meant 1967, not 1969. And I know some people in Yerushalayim who say Hallel on Yom Yerushalayim and not on Yom Ha'Atzmaut.

  4. Get unconfused about Hallel. Take a Halachic look--rather than an emotional look. IMHO there's no reason to treat it differently than Hannukah. See www.machonshilo.org.

  5. my problem is - he leaved G-d out of it.

  6. louis - I can understand that. As I wrote (but did not yet post - it is coming on Yom Ha'Atzmaut) the same thing that it is a halchaik issue rather than an emotional one. The problem is the halacha is unclear as there are many different factors and different rabbonim come to different conclusions on the issue, based on the weight they give to the various factors. Like in everything else, there is a machloket and no single conclusion that excludes others.

    sbw - who did? my brother in his speech?

  7. "Wait until the war is over, then we will sing Hallel together, every Jew in the world. together."

    To which war are you referring;? the war of the Orthodox on the Secular?

    Jews don't have enough enemies?

    Looks like sinat chinum will destroy our country again. So don't bother saying hallel, there are still jews who don't bow to your latest updated version of judaism.

  8. sefiras haomer is a time for mourning and yet it is a time that leads into the celebration of receiving the Torah - thanks


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