Is Grief a Communal or a Personal Affair?

Tensions exist between national observance and private remembrance on Yom Hazikaron, Israel's Memorial Day.

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The pairing of Israel's Remembrance and Independence Days--with the end of the first being the start of the second--seems, after half a century, quite natural and has been the subject of much interpretation confirming the significance of the match. The symbiotic connection of mourning and joy is integral to Judaism. The breaking of the glass recalling the destruction of Jerusalem is a central part of the happiest of occasions, the wedding ceremony; on the Ninth of Av--which commemorates that very destruction, the saddest date in the Jewish calendar--the tradition says that the Messiah will be born.

In truth, the decision to put these days back-to-back was neither obvious nor inevitable, and there was serious opposition to it, not all of which has disappeared. At the same time, as noted, this joining has indeed created a dynamic between the two, one commemorating tragedy and loss, the other celebrating national independence. The abrupt transition from private pain to communal joy is a difficult adjustment for many, most particularly, of course, the families of the fallen soldiers.

Israel is unique among modern nations in setting "Memorial Day" contiguous to its Independence Day.  The decisions regarding the fixing the date and the "content" of the day (ceremonial, limits on public behavior) were hardly natural or obvious. They reflect tensions within Israel and conflicting systems of values within its society.

Early Commemorations

The need to commemorate those who died fighting for the state was felt early, but it came primarily from "below"--spontaneously, from the families, friends, and neighbors of the dead. They would gather on the yahrzeit (anniversary date of the death), at the graves or at battle sites. Cities, towns, kibbutzim, and moshavim organized communal memorials. The texts and rituals varied from one place to another. No single date seemed compelling around which to unite these private or local ceremonies recalling personal grief.

Yom Hazikaron is commemorated at the Western Wall with a flame and the flag at half-staff. Photo: Jack Hazut

In the first national celebrations ("Nation Day" in July 1948, Independence Day in 1949) reference to the fallen was included in ceremonies and public declarations; visits were made to cemeteries with government officials and military representatives present. The close causal relation between heroism, sacrifice, and Jewish national rebirth was commonly felt. It was part of the emerging Israeli ethos.

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Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb

Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, director of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, is a graduate of Harvard College, Columbia Law School, and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He has lived in Israel since 1976, where he worked as lawyer for the government and then in private practice. He joined the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem in 2000 and teaches Jewish liturgy there.