A Memorial Day to Remember

Last night we moved from Yom Hazikaron to Yom Ha’atzmaut – from Remembrance Day to Independence Day in Israel. We are just a couple of weeks away from Memorial Day in the U.S. Ask many in the United States what happens on Memorial Day and you might hear answers like “Sales,” “BBQs” or, along many of the beaches and lakes in our part of the Northeast, “beaches open.” Perhaps, if you live in a town like ours, you might hear “Parades”… our town has done a beautiful job of involving all the local Scout and Brownie groups, school marching bands, and local civic groups, along with veterans, to ensure that we still have a meaningful Memorial Day parade, stopping at four local cemeteries en route for moments of prayer and reflection.

But last night, our 7th-12th grade Chai school students got a taste of Memorial Day, Israel-style. In the opening words of our two young Israeli emissaries, Omri and Lihi, there is barely a soul in Israel who does not know someone who has been killed or injured while serving their country. Yom HaZikaron is not about wars of yesteryear, and it is not symbolized with patriotic flag-waving followed by business as usual. It is a day of profound sadness and deep reflection on the cost of creating and keeping safe a country that has continually been surrounded by aggressive neighbors and terrorist groups throughout its short history.

As our students sang songs, lit memorial candles, learned about individual soldiers who had died in the line of duty, recited Kaddish and sang Hatikvah (Israel’s national anthem), and stood in silence for the sirens that sound all across Israel, this was experiential learning that was deeply moving.

Last year, I was in Israel for Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut with members of our congregation. The depth of feeling and the scale of the impact across communities was something we were privileged to witness by attending the remembrance service in Misgav, where our tour company owners lived. The following day, our Yom Ha’atzmaut was somewhat subdued. For our young leaders, their relatively recent experiences of serving in the Israel Defense Forces were too close and too raw to be able to segue into joyous celebration so soon after remembering their losses. And yet, they recognized that the nation of Israel, as a whole, needed these days to be side-by-side so that no-one would lose sight of what they had been fighting for. Reflecting on the juxtaposition of these two days in my travel blog of our trip, I wrote:

Our guide, Noam, asked us to think about and talk about the challenge of moving straight from Yom Hazikaron to Yom Ha’atzmaut. It is clearly a very powerful transition but how is it for those who sit with the sorrow of a loved one who has died protecting Israel? Is it not jarring to move straight into celebration? Does it not feel forced? I suspect the answer to that question is as varied as the number of Israelis that you ask…

In our Parsha [weekly Torah portion] (Acharei-Mot), Aaron remains silent. He is not given the time to mourn as the loss of two of his sons comes in the midst of the inaugural ritual performance of the priests and must continue.

I think of the tradition we have in Judaism that sorrow and joy are not to be mixed, leading to situations when a burial is delayed or shiva is not sat. I struggle with this too for the same reasons as Noam stated for those mourning on Yom HaZikaron. There is no logic to me in asking a family to abstain from mourning rituals because we are in designated ‘happy times’. And yet I also understand why the community as a whole needs to embrace the joy to make those festivals meaningful.

Perhaps what we have here is the tension between the individual and communal need. Aaron needs to mourn but is not given time because he is in the midst of a communal moment. Yom HaZikaron shifts to Yom Ha’atzmaut because as a nation Israel must hold up the joy and blessing of its existence and successes, even while recognizing the losses and work that still needs to be done. Perhaps to live in Israel is to all the time feel that tension between the needs of the individual and the needs of the nation as a whole.

This does not negate the pain of the individual and their loss but, at a national level, the two days side by side ask us to accept a narrative where hope, rebirth and new possibilities follow from pain and loss. This is a very ancient Jewish narrative. And it is a very Israeli narrative.

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