Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Today is Memorial Day in Israel. The country is mourning for those who fell in the struggle against our enemies.
How do we mourn those who have fallen in battle? What stories do we tell about those killed by the enemy and about the enemy that killed them? What do we remember about those who were cut down, and what do we say about – and to –those who are left standing?
We recall their goodness, their potential, what might have been had they remained with us among the living. We remember how much we loved them and appreciated them … and still do.
We go back in time to the last day, the last moments. The last kiss, the last goodbye, the last glimpse, perhaps the last phone call. We tell of how they died, about the bullet, the knife, the explosion, the rock, the blows to the head.
We recount the pain and anguish of their loss, the sleepless nights, the gaping hole that was left in our lives, the sense that we cannot go on living without them.
But beyond all that, we endeavor to make sense of their deaths. They understood that we had no choice but to defend ourselves, that war was forced upon us. They knew the righteousness of our cause and dedicated themselves to it wholeheartedly. They loved their People and were ready to sacrifice for the collective. They knew that we must stand resolutely against our enemies. They died so that we can live.
We vow that they will not have died in vain. We take it upon ourselves to continue their legacy, to follow in their footsteps. We rededicate ourselves to our People and our nation. We note with grim determination that our enemies have not been defeated, they still contrive to undo us. The fallen have bequeathed us the challenge of bearing arms in defense of our way of life and our very existence.
We look deep inside and declare ourselves to be peace-loving people. We look forward to the day when nation shall not lift sword against nation, but remind ourselves not to be naïve: That day is far off in the distant future and until then we must be realistic and vigilant. We will honor the memory of the dead by fighting until victory against our fearsome, bloodthirsty, anti-semitic enemies.
But this is a dead end, pun completely intended.
Our national mourning is excruciatingly difficult but it is also self-affirming, individually and collectively. We pat ourselves on the back and remind ourselves – our story is true, our path is sound. There is no other way.
Our mode of national mourning – which is not that different from the mode in which other nations mourn their war dead – arises from a deep psychological need to see ourselves as good and to have things make sense, a need for meaning, a need for connection to a larger story that is true and righteous in the most foundational way.
But it is ultimately self-defeating … unless we want to keep on killing and getting killed. It digs more graves and keeps filling them up. It perpetuates and strengthens the “us” vs. “them” narrative that fuels the cycle of violence of this conflict.
It convinces us that “we” are fundamentally different from “them.” We are right and they are wrong, and nothing will change until they change. We carry upon our shoulders the responsibility to continue doing exactly what we have been doing while they carry upon their shoulders the responsibility to see the light and repent. This is folly, a formula for nothing changing at all – except by dint of brunt force and violence.
This type of responsibility is no responsibility at all. On the contrary, it is mourning that shirks responsibility and embraces victimhood. What we need is a mourning of real responsibility, a mourning of introspection that asks – what could we have done differently? How could we have prevented this cycle of death? Where have we gone wrong as a People and as a nation? We must mourn not only for our dead, but for our mistakes that contributed to the making of the narrative that contributed to their death!
But we must think and talk differently not only about the past but also about the present and the future. What can we do to put an end to this pain and this madness? How must we think and talk – and act – so that we will not have to continue to bear this suffering?
We must strive for a mourning not only of affirmation but of transformation, in which loss and pain elevate us towards new perspectives and insights. Instead of letting the past control us and channel us into serving as pawns in an inevitable tragedy, our bereavement must allow us to break free, to see what others do not see and to feel what others do not feel.
Bereavement often mobilizes us to fight back against the enemy. But let us correctly identify the enemy. The enemy is not the People or the nation of the man who killed my brother. The enemy is not even the very person who killed my brother. Killing him or fighting them will only bring more of the same. Rather the enemy is the conflict itself. We must become empowered by our pain to lash out against the vortex of violence that engulfs us and blinds us. We must empower ourselves to vanquish the conflict itself … and not the other side.
Instead of convincing ourselves that our loved ones did not die in vain, let’s admit that human-inflicted death is most certainly a death in vain! With few exceptions, deaths in this conflict are far more tragic than heroic. Let us mourn not only for our own dead, but for all those who this conflict has killed. Our enemy is the conflict itself and it has tragically felled both Israelis and Palestinians.
Last night, as is my custom every year, I did not participate in the national Memorial Day ceremony nor did I participate in my local commemoration. Rather, my wife and I tuned in to the Joint Israeli Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony put together by the Parents Circle-Families Forum and Combatants for Peace. This is the 16th time that this event has taken place and the fifth time that I was in the audience.
To my mind, it is not perfect. It is a work in progress. But it is the best I know of, an inspiring model of how we can tell a different story, a story that is painful yet filled with hope. It is a guiding light for deeply responsible, transformative mourning.