On Monday, the State of Israel and much of the Jewish world will observe Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. Unlike America’s Memorial Day, which is marked by a handful of tributes to those who have been killed in the line of duty but is mostly taken as a vacation day and seen as the unofficial start of summer, Yom Hazikaron is a day of true national reflection and mourning. In Israel, time stands still on Yom Hazikaron. Families visit cemeteries and weep as they confront yet again the death of their loved ones in battle and contemplate the human cost of Israel’s independence. Perhaps that is because in Israel, virtually everybody serves in the army. It’s impossible to feel detached from Israel’s soldiers because they are members of your own family, or they are your close friends, or they are your neighbor.
I am not an Israeli and I live my life here in America, on the other side of the world from the State of Israel. But even here in New Jersey, I feel the emotional pull of Yom Hazikaron. That is because to me, Israel is not just another country in the Near East. Israel is, in a real sense, my spiritual homeland. I am proud of Israel’s achievements and I feel worry and concern about the threats and challenges Israel faces. I feel completely at home when I am there, not only because I speak the language (I certainly wouldn’t feel at home in Spain just because I could speak Spanish fluently) but because Israel is a part of my identity. When an Israeli soldier is killed, it feels eerily personal to me. I try to learn something about the soldier’s life story and identity. On Yom Hazikaron, I contemplate the lives of young people ended far too soon so that the State of Israel and exist and thrive. In a way that is not merely abstract, those soldiers died serving in an army that ensures the State of Israel can be there for me. I say this with humility, fully aware that I have not made any real sacrifices to ensure the survival and security of the State of Israel.
As I’ve shared with you, my son Josh is an Israeli who just completed six months of service in the IDF. I recently asked him what message and meaning he sees in Yom Hazikaron. He told me that at the funeral for a Lone Soldier (a Chayal Boded), a soldier who has no family living in Israel, it’s common for thousands upon thousands of people to show up. Those who attend these funerals do so to become the family of the soldier, to mourn for him, to pay tribute to his sacrifice, to ensure that he is not alone as he is laid to rest. In truth, the thousands of people who show up at these funerals are his family. As Josh told me, that is because the people of Israel “are all in this together.” That Lone Soldier is not alone…he belongs to the entire nation.
On Yom Hazikaron, I urge you to set aside a few moments for reflection about the men and women who have given their lives so that the State of Israel can exist and thrive. You may wish to light a Ner Zikaron (memorial candle or yahrtzeit candle). As you light the candle, you may wish to read this classic poem by Natan Alterman, one of Israel’s most influential poets of the 20th century:
The Silver Platter by Natan Alterman
And the land grows still, the red eye of the sky slowly dimming over smoking frontiers,
As the nation arises, torn at heart but breathing, to receive its miracle, the only miracle,
As the ceremony draws near, it will rise, standing erect in the moonlight in terror and joy,
When across from it will step out a youth and a lass and slowly march toward the nation.
Dressed in battle gear, dirty, shoes heavy with grime, they ascend the path quietly.
To change garb, to wipe their brow. They have not yet found time. Still bone weary from days and from nights in the field.
Full of endless fatigue and unrested, yet the dew of their youth is still seen on their head.
Thus they stand at attention, giving no sign of life or death.
Then a nation in tears and amazement will ask: “Who are you?”
And they will answer quietly, “We are the silver platter on which the Jewish state was given.”
Thus they will say and fall back in shadows.
And the rest will be told In the chronicles of Israel
I also encourage you to become familiar with Friends of the IDF, an important organization that sponsors programs in support of Israel’s soldiers, including Lone Soldiers.
And link to the website of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey for information on opportunities in our community to celebrate Yom Ha’atsmaut, Israel Independence Day.