Memorial Day for Israel’s Fallen Soldiers

Brothers and sisters of sorrow and pain! With a bowed head and in trembling before the Almighty, we gathered together Sunday evening, April 25 th , to recall and remember our sons and daughters, soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, who fell in the line of duty, defending Israel in her wars, and to recall and remember our brothers and sisters murdered by evil-doers for being Jews loyal to the land of their Forefathers.

Our people is a strange one, spanning the range of opinions and beliefs; one can find everything among us – the religious and the secular, Sephardic and Ashkenazic, right and left. And within each of these ‘tribes’ infinite variety exists, and what applies to one does not apply to the other – what is sanctified to one is ordinary to the other, and what is permitted to one is forbidden to the other. There are few moments in the life of the nation when all stand together as one – united and speaking a common language, overlooking the difference and the pettiness of the everyday; silent, remembering and grieving. Remembering the young and not so young soldiers who died before they had the chance to live, and left behind them bereaved parents and siblings, widows and orphans; remembering the victims of terror who fell only because they were Jews who had returned to the land of their ancestors. Remembering: silent and pained.

And when 24 hours have passed and the final siren is sounded, our nation is immediately released from the binding unity, and returns at once to its routine as if there had been no Memorial Day, as if its children had not fallen, as if there were no more bereaved parents and siblings, widows and orphans – this one cried, and that one cried, and the world carries on with its business. And then another year passes and everything repeats itself again and again. And there you stand, astounded at the pace of the passing of time; why not hold together for a bit longer, for a few more days, and even weeks?

Thriteen years, seven months and two weeks of loss and grieving over my first-born son Lieutenant Uriel Yitzhak, z”l, have brought me here today to dedicate a few words to the memory of our fallen loved ones, and to encourage the families, whose ranks increase from year to year – the families of grief. Distinct to this family is that for it, today is not Memorial Day, but rather, another day with many memories. And with the passing of time, the memories do not grow dim, but rather become sharper and clearer, and from a distance, look backwards, these memories take on a more real, clarified, purer dimension, and therefore, they sometimes hurt more.

It is no secret that the ethos of “bereavement” that once transcended politics and was honored by our society for the first fifty years of the State, is developing cracks, just as other national conventions and aspects of our ethos are – to our dismay – losing their hold on Israeli society’s ladder of ethics. Values that were shared by most of the Jewish collective in Israel during the first years of the State – such as the Hebrew language, the Bible, defense of the land, and the shared understanding that “we have come to the Land to build and be built by it” – are gradually losing their stature and their importance. The language is no longer “in,” the Bible is “out,” the very use of the English words “in” and “out” in Hebrew slang being a sign of this. And service in the IDF (or other security forces) is not a sacrosanct social value (not for the ultra-Orthodox and not even for part of the non-religious population; and the plague has even crept into the religious community). While we all speak Hebrew, it is not “one language,” but rather “the same words,” to use the words of the Babel narrative. The Hebrew language of the religious community is distinct from the non-religious, or secular community: the former speak “Jewish” and the latter, “Israeli” – influenced by western “hi – by” culture,” and drawing on its associative world. The former sanctify the Sabbath, while the latter rest on the “weekend.”

Even the agreement that bereavement, despite the tremendous pain it brings, is a fitting price in the struggle for the existence of the State and its war against its enemies – a convention on which we were educated and towards which we educated our children – even this is the subject of contemporary debate. Fatigue, polarization and estrangement bring us, on the 56 th anniversary of our independence, to one of the greatest crises that the nation has known since gaining independence. Some wish to connect to the land of our ancestors, while others, in the name of the same values, wish to disconnect from it.

The midrash on Psalm 20, which opens “May the Lord answer you in time of trouble,” presents the parable of a father and son out walking. When the son grows tired, he asks the father where the city is. The father answers, “My son, you will have this sign. When you see a cemetery before you, then the city is close.”
To our great sorrow, the question of “where is the city” of which we dreamed arises in all sectors of the public in different versions.

We, the bereaved parents, must find the strength to arise and say: “When you see a cemetery before you,” is not the symbol of despair, but the symbol of hope, that “the city is close.” As we climb the steep mountain ascent, better days await us.

If there is something remaining that unites most of Israeli society it is the Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen, on which religious and secular, right and left, do not sanctify the worship of death, but tell stories of our sons and daughters who fell, the new Israeli narrative.

We all face the responsibility of continuing to preserve the Israeli story, the “new Jewish ethos,” to repeat it to the weary of Israeli society and to the child who does not know how to ask, and to repeat the verses “and I say to you ‘in your blood shall you live’; and I say to you ‘in your blood you shall live.'” [or: “Live in spite of your blood” [Ezekiel 16:6] If you see a cemetery before you, then the city is close.” Without this minimal Jewish ethos, Jewish society in our country is destined to disintegrate.

A few words to the bereaved families: in the Torah portion – “Shmini” – which this year occurred prior to Holocaust Remembrance Day, we read of the death of Aaron’s sons. In one of the peak moments in the midst of “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8), the following event is related:

“And fire came forth from the LORD and consumed them; thus they died – before the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD meant when He said:
Through those near to Me I show Myself holy,
And gain glory before all the people.”
And Aaron was silent. (Levit. 10:2-3)

For thirteen years I have studied this verse and related commentaries, and I have tried to descend to its depths and to understand Aaron’s silence, the silence of that bereaved father who sees his sons lying dead before him – and is silent.
What kind of silence is this? Is it the silence of acceptance, as some of the commentators and midrashic interpretations emphasize, or perhaps the thundering silence that caused the doorposts of the tabernacle to shake. While in the depths of his heart, Aaron shouted “Why? Oh God, why?”

All the interpretive claims regarding the sins of his sons -they entered without clothing, that they taught halakha to their teachers rather than the opposite, that they were drunk, and others – are difficult to understand and are unacceptable. Human reason finds no proportion between their alleged transgression and the punishment.
Did Aaron – as a father, accept at face value the consolations of Moses (“Through those near to Me I show Myself holy”). The Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, a grandson of Rashi, 1085-1174) commented on this matter:

The aggadah stated that Moses consoled Aaron by telling him that the Holy One said “and it shall be sanctified by my presence” (Ex 29:43) – I understood that the intention was either to me or to you. Now you know that they are greater than me and than you.
This [aggadah] is not to be understood according to its literal meaning – for the Holy One would not announce to Moses “make Me a tabernacle” and on the same day have the greatest among you die.

Teachers and rabbis, Aaron’s silence is the most thundering silence in the Bible, but also the true recognition of the greatness of God that cannot be understood, and whose behavior cannot be contemplated:

Keep your mouth from being rash, and let not your throat be quick to bring forth speech before God. For God is in heaven and you are on earth; that is why your words should be few.” (Ecclesiastes 5:1)

. and therefore “Aaron was silent.”

But what is written after the death of Aaron’s sons?

And Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, “Do not dishevel your hair and do not rend your clothes, lest you die. But your kinsmen, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning that the Lord has wrought. (Levit. 10:6).

Aaron is forbidden from surrendering to pain, to destruction, and he must accept the sovereignty of G-d and to continue forward with his life, to continue his holy labor – that is the demand that the Torah places upon Aaron, the bereaved father.

But to the same extent, it demands of the public, of all of Israel, not to turn its back, but to feel the pain of Aaron and to express it – “But your kinsmen, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning that the Lord has wrought,” since this is not Aaron’s private burning but that of the entire House of Israel.

In prayer, I conclude with the words of Isaiah the prophet:

To provide for the mourners in Zion –
To give them a turban instead of ashes,
The festive ointment instead of mourning
A garment of splendor instead of a drooping spirit
(Isaiah 61:3)

The cry “Violence!”
Shall no more be heard in your land,
Nor “Wrack and ruin!”
Within your borders.
And you shall name your walls “Victory”
And your gates “Renown.” (60:18).

Professor Shmuel Glick Lecturer, Talmud and Halakhah Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

Photo:  Israel’s Memorial Day, Jerusalem, 1969. KKL’s Photo Archive.