Memory & Independence
One year ago my friend Chana was visiting my family in Massachusetts. Recently released from the army, she was spending a few months with loved ones in the U.S.
We spent the day at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. A normal thing to do with a visitor to our city, except: it was Yom Ha-Zikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day. And Chana told me that precisely at 12:55 pm she needed to find a quiet place in the museum. She had to call home, to get her mother on the phone, so that she could hear the siren.
Every Yom Ha-Zikaron, all of Israel comes to a halt as a siren blares throughout the country (twice, once in the evening and once in the morning), honoring soldiers who have died in Israel’s battles. Cars on the highways pull to the side of the road, bustling in the streets comes to a halt, the busy-ness of life pauses. The national siren begins with a drone, builds to a crescendo, and resounds for two minutes. It ends, and life resumes.
That’s how I found myself standing in the vestibule of the MFA, huddled over Chana’s iPhone, as we listened to the silence and then the siren from 5,470 miles away. It was crucially important to her to take the few minutes to touch base back home and hear the entire nation pause. And then we returned to the exhibits.
Chana’s determination, however far away she was and whatever she was doing, to reach back home to family and country on Memorial Day made a deep impression on me. What American young person—even one who considers herself patriotic and civically involved—would be so moved on Memorial Day to stop and remember? (Excluding, of course, those from military families.)
One brilliant idea of the founders of the State of Israel was the linking of Yom Ha-Zikaron (Memorial Day) and Yom Ha-Atzma’ut (Independence Day). The former begins on Tuesday night, May 10, and then, the following evening, it will segue into the latter. There is no escaping the message that we remember those who have died so that the state can exist.
It seems to me that in America, Memorial Day and Independence Day can be rather tame—again, unless you are part of a military family. In the U.S., the two days are not linked in any way; the distance between May and July feels like a long time.
In Israel, no such confusion exists. Not only because there are zero degrees of separation between every citizen and a fallen soldier, but also because Memorial Day and Independence Day are inextricable from one another, as they should be. That makes the solemnity of Yom Ha-Zikaron more profound—and it makes the exhilaration of Yom Ha-Atzma’ut more jubilant.
The connection between Yom Ha-Zikaron and Yom Ha-Atzma’ut reminds me of Nathan Alterman’s famous poem Magash Ha-Kesef/ “The Silver Platter.” Alterman wrote this poem, which has become part of civic ceremonies on Yom Ha-Zikaron, in late 1947 as he anticipated the War of Independence that was yet to erupt. He knew that freedom and independence would come with a bloody price tag. In the poem, two ghostly young soldiers, encrusted with the detritus of war, stand before the nation and remind them: “We are the silver platter upon which the Jews’ State was presented.”
Freedom and independence are never served up easily, and that is true today as well. Israel battles external enemies, God knows. But its internal enemies also threaten the nation. Every lover Israel must not only be committed to the State’s survival; we also have to ask: What kind of State do we want this to be?
There are plenty of voices in Israel today that are increasingly extremist, insular, and violent. Some of those voices wield significant influence and authority. Some of those voices even speak in the name of our Torah—a Torah of violence, racism, and insularity.
It is incumbent upon us to be the vocal opposition to those voices. Our voices—the voices of Reform Jewish institutions and allies in Israel—articulate an Israel that is pluralistic, democratic, and devoted to the civil rights of all its inhabitants. The Torah we teach affirms our right to exist as a nation even as it likewise affirms the values: “Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34), “When God created human beings, they were made in the Image of God” (Genesis 5:1), and “Seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:15).
This vision of Israel, God knows, is not handed to us or to anyone on a silver platter. This is the work that our partner organizations do every single day. The linkage between Memory and Independence constantly reminds us that there is still much more work to do, to create an Israel that lives up to the ideals and standards of our Torah, our history, and the memory of those upon whose shoulders we stand and who brought us to this Yom Ha-Atzma’ut.
By Rabbi Neal Gold