Earlier this week, I delivered the eulogy at the funeral of a woman I knew my entire life, Helen Levy, and whose children—one slightly older and one slightly younger than myself—I’ve also known forever. I mention that because I want to retell here a detail about Helen’s parents, Jacob and Bertha Bloch, who had the unimaginable experience as newlyweds of living through the greatest of life’s joys and the most horrific of life’s disasters on adjacent days in 1926. On the first of those days, both in mid-March, Bertha gave birth to twin daughters. Helen and Rebecca were their first children, and I’m sure Jacob and Bertha experienced the same indescribable happiness we all feel as our children—and particularly our first children—are born. But the babies were preemies and they met with entirely different fates: Rebecca lived for one day and then died, whereas Helen lived into her tenth decade and died in her nineties last week. As a rabbi, I’ve made the observation countless times to people I was trying to help through analogous situations that the heart is a wide thing that can accommodate all sorts of emotions concurrently…and specifically including emotions that feel as though they shouldn’t be able to co-exist in the same space. And that, although a cup of coffee can only be hot or cold but not both, the human heart therefore somehow can be happy and sad at the same time. And, most of all that there’s no percentage in feeling obligated to choose between discordant emotions that both feel equally real to the person experiencing them: you can just be both those things—happy and sad, joyful and miserable, accepting and angry—and leave it at that. So it’s a contradiction, I often finish up by pointing out…so what? Not everything has to be so logical!
I mention that story today in this space because I find myself bringing the same set of emotions to the twin “yom ha’s” that Israelis and Jewish people everywhere observed this last week: Yom Ha-zikkaron, Israel’s memorial day for the fallen of the IDF (as well as those who died in the struggle leading up to statehood in 1948), on Wednesday, and Yom Ha-atzma·ut, Israel Independence Day, on Thursday. Like twin panels in a medieval diptych, these two days function as separate entities commemorating different and distinct things…but are only fully intelligible in each other’s light. They are two, therefore, because they are two: two adjacent days with two names that do two different things. But they are also the same thing, and in just the same way that silence and sound are the same thing, and light and shadow. They exist, obviously, on their own. But what they truly mean, or should mean, to all who see in the creation of an independent Jewish state in the Land of Israel a tangible harbinger of redemption only comes to the fore fully when they are viewed in each other’s light. And, of course, also each other’s shadow.
In a world in which Israel’s very right to exist as a Jewish state is still routinely brought into question by all sorts of people who should know better—and who would never dream of wondering if Iran has the right to self-define as an Islamic republic or if Pakistan or Afghanistan do—the juxtaposition of Yom Ha-zikkaron and Yom Ha-atzma·ut feels particularly ominous.
In all, 23,477 individuals—men and women, young and old, draftees and volunteers, native-born and immigrants—are recognized as have given their lives in the struggle leading up to independence and in the wars Israel has had to fight, including the War of Independence itself, since independence was declared on May 5, 1948. This figure includes regular soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, but also members of the Shin Bet and the Mossad, the Israel Police Force, the Israel Prison Service, and the Jewish Brigade that fought with the British during the Second World War. Each was a universe, a world of potential extinguished by an enemy bullet or by a terrorist’s bomb. Each died al kiddush ha-shem, as an act of martyrdom suffered for the sake of the Jewish people and the Jewish state. And each, by definition, did not live to see how the world would or would not react to his or her death, and thus to know with certainty that he or she did not die in vain. To tell each of their stories would take a lifetime, obviously. And yet, taking them together as an aggregate also seems slightly wrong…not insulting, to be sure, but also not entirely accurate because, in the end, they weren’t members of some club or players on the same team, but disparate individuals brought together in our collective Jewish consciousness only posthumously. The figure mentioned above, by the way, specifically does not include Israeli victims of terror attacks against civilians, who are also memorialized in Israel on Yom Ha-zikkaron in a different set of ceremonies, and who are now said to number over 3,700 individuals. (That figure includes those who died at the hands of terrorists since 1920.)
It's easy to wax lachrymose in contemplating these numbers. Indeed, it would be hard not to feel that way…and particularly for those of us who have family and friends in Israel whose children serve in the IDF and who bravely put their lives on the line daily to keep their nation safe and secure. And yet regret alone cannot be the antidote to the kind of melancholy inspired by the contemplation of loss on this scale. Particularly for those of us on the sidelines—whose children do not serve, whose nation is too well established in the forum of nations for anyone to doubt its right to exist, and who never wonder as we get onto a bus or a train if there just might possibly be among our fellow travelers someone planning to kill us—it feels wrong to allow regret to constitute our sole response to Yom Ha-zikkaron. Israelis, of course, do move on: they transition from Yom Ha-zikkaron to Yom Ha-atzma·ut with a national torch-lighting ceremony that formally marks the end of national mourning and the onset of national rejoicing. But how exactly should those of us ensconced in the diaspora respond?
We could, of course, just mimic the Israelis and move on too from being weighed down by loss to being buoyed by a sense of gratitude to God that we live in the right age to experience the reality of an independent Jewish state. And, of course, to a certain extent that is what we do. But the transition is never fully real, at least not to me. Just as the Blochs cannot possibly have separated their emotions as they prepared to bring their one daughter home and to bury the other, and thus must simply have had to learn to live with both sets of emotions, so do I feel it impossible to separate my emotions entirely and simply to live through the one and then move on to the next. That sounds like it would be the rational way to proceed. It probably would be the rational path forward. But, at least for me personally, it just doesn’t work.
Looking on things from this specific vantage point of the nexus point between these two days of remembrance and celebration, I feel more than ever how true the ancient oracle was that characterized Israel as an am badad yishkon, as a people set apart. I feel this in a thousand different ways, each distinct yet part of a larger picture.
Israel is subjected to criticism of many kinds never leveled at other nations, its representatives so regularly treated with contempt in the press and on college campuses that most incidents go unreported in the mainstream press.
Israel’s effort to defend itself against a bloodthirsty enemy eager to cause as many civilian casualties as possible with ceaseless rocket attacks specifically targeting civilian centers is derided as excessive by citizens of countries who would never, not in a million years, tolerate that kind of violent aggression against its citizens.
Despite the fact that it was the Palestinians who walked away from the Oslo Accords at Camp David, and thus from the very autonomy they now insist Israel is somehow withholding from them, the onus for the ongoing stalemate in the Middle East is somehow always placed on Israel and only rarely, other than by Israelis, on the Palestinian leadership. In this thought, I include many of our own political leaders and those in countries we reasonably consider to be our allies.
Despite the fact that Iran has openly and shamelessly proclaimed its interest in wiping Israel off the map and murdering its citizenry—and despite the fact that any other country in the world that openly expressed its interest in annihilating some other country among the family of nations would be pilloried as an enemy of world peace and then fully or at last partially ostracized, Israel’s vehement objection to last year’s agreement that will lead directly, and long before children born this week will graduate high school, to an Iran unfettered in the fulfillment of its obvious wish to acquire a nuclear arsenal, was mocked by many, including many of our co-citizens in this country, as were those who spoke out against it.
Despite the fact that the world is rife with countries shamelessly pursuing aggressive, hostile policies against neighboring countries or against their own civilian populations, the United Nations seems incapable of focusing its attention anywhere at all other than on Israel and its alleged misdeeds. To say that the United Nations has long since squandered whatever moral capital it once possessed is surely true…but contemplating its hypocrisy does not undo the effects of its policies or make its double standards any more palatable.
Despite the fact that Israel has integrated immigrants from more or less every country on earth and made them into proud Israelis, Israel is characterized not as the world’s most successful melting pot society, but rather as the heirs of South African apartheid…and specifically because they do not wish to allow people pledged to their own annihilation enter the country at will and mix freely with the civilian population, a policy that is specifically not applied to Israel’s Arab citizenry who face no special restrictions at all in terms of where they go, with whom they assemble, and what they say. There is even an Israeli Arab on the Supreme Court of Israel, Salim Joubran. I do not recall there being any black judges on the Supreme Court for as long as it existed under real apartheid in South Africa.
For all these reasons, I feel a certain mix of pride and ill ease as I join together with all right-minded Americans, and with friends of Israel in every country, to celebrate the sixty-eighth anniversary of Israeli independence. As my readers must all know by now, the only home Joan and I own is in Israel. To the extent that the purchase of an apartment can be considered a kind of political statement, it was one we were and are both proud and pleased to make. It isn’t much, our two-bedroom on Gad Tedeschi Street, but it’s ours and we feel happy and secure when we’re there. Similarly, our tiny State of Israel, the 149th largest nation in the world (right after El Salvador in terms of square mileage), isn’t much either in terms of size, but it is nonetheless the single greatest accomplishment of the Jewish people in the last two thousand years…and that is surely something for all Jews, and all who would call themselves their friends, to celebrate. There is every reason to feel uneasy as we pass from Yom Ha-zikkaron to Yom Ha-atzma·ut this year. But, in the end, I suggest we allow ourselves to get over that…and to join all people of good will everywhere in celebrating the independence of the Jewish State. If the State of Israel were an Israeli citizen, it would be gearing up to retire and access its pension at age sixty-eight. But that’s only how it works for people: the State itself at sixty-eight is just attaining the fullest flower of its potential—and that, surely, is something to celebrate with unconflicted emotion. May the Rock of Israel bless the State of Israel and ever keep it strong, safe, secure!