Today was a very bittersweet day. Living in Israel is a paradox. It’s a country where there is a huge sense of faith in Hashem, in G-d, but also many people that run away from their Jewish identities. It’s a country where every young boy goes to the army as soon as he is old enough, and fights to protect our country from the enemies that surround it. Today was Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance.
In America, Memorial Day means a lot to a select few. In Israel, today means a lot to everyone. There is no one who doesn’t know someone who fell, or at the very least, someone who knows someone who fell. Today, I heard a very moving story that I am going to try to remember here.
A Rosh Yeshiva survivor of World War II had a teacher at his school who had a son serving in the army that fell during the first Lebanon War. After the Levaya, the Rosh Yeshiva turned to the bochurim (yeshiva students) in the van taking him back to school and said, “He was Kadosh.” He was holy. One of the other students in the van turned to him and questioned, “Rebbi, even the non-religious soldiers?” Without hesitation he responded, “They were ALL kadosh.” Then, without explaining himself he asked the driver of the cab to take him directly to the house where his colleague was sitting shiva, mourning for his son.
His colleague was shocked at the arrival of the Rosh Yeshiva, who was never known for spending any extra time out of his Torah learning, and said to him, “Thank you for coming, but it is time for you to return to Yeshiva.”
His superior turned to him and relayed the following story:
“You don’t know this about me, but I had a son who was taken out of my arms and executed. He was five years old, and I was not able to do anything to save him. Later, I traded my five-year old son’s shoes for food, but I could never eat it. I gave it away to someone else. When my son was taken, I knew he was a tzadik (righteous) but he went singularly; he didn’t save anyone else in the process. Your son was also taken from you, but he did so saving the lives of all of the Jewish people that live in the Land of Israel, making him a tzadik in his own right. I know that in shamayim (heaven) right now, my son is welcoming your Shlomo to a heavenly minyan, where your son is the Shaliach Tzibur (the leader of the group) in heavenly prayer. I never got to sit shiva properly for my own son, so please let me sit here with you for a little while longer.”
The Rebbe (teacher) replied, “Rebbi (my teacher), I didn’t think it was possible to be comforted, but you just comforted me.”
Two sirens sound on Yom Hazikaron, one in the evening and one in the morning. The sirens evoke emotions that are larger than life, bringing in images of soldiers knocking loudly on doors to deliver news that no one wants to receive; wails of mothers burying their sons, and an intense silence falls over the country: the silence of laughter that will never be heard again; the silence of a wedding that will never occur and children and grandchildren that will never be born.
The director of my school said that while the national response to these sirens is to stand in a moment of silence, she doesn’t think that it’s a very Jewish response. She said that a much more Jewish response would be to stand up and to pray to G-d on behalf of the fallen soldiers, to say tehillim for their souls to help them elevate higher and higher; that our prayer should enable them to daven in their own heavenly minyan.
People often criticize the religious population in Israel for being unwilling and ungrateful to the soldiers of the land of Israel, but this powerful story shows that the opposite is true – we ALL owe our lives to them. We owe our safety to them. Our ability to daven at the Kotel to them. But we also owe it to Hashem, our Father in Heaven, who made it possible for them to strengthen this country to be able to defend itself from it’s foes. Without this understanding; without soldiers in the army and soldiers learning Torah, the Jewish state loses all of it’s Judaism – it becomes a secular state with a mainly Jewish population, the antithesis of anything Jewish. that is the essence of Yom Hazikaron, which always falls during a time of mourning for the Jewish people. It’s not a coincidence that the date is during sefira, the counting of the Omer, when we are challenged with working on our character traits specifically concerning “ben adam l’chavero,” between a man and his friend. During this time it is essential that we recognize the kedusha, the holiness, of each and every one of the soldiers defending Am Yisrael (the Jewish people), and also that we realize that ultimately, everything is in Hashem’s hands.