The placing together of Yom Hazikaron – the day of remembrance – and Yom Haatzmaut – the day of our independence as a state – reveals a profound characteristic of the Israeli psyche and of its value systems.
In the land of the promise, our fundamental connection to this land is based upon memory. This was the first home of the Jewish people, and the sense that there was no other home to replace Israel was a central value in the tradition. No matter how people may want to refer to the exile – either as Diaspora or exilic or homeless – clearly it is difficult to interpret those categories in the modern world for people who live in cultures such as England or the United States. They don’t feel they are in exile; they feel very much a part of their respective cultures and environments.
Yet in some very important way, Israel is a reminder that home in the deepest historical sense – the place that embodies all the values, aspirations, and dreams of the prophets – is here.
Jerusalem is the city of memory. To deny our memory is to deny our identity. When [former Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat wanted to make a distinction between those who came later to Israel and those who came earlier or that the Temple Mount was never the Jewish Temple Mount, my issue with him was that he had no understanding of Jewish history. He had no understanding of what Jewish identity and memory was about.
There is no difference with those who come to Israel earlier or later, because the memory of Israel nurtured the soul of the people no matter where they were. “Next year in Jerusalem” was recited by Jews throughout their Passover celebrations.
When you visit a mourner, you say, “Hamakom yinachem etchem” (May God comfort you amidst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem). This was a word that came out naturally when people were sitting and mourning. Or, when you celebrate the wedding of two young people, you sing blessings which express that God should rejoice over you as a bridegroom over his bride, and again, “Od yishama b’arei Yehuda,” that we will once again hear the voices of lovers of spontaneous joy, of full celebration of life in the cities of Judea.
These types of experiences, both in major events – marriage, death or the everyday liturgy of the prayer book and the grace after meals – all developed and nurtured the belief that home is Israel.
So, when we celebrate our independence, we then first of all remember. We remember that this state was not established without heroism and sacrifice. We can’t approach the joy of independence if we forget the people who gave their lives to make that possible.
And the deep question we ask is to what degree is our celebration a reflection of their deepest aspirations. We owe our existence to those who were. Our identity is rooted in their experience and in their memory. And in light of their memory we celebrate independence.
I lost a son-in-law, and we go on Yom Hazikaron to the military cemetery in Raanana, and it is painful to see how crowded it becomes each year. We listen in silence as the siren is blown, and witness the deepest sigh and pain in all the faces of the people who are there. Then, a few hours later, you meet the same Jews, and you say, “Chag sameach.” From this moment of mourning and tragic pain you then move to “Chag sameach,” a joyous festival to you. Songs of Hallel are recited in the services. There is then the total move from tragedy to celebration, pain to the celebration of life, mourning and then the affirmation of life.
We affirm the dignity of our existence only as we feel the memory of those who are not here with us. We cannot celebrate by cutting ourselves off from history. We cannot celebrate unless we feel total solidarity with those who came before us.
For me it is my son in law, Adam, whom I loved so deeply. He was killed as a pilot in the war of Shalom Hagalil (Peace for Gallilee) in Lebanon in 1982. I see his face before me always, the joyous eyes, the courage, the celebration of life, the joy he felt in flying to provide security for the Jewish people here. His parents were Auschwitz survivors, and he lived with their memory as well, and he celebrated independence and our rebirth by remembering as well that Jews were willing to undergo great tragedy, suffering and mourning in order to retain their Jewish identity.
Israel casts us visibly again in human history. We are not hiding. The Holocaust did not create a running away from our memories. So, on Yom Hazikaron, the day of memory, we enter with trepidation. We leave it as we enter into Yom Haatzmaut with the celebration of life. The psyche of the Jew moves miraculously from tragedy to celebration.
We don’t only live with the memory of the Holocaust, but with the memory of rebuilding Jerusalem. We say l’chaim – a celebration of life – the joy of every day, the joy of every minute in which we can see our loved ones and celebrate the joy of friendship and kindness to each other. That ability to celebrate and hope for the future never leaves the Jewish psyche.
If we look like a people that lives with the memory of Auschwitz, or the memory of destruction and suffering, that is only one phase of Jewish identity. Only as you grasp the way we move so uniquely from weeping to celebration do you understand in the deepest sense what memory, history and the hope for a better future life means for the Jewish people.