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Yom Hazikaron: The Tree is Tall

Remembering that the miracle of Israel and the Jewish people is that we have not let our suffering define us or inhibit our commitment to building a future worthy of our people.
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and holds the Kaufman Family Chair in Jewish Philosophy. He is author of the highly regarded 2016 book, Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself, and is the host of the award-winning For Heaven’s Sake, one of the most popular Jewish podcasts in North America. Donniel is the founder of some of the most extensive education, training and enrichment programs for scholars,

The High Holidays of Israeli society – Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron, and Yom Haatzmaut (Holocaust Memorial Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day) – have passed. As is worthy of the High Holiday season, its impact lingers on and causes us to reflect on its meaning and impact on our lives. Yom Hazikaron, which touches all Israelis to different degrees and is commemorated by Israeli society in a deeply moving humble and even spiritual way, touches our family very directly, as we mourn the loss of my sister’s husband, Aharon Katz, who died 29 years ago in the first war in Lebanon.

Every year our family and friends join with our “cemetery neighbors” and stand side-by-side as the siren goes off and the country comes to a standstill. We remember, but mostly mourn and reach out to surviving family members, offer them comfort and remind them that we did not forget. Every year the most incongruent experience is how everyone around us is aging, while Aharon remains forever young. It is sometimes difficult to imagine how a 60-year-old could be Aharon’s classmate or closest friend.

This year, something caught my eye that moved me in ways that I didn’t fully understand at the time. As we stood in a tightly packed group at the crowded cemetery, I looked to my right and noticed a huge tree, more than 50 feet tall, next to Aharon’s grave. It towered over the cemetery and shaded the surroundings. I turned to my sister and pointed to the grandeur of the tree. And she said in response – reminding me of something I had forgotten – that she had planted the tree right after Aharon’s funeral. The tree, its beauty, its size, and most of all its life, affected me deeply.

Afterward, I was sharing it with a friend, whose response was, “The tree is the answer,” by which he meant that the tree and the continuity it symbolizes is Israel’s answer to the sacrifice and price so many have paid. It gives meaning to the sacrifice and redeems it.

My friend meant well, but I feel he missed something. For those who mourn, there is no answer, nor do we really search for one. The finality of death and the loneliness that colors the lives of so many young wives, children, and parents is a tragedy which is simply there, a fact of our lives here in Israel and the price that we have been forced to pay to achieve that which so many others take for granted.

The tree is not an answer, but rather like the death, it simply is. Against all odds and reason, life has simply continued. At the cemetery this year, Aharon’s new baby granddaughter and grandson came as well. Neither they nor the tree are an answer. They both simply bears witness that despite the horrors and pain which have been so integral a part of our national history, life, beauty, grandeur, and greatness still take root here on a regular basis.

The miracle of Israel, indeed I believe the miracle of the Jewish people, is that we have not let our suffering define us and inhibit our commitment to life and to building a future worthy of our people, and especially those who were forced to pay the price so we can contemplate that future.

The High Holidays of Israel are over. Spring and summer are in the offing. Israel is alive, strong, and growing. The tree stands tall. The tree is.

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