Monday, April 27, 2009

Reflections on Yom Hazikaron

Tonight begins Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and others killed in our ongoing struggle for survival. This time of year brings a whirlwind of emotion; the roller coaster ride of the emotional descent to Yom Hazikaron – and the sudden climb to the heights of Yom Ha’atzmaut.

This past Shabbat, the Beit Knesset Mercazi of Yad Binyamin (my shul) hosted Rav Ya’akov Meidan, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion (also known as the Gush). In his afternoon shiur, Rav Meidan spoke about the way we should approach Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut.
In reality, Yom Hazikaron really borrows its name from another Jewish holiday – Rosh Hashanah. As we know, zichronot – memories – play a major role on Rosh Hashanah. During our tefilah, we refer to the day specifically as yom hazikaron. We relate to God as the zocher kol hanishkachot – He who remembers all that is forgotten. We ask Him to specifically remember us “for good, and not for bad.” What then is the connection between the real “Day of Remembrance” and the modern Yom Hazikaron?
Rav Meidan suggested a natural, inherent connection between the two days. The highlight of the davening for many people on Rosh Hashanah is U’netaneh Tokef – specifically the harshest part of the poem: מי יחיה ומי ימות – “who shall live and who shall die.” As we listen to the chazzan chant that haunting tune, our minds turn to those who we lost during the past year. And we wonder: who won’t be with us when we gather again next year? מי יחיה ומי ימות? This was an especially pressing thought for me during the high holidays as the rabbi of a shul. I knew who was sick and suffering. I presided over all of the funerals during the past year. I inevitably would wonder: who will we bury this year? Who won’t be sitting in our ranks next Rosh Hashanah? Morbid? Sure. But how do you stop those thoughts?
That emotion – that dread; the fear of the unknown; the wonder of who else will join the fraternity of tragedy, Rav Meidan said, is precisely what occupies the thoughts of most Israelis as they mark Yom Hazikaron each year. As we commemorate the loss of sons, fathers, brothers, sisters, children, and parents, we also wonder about the future. On Israeli television on Yom Hazikaron, one of the channels simply scrolls a list of the fallen throughout the twenty-four hours of the day. This year we added another 122 names to the list. It scrolls slightly faster this year than it did last year. How many more names will we have to add to the list for Yom Hazikaron 5770? מי יחיה ומי ימות? It’s a chilling, frightening question.
On a more personal note, I find myself feeling very much like an Oleh – an immigrant – this year. I don’t really have a strong sense of what I’m supposed to do tonight and tomorrow. Sure, I’ll go to the memorial service in Yad Binyamin. But when I come home from work early on Tuesday (work ends across the country after a half-day), while most Israelis visit various military cemeteries to remember friends or family members, can I exercise? Is that disrespectful?
In Israel, Yom Hazikaron is personal. It’s not like Memorial Day in America – which is more about sales and bargains than honoring the military, which itself seems more distant and unconnected to daily life. Here, where everyone served in the IDF, it’s about your uncle or cousin who died in a war; your neighbor or the member of your shul killed in a bombing; or the guy who lived on your block who didn’t come home from miluim.
Never having served in the army, I don’t feel that strong connection. I don’t have a friend or fellow officer I personally know of who made the ultimate sacrifice for the country. Thankfully, I don’t have a member of my immediate family in that category either. To be honest, I’d really like things to stay that way. Sure, it’s a natural emotion – but is that selfish? On one hand, I’m rather glad to be unable to really appreciate the gravity of Yom Hazikaron. But that gladness brings with it a twinge of guilt.
Is it right to be happy to not know the pain of Yom Hazikaron?