Yom HaZikaron, Israeli Remembrance Day, is powerfully sad. Every family is painfully familiar with loss.
The weight of Yom HaZikaron rest heavily in every household. To usher in the solemn day, a loud siren blasts throughout the land. It is the same siren that proclaims air raid and war. Every car on the highway stops and the drivers and passengers solemnly get out. Jews, Moslems, and Christians all stand beside their cars in silent salute to all the lives lost.
At the close of Yom HaZikaron, another siren blasts, but this time it is announcing the holiday Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day. It is a day of giant celebrations. Fireworks exploding in Stars of David fill the sky, and people are dancing and singing in the streets. It is an emotionally exhausting transition to make, from mourning loss to celebrating victory. In houses that have lost a son or daughter, that victory seems rather slim, and there are many such houses. Some people wonder at the wisdom of having two such disparate holidays back to back, but it is in keeping with Jewish tradition. At weddings, we break a glass, and at funerals we recite the kaddish which praises God. We seem to mix our grief and our joy in everything we do, so that our joy is never quite complete, and our sorrow is never quite complete either. In our darkest season, we celebrate Hanukkah the festival of light, and in our brightest season we observe Tisha B’Av, a fast day commemorating the Temple’s destruction. On Passover, the season of our redemption, we break the middle matzah to remember that the world is still in need of a more complete redemption. Observing Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut side by side is our most drastic reminder of life’s tremendous highs and lows. Because one recognized Yom HaZikaron just minutes before the siren announces Yom HaAtzmaut, no one can for a moment of celebration forget the terrible price of freedom. It becomes so precious and delicate.
On Yom HaAtzmaut, the president of Israel always has a festive gathering for all of those people who were born the same year Israel received her autonomy, sharing Israel’s birthday. Were you born in 1948?
There is an Israeli story called With His Own Hands by Moshe Shamir. It is the story of his brother, who died in an Israeli war. There is a chapter, which describes the moment the UN decision was announced that Israel was officially its own state. The chapter is so rich, describing the celebrations, the big hora dances that swung all over Tel Aviv. The main character (Shamir’s brother), is dancing along with everyone, and there is a wonderful, contagious feeling of utmost joy and abandon. Your heart races when you read it, and you feel as if you have wings. As if you are being whisked around in one of those circle dances so fast that your feet lift off the ground and you take to flight. Freedom! Shamir’s brother then breaks off from a circle dance into a pub. The owner is giving out sodas to everyone and everyone is jumping and shouting with joy. The main character looks around at everyone drinking their sodas, and says in a daze, “Who’s paying?” He meant, who’s paying for the sodas, but his question falls on the room like a stone. Everyone stops for a moment, as the terrible, frightful question just lingers there, threateningly:
The Silver Platter – Natan Alterman, interpretive translation by Rebecca Lillian
"No state is served to a nation on a silver platter."
The earth grows still and the skies pale
over the still smoking borders.
And a people –
a people whose very heart was torn from it, yet still living and breathing
rises to welcome the utter uniqueness of this miracle.
And then a young woman and a young man step forward
and oh so slowly walk
toward the nation.
Dressed in drab work clothes and heavy shoes,
they keep climbing in the stillness,
having not had time even to change out of their combat uniforms
or to wash away the grime from days of pain and nights of fire.
Exhausted to the limit
And not knowing rest,
They still wear youth like dew drops in their hair.
These approach silently and stand so still
we cannot know whether they are living or dead.
Through tears laced with wonder
The nation states at them, asking:
"Who are you?
The two of you, both so silent?"
"We are the Silver Platter
upon which the Jewish State
was served to you."
That is all they say.
Then they fall into the shadow
at the feet of the nation.