For me, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut are two of the most emotional day on my calendar. I would say our calendar, but I understand that there are Jews who neither celebrate nor care about these two days. While I would assume that none from this camp will be reading this, or even care about what I have to say, I’ll still be respectful of their opinion. Nevertheless, I find that the juxtaposition of Yom Hazikaron to Yom Haatzmaut is indeed significant. How can we properly celebrate what we have without first taking time to remember what we’ve lost in order to have it? Additionally, this sequence is part-and-parcel to the Jewish experience. Regarding the Purim story, we retell the dastardly plot of Haman the Wicked before speaking of the great joy that washed over the Jewish people of Shushan and beyond. In the Haggadah, we expound upon the miracles that the God performed for Bnai Yisrael during their exodus from Egypt. This occurs only after we recount their disgrace both as slaves and as the descendants of idolaters. Only after reflection can we begin celebration.
Yom Hazikaron for me brings memories of when I was in yeshiva. Although I lived in the Old City and was there during the Yamim Tovim and other popular tourist times, I cannot remember a busier day than Yom Hazikaron. That morning, I went with a few friends from Yeshiva by cab to Har Herzl. When I say went to Har Herzl, I really mean the cab driver took us as close as he could get before the onslaught of bumper-to-bumper traffic. We exited the taxi and began the trek to the cemetery. After about two minutes of walking, we heard the wail of the siren, and suddenly I witnessed a scene straight out of the videos I had only been privy to before in my day schools’ classrooms. The cars stopped, the drivers and passengers got out. Most stood up straight, some wiped tears from their faces. I know it’s annual event that might not be overly special to some, but it’s one that I’ll remember that for the rest of my life. We made it to Har Herzl, along with the thousands of friends and relatives of fallen heroes, as well as the throngs of others who had never met these brave individuals. We couldn’t help but be enamored by the tombstones we’d pass. The ones who grew up not far from us, the ones who were younger than us when they were murdered We heard stories that made us laugh, and many that made us cry. The Israel that I had enjoyed on my previous trips, the Israel where I lived, had been maintained by the Almighty and the kedoshim interred on Mt. Herzl.
Another defining moment came on the heels of the massacre at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav in Jerusalem. Three days after the ruthless attack, the entire yeshiva picked up and moved to Mercaz Harav for night seder. Between the talmidim, rabbis, and chevrutot, there were over 250 of us there. The library windows, doors, floors, and bookshelves were still riddled with bullet holes. An informal gathering took place there as our Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl (our senior Rosh Yeshiva and then Chief Rabbi of the Old City) started to offer words of encouragement. What started with a group of 10 students quickly grew to over 100. The Kaliver Rebbe was there speaking through his own tears to the students of Yeshivat Yerushalayim L’Tzeirim (Yashlatz), the adjacent institution which serves as a feeder to Mercaz HaRav. Five of the eight students killed were enrolled there. We sang, and then heard remarks from one of the rabbis of the yeshiva. The way we arrived at Mercaz HaRav, and they way we left could not have been more different.
Something happens when the sun sets on Yom Hazikaron. We take off our clothes of mourning and put on festive garments. The day is transformed. It’s almost instantaneous. We celebrate the land that those who fell in battle dreamed of being a part of. We live on for them, and for those who have been killed for simply being Jewish in the Jewish homeland. And although this is not the manner in which they would’ve wanted to affiliate with us, they are singing, dancing, and rejoicing at the same time from their perches in Shamayim.
There’s a story about Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Haohen Kook z”l being asked about his infatuation with the land of Israel. Rav Kook responded that he was a Jew who tried to model his way of life around the Torah. And if one looks inside the Torah, they will see that from Lech Lecha until Vezot Habracha, that the land of Israel is mentioned in every single Torah portion. That, explained Rav Kook, is the reason for his affinity toward Eretz Yisrael.
The connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel is getting stronger and stronger, and I pray every day that this trend continues.
Whether you are zocheh to live in Israel, or dwell “besof maarav”, whatever you find yourself doing on Yom Haatzmaut, take a moment and thank Hakadosh Baruch Hu for the amazing gift of the land of Israel.
אִם יִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲךָ בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם מִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ