Yom Hazikaron 5778 – On the Periphery

 

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*A student of Yeshivas Kol Torah wanting to visit the graves of righteous sages in the Galil. He posed a question of whether or not one would be allowed to interrupt their Torah studies to do so to the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. Rav Shlomo Zalman replied to his pupil that one need not venture north to find graves of tzaddikim to pray at. Rather, there were plenty of “tzaddikim” who were buried on Har Herzl, Israeli’s military cemetery.

*A recent feature article in Ami magazine profiles Rabbis Avigdor and Chizkiyahu Nebenzahl, the immediate past and current chief rabbis of the Old City, respectively. Rav Avigdor serves as the rabbinic head of ZAKA, Israel’s primary rescue and recovery organization. They are volunteers who are on the scene immediately after natural disasters and terror attacks, cleaning up the havoc wrought. Rav Avigdor’s grandson, Avraham Nebenzahl, notes that he used to see his grandfather stand near the #1 bus stop outside the Kotel plaza donned in his bloodstained ZAKA uniform, tears streaming from his eyes, as he returned home from cleaning up the scene of a terror attack.

*Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon once related that a soldier at war once asked him if he could daven in his tank due to the less than pleasant smell inside. When Rav Rimon shared this question with an American rabbi, his North American counterpart didn’t understand the question. “One can’t pray in a scenario like that, so they’re exempt entirely!”, protested the American rabbi. Yet, Rav Rimon notes, never once has a soldier ever asked if he doesn’t have to daven. It’s simply never come up.”

On Yom Hazikron, I think about these vignettes, among others, that put me in the right frame of mind to approach this day. There are plenty of other anecdotes that will do the trick. These two capture the essence of what we’re commemorating. Rav Shlomo Zalman’s story hits me because of its poignancy. Rav Nebenzahl’s story speaks to me because I can picture this very scene playing out in my mind. Rav Rimon’s account speaks volumes of the caliber of many of the soldiers of the IDF.

The memorial is two-fold: on one hand, we remember the soldiers who valiantly fell fighting for their country, while we also reminisce about those individuals who have been victims of terror. I find myself on the periphery, making small connections to some victims. I feel uneasy making myself believe that I am much closer to these kedoshim than I actually am. I recognized one of the students killed in the Mercaz HaRav attack from living in the Old City at the same time. I’ve traversed many different places where people, both soldiers and civilians, have tragically been murdered in cold blood. Nevertheless, many of us who share this lack of first-hand connective tissue are somber today, thousands of miles away from the state of Israel.

To those with a strong connection to the land, it makes no difference how close one is to the victims. They are our sons, our daughters, our sisters, our brothers. When the Torah recounts how great the tenth and final plague was leading up to Paro releasing the Jewish people from his grip, the text states that the cry was so powerful because there was no Egyptian house that remained untouched. Each family experienced a casualty. In Israel, even if the kedoshim were not part of one’s own immediate family, the relationship is still there. A friend, a neighbor. The aggressors care not who you are or where you come from. Politicians are not spared (ask Benyamin Netanyahu). Rabbinic leaders aren’t either (ask the family of Rav Elyashiv who lost a daughter in 1948 to Jordanian shelling or Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbanit Chana Henkin who lost their beloved son and daughter-in-law not long ago).

When I think to myself that I’m on the periphery and feel foolish (almost) for getting worked up about the thousands of holy individuals who have died in the name of Israel, I am quickly pulled back to reality. The Gemara (Shevuos 39a) teaches us that the Jewish people are responsible for one another. Rashi comments that when Bnai Yisrael camped at Har Sinai in anticipation of receiving the Torah, they did so “k’ish echad b’lev echad.” The nation was so staunchly united in their mission that is were as if one person with one heart were making the decision, rather than the hundreds of thousands of people who were assembled at the foot of the mountain.

Someone once told me that they didn’t necessarily understand why we recognize Yom Hazikaron. Look up the names Nachshon Wachsman, Michael Levin, or Ezra Schwartz and tell me that you feel no sense of grief or loss. Put yourself in the shoes of the families of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, who, after almost 4 years, still do not have their sons’ bodies to bury, and tell me you feel nothing. Millions of Israelis would love nothing more to treat the day before Yom Ha’Atzmaut as insignificantly as Americans treat July 3rd. Sadly, they do not have that luxury. We do not have that luxury.

 

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