Yom Hazikaron. Remembrance Day or Memorial Day for the fallen of Israeli security forces and victims of terror. For me, sitting in Santa Fe, New Mexico, this may be the loneliest day of the year.
In front of me, on the wall behind my desk, is a bulletin board with all manner of important mementoes and reminders. A photo of my wife painting the scenery as viewed from Manara, overlooking the Hula Valley. A panorama of the view from our apartment in Kiryat Shemonah. A photo of Rav Tzvi Yehudah Hacohen Kook. The chief medic symbol from my IDF service. My IDF dog tags. The photo of a grave.
The headstone reads: דניאל (דני) האז. בן שושנה ומאיר. “Daniel (Dani) Haas. Son of Shoshanah and Meir. Born in the USA, made aliyah in 5739. Fell in battle in Lebanon in Operation Peace for Gallilee, the first day of Av, 5742. Age 26 when he fell. May his soul be bound in the bond of life.”
Danny was my friend. He came from Cleveland, Ohio to live and build in Ofra, Shomron, Israel. We had common friends in Ofra. We started our army service together in the Nahal brigade. He died in battle with terrorists in southern Lebanon during his first reserve duty call-up. A Jew committed to building a Jewish society in Israel based on Hashem’s Torah. A Jew committed to building that society with his hands, and his blood.
In Israel, when the observance of Memorial Day and Independence Day was being established, the Chief Rabbinate determined that if either day fell on Sunday, they would both be pushed off into the coming week to avoid desecration of the Sabbath with people rushing to ceremonies and preparations on Saturday night. In America, there is some discussion if Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day) and Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) should similarly be pushed off as is done in Israel. Why not? Because ‘Memorial Day isn’t so relevant to American Jewry’, and so we aren’t concerned with the practical issues of possible Sabbath violation.
‘Memorial Day isn’t so relevant to American Jewry’! What a horrible thing. But sadly true. When I first came to the USA to teach, I found myself embroiled in a controversy. The Jewish Community Center in our city was hosting a Yom HaAtzmaut/Independence Day celebration the night starting the Hebrew date of the holiday. The event was starting well before sundown, with music and dancing. This was a desecration of the solemn and sacred nature of Memorial Day! How could this be? I contacted the organizers, and they were completely unaware of the significance of the day before Yom HaAtzmaut. They also said they couldn’t or wouldn’t change the planned start of festivities. So I told my students that year to boycott the event if it weren’t changed. My students, God bless and keep them, pressured the organizers and some modifications were made at the last minute.
Natan Alterman wrote a poem called the Silver Platter. מגש הכסף. It is a response or illustration of Ben Gurion’s lament that we didn’t receive a Jewish State on a silver platter. Many fought and died, and continue to fight and die, so that we may celebrate this most wonderful time in our history. My long-missed friend Danny is one of 22,867 soldiers and civilians who have been killed fighting for and defending the cause of modern Zionism. They, Alterman wrote in his poem, are our silver platter. All of us who in any way, shape, or form benefit from the State of Israel today owe them our highest debt of gratitude. But many American Jews, including many American rabbanim, observe that ‘Memorial Day isn’t so relevant to American Jewry.’ Shall we leave it that way?
Rav Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik was famously opposed to unnecessary ceremony and symbols. One year he spoke before the gathered members of Mizrachi Religious Zionists (as related in נפש הרב, pg. 99-100) on the topic of the flag of Israel. At first glance, a flag has no place in halacha and no real significance in Jewish life. It seems, however, that there is indeed a halacha in Yoreh Deah that relates to the importance of the flag. We know from the g’mara in Moed Katan that the sages instituted that everyone should be buried in similar plain shrouds. What is the one exception to this? If a Jew is found killed, he should be buried in his bloody clothes as evidence of his violent death. In Heaven they should see this, and this should awaken heavenly justice against the killers, and heavenly mercy on the deceased and his community.
So too, the flag of Israel. At the end of the War of Independence, it was determined that whatever territory was in Jewish hands at the time of cease-fire would be recognized by the UN as part of the new Jewish state. Whatever was in Arab hands, would remain outside the state. So much blood was spilled, so many Jewish soldiers fell figuratively and literally placing a Jewish flag on the soil of the Land of Israel. Therefore, said Rav Soloveitchik, the flag of the State of Israel has a similar importance to the bloody clothes of the murdered Jews. When that flag waves, it should awaken heavenly mercy on all of the people of Israel.
In The Rav Speaks, on page 139, this idea appears: “How much more is this so of the blue and white flag, which has been immersed in the blood of thousands of young Jews who fell in the War of Independence defending the country and the population (religious and irreligious alike; the enemy did not differentiate between them). It has a spark of sanctity that flows from devotion and self-sacrifice. We are all enjoined to honor the flag and treat it with respect.”
There is a story told of Rav Shlomo Zalman Aeurbach, that appears in the frontispiece of Rav Rimon’s הלכה ממקורה: צבא. Once a student from Yeshivat Kol Torah approached Rav Shlomo Zalman Aeurbach zt”l and asked him, ‘may I interrupt my studies (of Torah) to travel to prayer at the graves of the righteous/tzadikim?’ Rav Shlomo Zalman answered him, ‘it is preferable to remain in the yeshiva and learn (Torah).’ The student asked, ‘is there no place for going at times to the graves of the righteous to pray? Does the rav not go at times to pray at the graves of the tzadikim?’ Rav Shlomo Zalman answered him, ‘in order to pray at the graves of tzadikim there is no need to travel to the Gallilee. When I feel a need to pray at the graves of the righteous, I go to Mount Herzl(Israel’s national military cemetery in Jerusalem), to the graves of the soldiers who died for the sake of God.’
May Hashem open our minds and our hearts to appreciate the great gift he has given us in Israel; to appreciate deeply the manner and cost by which it comes. We did not receive the State on a silver platter. Pray that by the merit of Danny Haas and all the men and women with him in their special place before the heavenly court, we should be privileged to see the ultimate redemption of Israel and the world complete. By their merit.
First Published May 10, 2011