In America we not only do we separate Memorial Day and Independence Day by just over a month, for most Americans they have lost their prime meanings and have become days of sales and picnics. For most of us, the only thing that is different between these two days is the lack, or the presence of fireworks.
In Israel the opposite is true. Maybe it is because Israel is a mere 70 years old or because everyone has either lost a loved one or their next door neighbor has, these days have not lost their meaning. Maybe the adjacency of the two helps reinforce the power of the days and the difficulty of transition from mourning to life.
We began Yom HaZikaron by standing for the evening sirens. Cars stop on the road. People stand at attention and silence. Some with heads bowed. Others with eyes brimming. Others with both. We gathered in our hotel in Tzvat as our guide Frances talked about her life, read us Israeli poetry, and discussed with us the personal loss each Israeli feels. Quietly we returned to our rooms.
Up early the next morning we began our journey to Jerusalem, aware of the pall in the air. At 11:00 a.m. the bus stopped and again we stood for the sirens marking Yom Hazikaron. We drove through Tiberius, where Rabbi Judah HaNasi compiled and published the Mishnah around 200 C.E. in order to reinforce the unity of a Jewish people scattered throughout the world. The Mishnah represents both a final acknowledgment that Israel had been lost to the Romans and, the understanding that while they needed to mourn, they understood the need to ensure the Jewish people would survive and, if possible, thrive.
Just south of Tiberius we stopped at the Kineret Cemetery. There, overlooking the waters of the Kineret, the Sea of Galilee, we visited the graves of Moshe Hess, Rachel, and Naomi Shemer. Hess, a founder of Labor Zionism in Europe, died and was buried in Cologne in the late 1890’s. In 1961, his remains were moved to the land of his dreams. A dream fulfilled after death but, nevertheless, a dream fulfilled.
Rachel, a great Israeli poet, lived her life with depression, however, she wrote some of the most moving, soulful poetry. Her poetry touches the depths of the heart as it came from the depths of her heart.
Naomi Shemer, the voice of Israeli music in the 60’s and 70’s, set the words of others, and her own, to music that touches the heart. Her renditions of Eli Eli, and Yerushalyim Shel Zahav, are her best now works but, barely scratch the surface of her work.
Hess, Rachel and Shemer now rest near each other in the peaceful green overlooking the waters of the Kineret.
Driving to Jerusalem marked our early transition from Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. No drive is more powerful for me. Driving along the Jordan River with Palestinian towns and Israeli checkpoints, reinforces the complexity of Israel. Understanding, the need for security and the need to uphold the highest Jewish values of understanding the heart of the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt, tears at the mind and the heart.
Our arrival into Jerusalem on Mt. Scopus, which, between 1948 and 1967 was an Israeli “isle” in the midst of Jordan echoes from the past to the alternate reality of today. But, doing Kiddush and Shehechiyanu overlooking the city of our past, present, and future, makes the heart soar like few other places/views can.
After checking into our rooms we met with my classmate and friend Rabbi Bill Berk who led us through a transition from the sadness of Yom HaZikaron into the joys of Yom Ha’atzmaut. We then left the hotel to find various celebrations around Jerusalem before the conflicted message of our next day, visiting Masada.
The Zealots of Masada decided it was better to die than to live as a defeated people, perhaps as slaves. If all had taken that path Judaism would have ended there and then.
Thus, celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut on Masada seemed odd to say the least. Our guide for the day, Doron, Rabbi Citrin and, I each gave our own perspective on Masada and Yom Ha’atzmaut. As we prepared to descend, three squadrons of fighters flew overhead putting a final explanation point on the holiday.