This time of year compresses so much of Jewish emotion and history. Beginning with Yom HaShoah Ve-Hagvura (Holocaust Day) and continuing into the feeling of a “yoma arichta” (extended day) of Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzma’ut, when Israel’s memorial day transmutes into Israel’s independence day. In essence, the two days are as if one.
It’s like the creation story in Genesis when G-d declares, “And it was evening and it was morning,” the two contrasting elements of darkness and light, of night and day, bring definition to one another, creating the whole.
We grieve for the fallen as a prelude to the joy of celebration; we acknowledge the heavy toll exacted from those without whom, by the grace of G-d, Israel wouldn’t stand.
It’s always dreadfully painful to think of those who paid with their blood for what we have. Consider that many of the soldiers who were killed were Holocaust survivors; in many cases, they were the last standing branch of multi-generations, forever wiped out.
In Israel, one word says it all — bizchutam (in their merit). It is in the merit of the fallen that we are here. Bizchutam.
As the waning yahrzeit candle flames still flicker for the soldiers, as twilight deepens into night, Israel transitions into celebrating the historic gift from G-d of our modern day state.
So it is, as it always was, for our people.
After Jacob our forefather wrestles with the angel, as he is released; at daybreak, he walks on, but with a limp. After his monumental night-long struggle, for the rest of his life Jacob walks on with a limp. So it is for the Jewish people in their land.
Despite the odds, we haven’t been paralyzed. We walk forward, but with a limp.
The land of Israel has exerted her power over the Jewish people for millennia. Our soul as a people hovers there. The land’s gravitational pull is beyond resistance. Once we were separated, it pierced our prayers, our texts, our poems, our literature, our folklore. It has always been and always will be our home.
When I pause and think that I was blessed to live in these historic times of our return to the land, I feel overwhelmed. In such moments I think to myself: Happy are we who have the merit of the Jewish state in our time, “ashreinu shezachinu le-medina ba-yameinu.”
When I think of Moses’ deepest prayer and wish, to enter the land, and in turn, the pain of his rejected prayer, it can bring me to tears.
I remember many late nights, walking home up Ussishkin Street in the labyrinth of Jerusalem’s streets, by day so busy, now still, silent, kissed by the night’s quiet holy calm and feeling the comfort that those sultry streets provided: a balm to my soul.
If only Moses could be there walking with me, I would think. In a sense, perhaps he was.
Natan Alterman, one of Israel’s poet laureates, captures the complex juxtaposition of Israel’s Memorial Day and Independence Day. It was inspired by a morbid conversation he overheard in a bar late one night in 1947 between the army generals of the former Irgun and Palmach, one of whom commented, “it might cost 10,000 lives to win a war of independence.
Alterman’s famous poem is titled Magash Hakesef (The Silver Platter). I searched for a good translation to this profound poem, to no avail. I offer one to you, but if you can, I encourage you to read it in the original Hebrew.
And the earth grows still,
The lurid sky slowly pales
Over smoking borders.
Heartsick, but still living, a people stand by,
To greet the uniqueness of the miracle.
Readied, they wait beneath the moon,
Wrapped in transcendent joy, before the light.
A girl and boy step forward,
And slowly walk before the waiting nation;
In work garb and heavy shod,
They climb. In stillness.
Wearing yet the dress of battle,
The grime of aching day and fire-filled night,
Unwashed, weary unto death, not knowing rest,
But wearing youth like dewdrops in their hair,
Silently the two approach
Are they of the quick or of the dead?
Through wondering tears, the people stare.
“Who are you, the silent two?”
And they reply:
“We are the silver platter upon which the Jewish State was served you.”
And speaking, fall in shadow at the nation’s feet.
The rest in the chronicles of Israel is told.
Copyright Intermountain Jewish News