The Privilege to Die
4 Iyar 5760 – Yom HaZicharon
May 9, 2000
Yesterday afternoon I received an email that left me staggering. The Prime Minister’s letter to bereaved families opened as follows:
Dear Families, Parents, Widows, Sons and Daughters, Brothers and Sisters,
Again, we stand together with you on Remembrance Day for the Fallen of
Israel’s Wars facing our dear ones who look out at us from the walls of
the memorials and commemorative books.
Again, we visit today the rows of graves that extends to infinity, look
at the headstones with our hearts bleeding – we still refuse to believe
and we refuse to be consoled.
Because there is no consolation.
Heavy, maybe too heavy, is the price we bear for our independence and building the 52 years of the State of Israel.
The Prime Minister of Israel, a former Chief of Staff, the “most decorated soldier” in Israel’s history, is saying that the price of our existence in an independent state is “maybe too heavy?!”
These two days, Yom HaZicharon – Memorial Day, and Yom HaAzmaut – Independence Day, are, at first glance, a strange mix, somehow contradictory. In order to understand the paradox, first it is necessary to comprehend the significance of these two days.
Memorial Day, in the United States, is usually marked by picnics. In Israel, Memorial Day is marked by sad, nostalgic music, tragic and heroic war stories, accounts of the lives of men and women suddenly severed, and by visits to cemeteries together with solemn public ceremonies. There aren’t too many people in Israel who have not been hit, one way or another, by a war and/or a terrorist attack. Whether a beloved family member, a neighbor, a friend, or a friend’s friend, everyone knows someone, or of someone who has fallen. The wounds, even if they are 52 years old, are still fresh, and in many cases, still festering. Memorial Day, when a two minute siren is wails twice, once at 8:00 at night, and again at 11:00 in the morning, is a time when all Israelis stand united, crying for those no longer with us.
On the other hand, Independence Day is a time of joy and celebration, a night of fireworks, a vacation day of outdoors activities, a true national festival. The miracle of our return to Eretz Yisrael, the miracle of our statehood is truly a reason to rejoice.
Were these two days a week apart, there wouldn’t be any problem. But there isn’t any separation between them. One day leads into the next. One moment we stand somberly at attention, and the next minute we are stretching our necks, watching the fireworks explode above our heads, high in the sky.
The contrast is hard to miss. And for people in mourning, it’s a difficult switch to make.
Yet, the two days are back-to-back because it is impossible to celebrate our independence without first paying due to those who gave their very lives in order that others should be able to celebrate, while at the same time we cannot mourn without seeing the tangible fruits of the reason for mourning. The two are intrinsically tied together, however hard it is to turn one off and the other one on.
Late last night, before going to sleep, I listened a radio call-in show, the subject of which was Memorial Day. A father whose son was killed in action called in. He spoke of his son, and of his pain and grief. But then he said, “we have to remember not only the pain of death, but also the “zechut”, (which in Hebrew means privilege,) to die for our State. Where would we be if people were not willing to die for their land, for themselves?”
He went on, stating that he is sure that if given the opportunity, all of those exterminated in Hitler’s gas chambers would gladly have shorn their civilian clothes and worn uniforms, rather than die as they did. Continuing, he spoke of the pride of building a state, and of having a state to die for, as opposed to all the Jews who were defenselessly slaughtered, without any way to fight back. “If you have a state, and must fight to defend yourself, someone will die. And it is a zechut – a privilege, to have a son who died for his country, for his people.”
Such are the words of a bereaved father.
What are the words of the leader of our country?: Heavy, maybe too heavy, is the price we bear for our independence and building the 52 years of the State of Israel.
This is why Ehud Barak was nicknamed Ehud Barach (Ehud ran away – a Hebrew play on words). This is exactly what Barak is doing – he is running away, because the price, as he views it, is too heavy. The question then is, when is the price not too heavy – what price is he willing to pay for a state? The fact that he is abandoning the entire northern border, as well as Judea, Samaria and Gazza gives us a glimpse of the answer. It seems that as far as Barak is concerned, it is preferable not to have a state, than to have a state that must be fought for, defended and even died for.
Ehud Barak, Prime Minister of Israel, seems to have forgotten that the Jewish people were denied a state and the right to fight back for 2,000 years. Today it is a privilege to have a state to fight for. No doubt, it is preferable to live, to live in peace. But under the circumstances, as the bereaved father so stated, it is also a privilege to have a state to fight for, to die for.
On Memorial Day – or as others call it, Remembrance Day, it seems that there is much to remember.
Happy Independence Day.