As we approach the double days of Israel’s Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzma’ut this week, I once again reflected on the meaning of this juxtaposition of official holidays – one representing the ultimate sadness of a people, the second, the ultimate national joy.
Last year, we read the weekly Torah portion – Parshat Emor on the 3rd of the Hebrew month of Iyar, which would have been on the Eve of Yom Hazikaron – the official Memorial for Israel’s Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror – were it not to have fallen on Shabbat. After studying the verses of Emor at that time, I wrote the following and sent it to a number of friends. One of my friends, who reread it recently, suggested it worthwhile if I would share my personal reflections with a wider readership. I hope those who choose to read it will agree.
In Parshat Emor it is written: “And I will be sanctified among the Children of Israel…” (Leviticus 22, 32). The great medieval commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomi Yitzhaki) explains that this verse implies a positive act of sanctification, that this act of making holy G-d’s Name is understood to mean that if necessary, in certain circumstances, one sacrifices oneself and by doing so, one makes G-d’s Name holy.
The concept of dying “Al Kiddush Hashem” – “in sanctification of G-d’s Name” – is well known. But Yom HaZikaron in Israel puts it in a definitive perspective.
Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Neriyah, zt”l, the founder of the Bnei Akiva educational network of Yeshivot and Ulpanot in Israel, points out in his book of explanations on the weekly Torah portions – “Ner LaMa’or” – that in Judaism we connect the concept of death with the perception of Tumah (Spiritual Uncleanliness). Why? This is because Taharah (Spiritual Cleanliness) is only connected to creation, to creativity, where its inherent holiness is achieved only through an action. Whereas death is stopping creativity, death is the ending of the creative act. Hence, it is Tumah. But this not the case when death comes on the altar of a higher idea. When death comes through Mesirut Nefesh – self-sacrifice – to sanctify G-d’s Holy Name, then such a death is holy. It is a death that is not the end of creativity, rather it is the ultimate creative act.
As a veteran IDF rabbi in the reserves, part of my job is to deal with fallen soldiers on the field of battle. Thank G-d, although I have served in three wars and several major military operations, dealing with fallen soldiers has been only a small part of my total military rabbinic activities, albeit an important and holy one. And after having had the z’chut – the merit – to fulfill such a Mitzvah more than several dozen times with fallen soldiers and terror victims, I can state that I have been able to understand the great distinction between the death of Tumah and the death of Taharah – having dealt with the latter.
It must be understood that even the greatest rabbinic scholar, should he pass away in a normal manner – via old age or illness – his body is considered to be Tumah and it must go through a Taharah procedure prior to burial. And yet, the most irreligious soldier, should he fall in battle defending his Nation and Land – his body, and his uniform and equipment should they be soaked with his blood, are buried as is, without Taharah, because he is considered to have died in Holiness. His very act of fighting Israel’s enemies gives his death this special meaning. He has Sanctified G-d’s Holy Name by his last actions. His death has meaning, it is not merely life leaving his body, it is the ultimate sacrifice a Jew can do, and by his doing so, whether or not he totally understood the full meaning of his sacrifice, his death is Al Kiddush Hashem and his body is Tahor.
It is not by accident that we celebrate – yes, celebrate – Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) as a prelude to Yom HaAtzma’ut (Israel Independence Day). It is in order that we put true spiritual context into Yom HaAtzma’ut. We go from “Yagon L’Simcha” – “from Sorrow to Joyousness”, and we do so understanding the enormity of the sacrifice of the generations that preceded us and that of our own generation in returning our Nation to our Holy Land. Thus we are also able to better understand our own responsibility and commitment to build the Land and the Nation in a manner that will also Sanctify G-d’s Holy Name in Life.
This article first appeared in The Times of Israel.