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April 23, 2023 11:54 am
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Tears of Heartbreak and Joy

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avatar by Ruthie Blum / JNS.org

Opinion

Mourners visit the graves of fallen IDF soldiers at Israel’s Yom HaZikaron ceremony. Photo: Israel Defense Forces

JNS.orgYom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism, begins on Monday evening. When it ends on Tuesday night, cheer will replace mourning as the nation embarks on a 24-hour celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence Day.

The pairing of the two dates was purposeful. The idea behind the juxtaposition of grief and gratitude in such proximity was that Israelis owe the birth and continued existence of the Jewish state to the men and women killed while living in and defending it.

Though this week marks the country’s diamond anniversary—at the young but ripening age of 75—internecine political battles are threatening to take center stage at the somber ceremonies and at the happy ones to follow. Thankfully, there are many Israelis who intend to treat Yom Hazikaron with the respect it deserves and then go on to enjoy Yom Ha’atzmaut festivities.

These citizens understand that Memorial Day isn’t merely for the loved ones of the fallen, who don’t need annual reminders of a loss always lingering. It is held, rather, to highlight the collective nature of a sacrifice made by individuals, each a world onto him/herself, with a name, a face and a grieving family left behind.

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The same applies to Independence Day. Its message to all Israelis is that the wonderment around them is both a personal and a shared accomplishment, regardless of the issues that divide them.

It’s a tall order for people about whom it is aptly quipped: “Two Jews, three opinions.” But more than a handful manages to set aside the latter when called upon to do so, which helps to explain why Israel repeatedly ranks high on the happiness scale.

One man worthy of note in this context is Baruch Ben-Yigal. The bereaved father in his mid-50s decided through sheer will to pull himself out of the depths of despair over the death of his only son by seeking to sire and raise another child.

Staff Sgt. Amit Ben-Yigal was struck down three years ago during an Israel Defense Forces raid to arrest Palestinian terrorists in the village of Ya’bad in Samaria. The 21-year-old member of the IDF’s Golani Reconnaissance Battalion was murdered on May 12, 2020, a month before completing his compulsory military service.

The incident occurred at 4:30 a.m. When the troops began to exit the village on foot, approximately a dozen residents began pummeling them with bricks and cinder blocks from surrounding rooftops.

Nizmi Abu Bakr, 49, targeted Amit, making sure to hit him at an angle from which his protective helmet would be of no use. The terrorist’s aim was impeccable.

Though Ben-Yigal was administered first aid on the scene, he was pronounced dead on arrival at the Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa. He was the first IDF soldier to be killed in action in 2020, and was promoted, posthumously, to the rank of sergeant first class.

Hundreds attended his funeral, crying as his distraught parents, who had divorced when Amit was a baby, eulogized their son separately. Calling him “mommy’s hero,” his mother, Nava Revivo, wept bitterly as she bid him farewell.

“My eldest child, beloved child,” she wailed. “Your sisters can’t comprehend what’s happening. We will keep your ember burning, your happiness, your love.”

Unlike his ex-wife, Baruch hadn’t remarried. But, as he subsequently revealed in a TV interview, he doted on Amit for the next two decades to such an extent that he broke up with a girlfriend who grew irritated with the toddler one day for fiddling noisily with the refrigerator door.

At the burial, he bemoaned having consented to let the boy serve in a combat unit—something that the IDF demands from parents of only children and from those who already lost sons or daughters to war or other tragedies.

“You told me, ‘Dad, don’t deny me this,’” he wailed. “So, I signed [the permission slip] and you celebrated as if you’d just won the lottery. You were supposed to bury me, not the other way around. God in heaven, give me a reason to wake up tomorrow morning.”

His prayer was answered last year, when—after countless dates with women who contacted him after seeing him on Channel 12 in 2021—he met and “clicked” with Daniela Afriat, a 30-year-old divorcée with two little kids. In a follow-up feature on Friday night, the couple spoke of their relationship and the fact that they are expecting a baby.

In the course of the program, during which Daniela was filmed receiving a sonogram, the couple was informed that they’ll be having a boy.  Baruch promptly took the tidings to the Be’er Yaakov Cemetery.

Caressing and planting kisses on his late son’s headstone in the pouring rain, he announced, “I have news. You’re going to have a brother; can you believe it?”

Tears running down his face, intermingling with the showers from above, he not only assured Amit that the new child would never take his place, he added, astonishingly, that the boy will grow up to serve, like his older brother, in the Golani Brigade.

Baruch Ben-Yigal’s story is a perfect metaphor for the indelible link between heartbreak and joy that is Israel’s curse and blessing. It is this very paradox that Israelis must take a pause from politics to acknowledge and honor.

Ruthie Blum is a Tel Aviv-based columnist and commentator. She writes and lectures on Israeli politics and culture, as well as on U.S.-Israel relations. The winner of the Louis Rappaport award for excellence in commentary, she is the author of the book “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ” 

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