I am here in Israel for my second experience of Yom Hazikaron—Israel’s Memorial Day. The last time was two years ago. Israel’s observance of Memorial Day is unlike anywhere else in the world, especially in the United States. In Israel it is truly a day to remember our 23,471 sons and daughters killed in the wars and those in terror attacks.
As the sun begins to set, the streets begin to empty as people return to their homes to begin the experience of Yom Hazikaron. There is not a family in the country that has not been affected by the day. My wife and I spent the day at the Shiloh Winery with a family friend. We drove our friend back to Jerusalem, where she lives, and then drove back to Modi’in where our son lives. On the way back, we decided to stop for dinner in the food court in the Modi’in Mall. It was around 5:15, and the mall and especially the food court are usually hopping at that hour. When we arrived at the mall, it was practically empty, and the stores were preparing to close. In the food court there were maybe two dozen people, when there are normally more than 200 at that time of day. We ordered our food and sat down to eat. Before we were done, the seven food kiosks were already shuttered, and we were one of the last people in the mall.
We went to a tekes (program) in Rishon LeTzion with our son and our grandchildren that evening. The program was scheduled to start at 9:00. We arrived at 8:00, so we could get seats. When we arrived, there were thousands of people already there. We were waiting on line at one of the entrances to the field where the program was being held, when at about 8:00, the siren signalling the beginning of Yom Hazikaron sounded. All at once, as if in a hypnotic state, everyone stopped what they were doing, and bowed their heads in silent reflection. The cars in the streets stopped, drivers exited their vehicles and also stood in silence. It was eerie and beautiful at the same time. By the time the tekes started there were more than 5,000 people there. In the center of the stage was the Israeli Symphony. I was curious as to why a solemn program would have a Symphonic Orchestra. The emcee began the program explaining the importance of Yom Hazikaron, and the sacrifice that not only those who were killed had made, but their families and friends as well. Then a singer, Rita, sang a moving song about the wars and the brave soldiers who gave their lives in defense of our Holy Land. The rest of the program was interspersed with wives and partners of soldiers who were killed at different times, in different situations, and music and songs, some written by the soldiers before they died. It certainly was a very moving experience. The program concluded with the singing of Hatikvah. Hearing the song of hope sung by thousands of people accompanied by a symphonic orchestra was like an exclamation point of a very special evening.
The following day, Wednesday, we decided that we would go to Har Herzl to pay our respects to soldiers we did not know but, nevertheless, felt a closeness to. The last time we were at Har Herzl was in 1971, on our honeymoon trip. I cannot tell you why we did not go back. This year, since my wife retired and we had time on our hands (this was a six-week trip that started before Pesach), we wanted to do things we had not done before. Thus our visit to the graves of our fallen soldiers. Many years ago, we had been to Arlington Cemetery, as part of a visit to Washington, D.C. While that was an awesome sight, seeing thousands of headstones, all white and in line, it did not compare to our emotions at Har Herzl. I was told a long time ago that what you notice most at the graves, are the ages of those buried there. And it’s true. You look at the headstones, and you read 18, 19, 20, 24 and occasionally you will see a 34 or 35. The thought that went through my mind while walking past hundreds of these graves was: these thousands of young lives cut short defending the land of our forefathers. Imagine if they lived to marry and have their own children.
There is a story about one of the Gedolim in Israel. A student came to him on Yom Hazikaron and said he wanted to stay in the yeshiva to learn, because that would be a holy act. The Rav told the student: “You want to see Holiness, go to Har Herzl and visit the graves of the true kedoshim (Holy ones).”
Afterward we decided to go to the Kotel to see the transition of the completion of Yom Hazikaron into Yom Ha’atzmaut—Independence Day. When we arrived, around 5:00 p.m., the Kotel Plaza was pretty empty, except for the people who came to see the Honor Guard standing around the memorial flame. As in Arlington, the soldiers are at attention, and look straight ahead. Unlike Arlington, where there is the changing of the guard every hour, here in Israel they change the guard every 15 minutes. The guard unit was made up of 20 Air Force pilots. We found a couple of chairs and sat for the next two and a half hours waiting for Maariv to begin, and that would signal the raising of the flag from half staff to full staff. One of the Aronei Kodesh (Holy Arks) was wheeled in to the center of the plaza at 6:40, and the crowd, which began to swell, davened Mincha, which was broadcast over loudspeakers that were set up for the event. Between Mincha and Maariv, as the sun began to set, several speakers spoke, including the two chief rabbis, Rav Yitzchak Yosef, the Sephardic chief rabbi, and Rav Dovid Lau, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi.
At 8:45, the soldiers lined up in two rows leading to where the two guards were standing at the memorial flame. The commander of the unit marched to the flag and raised it to its full height, and then relieved the guards of their duty. Immediately, over the loudspeakers, Maariv began. After the regular Maariv service, the chazzan began to recite Hallel. It was one of the most joyous renditions of hallel I had ever experienced. The entire Hallel was sung by thousands of people. Young and old, men with knitted kippot, and men in chasidic garb, together as one. There was dancing and singing, reminiscent of a wedding, but instead of hundreds of guests, there were thousands. It was an experience I hoped many would get to share, at least once in their lifetimes. After davening was over, you could see fireworks in the sky, in honor of Yom Ha’atzmaut.
The next day, Thursday, Yom Ha’atzmaut, the shuls were filled as if it were Shabbat. Many wearing white shirts in honor of the day. The tefillah was as if it were Shabbat, with singing and of course the recitation of Hallel, once again. In the streets, most of the cars had Israeli flags blowing in the wind, as hordes of Israelis proceeded to the various beaches to enjoy barbecues, and watch as the Air Force did a fly-over on the coast. We went to a barbecue at our friends in Raanana in the afternoon, and from there, headed to a barbecue at other friends in Modi’in, which lasted well into the night. What a country!
By Steve Roth
Rabbi Roth hails from Brooklyn and was ordained in 1972 by the Brooklyn Rabbinical Seminary. He and his wife Fern currently live in Boynton Beach, Florida, and spend time in Israel, Baltimore and Teaneck visiting their children.