The weight of Israel’s Memorial Day is almost too heavy to bear. Regardless of the deep political divisions in the Jewish state, there aren’t separate cemeteries for the fallen soldiers that were affiliated with different political parties. Profound grief cuts across the full spectrum of Israeli society. Memories of so many unfinished lives are held close by all of us who love Israel and understand the enormous sacrifice 64 years of statehood has required.
In his book, "Death as a Way of Life", Israeli writer and peace activist David Grossman writes, "Today I ran into a reservist who served with me in the [first] Lebanon War. Children were born to both of us back then. He sighed as we spoke. Please God they won't have to serve in those blood-soaked hills of Lebanon as we did.”
Throughout Israel's long occupation of Lebanon and during the first intifada in the late 1980s, David and Michal Grossman were ubiquitous protesters at peace demonstrations, to which they often brought their three young children, Yonatan, Uri and Ruti.
Uri Grossman was only two-years-old when his father published "The Yellow Wind", which took readers into the painful daily struggles of Palestinians living in the West Bank. In this sympathetic Israeli portrait of Palestinians, David Grossman asked, "What does an Arab feel as he labors on the construction site of a new Israeli settlement on the hill overlooking his village? What does the reservist, who studies together with Arabs at the Hebrew University, feel when he suddenly has to shoot into a crowd of demonstrators at An-Najah University in Nablus?"
Uri was drafted into the Israeli army at age 18. He didn't resist his military service. In fact, he pushed himself to reach a position of leadership. His left-wing father was quite proud that Uri became a tank commander earning the rank of first sergeant.
Uri's father proudly wrote to his son, knowing that the apple hadn't fallen far from the tree: "I remember you telling me about your roadblock policy - you spent a lot of time manning roadblocks in the territories. You said that if there is a child in a car you pull over, you always begin by trying to calm the kid down, to make him laugh. That you always remind yourself that the kid is about [your sister] Ruti's age. And you'd always remind yourself how frightened he is of you. And how much he hates you, and that he has reasons for that, and still, you will do all you can to make that terrifying moment easier for him, while doing your job, without fudging."
This winter I read Grossman’s latest book, "To the End of the Land", an extraordinary work he remarkably began in May 2003. The central character is a woman named Ora, who is petrified that her son, Ofer, would die during his army service. She comes to believe that if she’s not home when the army sends officers to inform her that her son was killed then nothing bad could happen to him. Grossman writes, “If they don’t find her, if they can’t find her, he won’t get hurt.”
Uri Grossman almost made it home from Lebanon. During the last day of the Second Lebanon War in August 2006, Grossman's tank was hit and he died two weeks before his 21st birthday. The first sabra woman to be ordained by our Reform Movement in Israel, Rabbi Maya Leibovich, began the funeral with the same words that Uri had chanted at the opening of his Bar Mitzvah haftarah from Isaiah 60:1, "Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee." And then Uri's father, David Grossman offered these words in his eulogy:
“We will huddle into our pain, surrounded by our good friends, wrapped in the tremendous love that we feel today from so many people, most of whom we do not know, and I thank them for their boundless support. I fervently hope that we will know how to give one another this love and solidarity at other times as well. This is perhaps our most unique national resource, our greatest national spiritual treasure."
As we observe Yom Hazikaron, Israel's Memorial Day, and celebrate Yom Haatzmaut, Israel's Independence Day, this year, I hope that we can lift up the Grossmans and so many other Israeli families with our “love and solidarity”.
At Kehilat Mevasseret Zion, a remarkable Reform congregation just outside of Jerusalem where the Grossmans are members, there is a very special Torah scroll dedicated to the memory of Uri Grossman. It is a tree of life to those who hold it fast.
May this unique scroll help us hold close the memories of all of those who gave their lives for Israel.
Through our tears may we have the courage to affirm: We have not, and we never will, lose our hope!
Rabbi Rick Jacobs is Incoming President of the Union for Reform Judaism
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