Mourning to Create Lives of Meaning: Israeli Memorial Days and Sefirat Ha'omer

Given that they all fall during Sefirat Ha’omer, what is the significance of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day and Independence Day for Jews in Israel and the Diaspora alike?

As a religious Israeli, the celebration of the three national holidays – “Yom Hashoah Vehagvurah” (Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Day, otherwise known as Holocaust Remembrance Day), “Yom Hazikaron” (Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of hostile activity), and “Yom Ha’atzmaut” (Independence Day) within the period of our Jewish calendar, Sefirat Ha’omer (Sefira), can be a conflicted process.

Sefira is the 49 days of counting starting the second day of Passover and ending the day before Shavuot. In emulation of our ancestors, during this time, we are to progress from being emancipated Egyptian slaves, given our freedom by G-d, totally dependent on Him, to a nation of Jews – “na’aseh venishma,” (we will do and we will understand) – accepting upon ourselves the highest service, the yoke of the Torah and its commandments.

The State of Israel, along with the Religious Zionist community, has established Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day, and Israel’s Independence Day as holidays with their own customs. However, because these commemorations are modern events, many ultra-Orthodox Jews deny their significance, despite their integral role in Jewish history, and focus on Sefira alone. They view these holidays as secular celebrations, in conflict with the Jewish calendar.

The Tamud, tractate Yevamot 62b, teaches that during the period from Passover to Shavuot, 24,000 students of the great Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva died because they didn’t show proper respect for one another. Besides the huge loss of life and scholarship, the idea that students of the proponent of “V’ahavta reiacha kamocha” (love your fellow as yourself) were disrespectful is hard to comprehend. In response to this tragedy, the sages of the Gaonic period in Jewish history (600-1000 C.E.) established most of Sefira as a period of mourning with associated customs;†first with no wedding celebrations and later with additional restrictions of no shaving or haircuts, among others.

During a recent lecture in Jerusalem, Rabbi Chayim Soloveichik asked why the Talmud didn’t mention these mourning customs. He answered in the name of his father, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik, that there are times when our sages institute practices for reasons other than those mentioned, applying their judgment of what the halakha (Jewish law) requires for their times and often as practiced, for future generations. From Passover, a time when we ate matza, made of flour and water, we then offered the Omer sacrifice at the time of the Temple, a meal offering of barley, animal fodder. Sefira is a time of step-by-step growth with the goal of accepting of the Torah as our ancestors did, “k’ish ehad v’lev ehad” (as one person with one heart). This is not an easy process. According to both rabbis, based on references from Torah commentators, mourning customs were introduced to provide an appropriate frame of mind to focus, as a means of achieving the greater goal.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman, in his article, “From Yom Hashoah to Yom Ha’atzmaut - the New ‘High Holidays’ of Israel,” views the three celebrations through the lens of an evolving Israeli narrative. Initially, Holocaust Remembrance Day was a day to remember to forget, a rejection of the passive European Jews who went like sheep to the slaughter. It was a day to be proud of the “new Jew,” who is no longer the victim, but the master of his own destiny.

After the Yom Kippur war in 1973, Israel was humbled. The myth of our infallibility was exposed and there was a shift in consciousness regarding Holocaust Remembrance Day. Instead of distancing ourselves, we identified with those who perished in the Holocaust, as part of an ongoing battle against anti-Semitism. This became the new Zionist narrative, rallying worldwide Jewry in support of the unifying cause.

In the 21st century, anti-Semitism, while no less virulent, now broadcasts itself as attacks on Israel, the Zionist state. Israel is portrayed as the bully, the oppressor, and in its most perverted manifestation, as perpetrator of atrocities - the victim turned villain. In light of this new reality, Rabbi Hartman concludes that on Holocaust Remembrance Day we must simply mourn. “Zionism is neither the symbolism of the new Jew, nor is it the antidote to anti-Semitism. Israel is the outgrowth in the same way that it is the outgrowth of Yom Hazikaron.”

Memorial Day has a different significance to Holocaust Remembrance Day and is particularly Israeli. Hartman writes, “In remembering our fallen, the country mourns the price we have had to pay to build our state... It is that somber mourning that serves as the foundation for Yom Haatzmaut. It gives birth to a responsible joy, of having to earn the life enabled by such a heavy price. When we turn to Yom Haatzmaut the next day, we turn with a deep sense of responsibility... Unlike the memories of Yom Hashoah, the sadness of Yom Hazikaron does not give new meaning to Yom Haatzmaut; rather it gives it gravitas.”

I would humbly take exception with Hartman’s characterization of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day and Independence Day as the new “High Holidays.” To do so would take them out of their integral significance to the time they occur - during Sefirat Ha’omer. The mourning instituted by our sages, in their wisdom, focuses on improving ourselves step-by-step, ascending to be worthy to again receive the Torah on Shavuot. So too, the different reasons for mourning on Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day provide the context to realizing the price we have paid as a people and country. With this realization comes an inherent responsibility to fulfill Israel’s great potential. Mourning is the means to creating lives of meaning.

On the State of Israel’s 65th birthday, let us pause to reflect on how much we have achieved in such a relatively short time. But, let us also consider how much needs to still be accomplished to be worthy of our mission. During this special time, may all of us grow together and live up to our great promise: to be an “am kadosh” and an “or legoyim”, a holy people and a light unto the nations.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations.

AFP