It would be all too easy to spend Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) and Yom Haatzmaut (Israel's Independence Day) debating the rights and wrongs of the complex political issues that have absorbed Jewish communities of late. I wonder, though, whether it would be possible to forego debates on these issues – from stopping Iran's rush to nuclear weapons, to the formation of a new Israeli coalition after a divisive election campaign – and instead spend these back-to-back observances reconnecting with the Israel we love.
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Perhaps it's the first trip you took to Israel, or the first moment of deep solidarity you felt for its population. Whatever be the case, it feels to me that without the core connections between Diaspora Jews and the holy land, we get lost in politics. Don’t get me wrong, these political issues matter greatly. But underneath our intense arguments must be a true love and commitment to the Jewish State.
With the onset of Yom Hazikaron, the day of remembrance for those brave souls who died creating and protecting the State of Israel over the past 67 years, we enter a phase of darkness. This year, there are many fresh graves to visit, following last summer’s Operation Protective Edge. For those of us in North America, it is hard not to think of Max Steinberg z”l, the young man from Los Angeles whose love of Israel was kindled during his Birthright trip. He joined the Israel Defense Forces to express his commitment to the Jewish State and was killed in the Gaza Strip. He died as a lone soldier, meaning a young man who made the commitment to move to Israel without his family and serve in the military there. Thousands attended his funeral to mourn and to declare that, spiritually, there is no such thing as a lone soldier: he was and remains a part of the larger Jewish family.
There is another soldier whose life and legacy bear eloquent testimony to the heart and soul of the Jewish State that we love. Lt. Hadar Goldin, an officer from the elite Givati Brigade’s reconnaissance unit, had become engaged to Edna, the love of his life, just weeks before he was killed in action in southern Gaza. All of their young friends gathered in the cemetery of Kfar Sava to lay him to rest. The night before the funeral, Edna stood before the cameras and told the whole nation that she was waiting to dance with Hadar at their wedding.
Many inspiring stories about Hadar were shared in the eulogies of family and friends, but his father shared one that was most enduring. Hadar had asked his mother to teach him to sew, not something you would expect a battle-ready IDF officer would want to know. He not only learned, but practiced his new skill by embroidering on his gun belt two words: strength and humility. In his eulogy, Hadar’s father said, “That’s the Jewish battle doctrine, to know how to use strength when necessary and to use it with humility.”
Keeping those two qualities in dynamic tension may be the key to the power wielded by Israel in defense of our people and our ideals. Were we to lose the counterbalance of strength and humility we would lose the distinctive core of our Jewish State. Humility without the strength to defend is the story of our vulnerable position during too many powerless centuries in the Diaspora before 1948. But military strength without humility could lead to aggressive militarism that must never become our way.
My love for Israel is unconditional as is the responsibility I feel for Israel’s well-being. Israel has real enemies who keep her in their sights at all times. We must recognize these dangers and unite behind Israel. At key moments, including in these past few months, we are challenged to hold fast to our unconditional love and our Jewish values. But, we must never refuse to stop loving Israel or to cease living our demanding Jewish values of equality, justice, and dignity for all of God’s children.
During the somber commemorations of Memorial Day, let all of us be reminded of the extraordinary price of our Jewish sovereignty as the unfinished lives are remembered. We must remember each of the more than 23,000 who made the ultimate sacrifice. This year, I will especially think of Sgt. Max Steinberg and Lt. Hadar Goldin.
And then, as the mourning turns to dancing when the end of Memorial Day becomes the beginning of Independence Day, let us recapture the miracle of modern Israel’s very being by dancing a hora or two and in doing so think of the hora that Hadar and Edna never got to dance.
Before we resume our profound debates at the end of this week, let us truly observe Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut by reconnecting to the Israel we love. Sequentially, these two back-to-back holidays guide us through the spiritual wisdom of Psalm 30:12 “you turned my mourning into dancing, you undid my sackcloth and girded me with joy.”
Rabbi Jacobs is president of the Union of Reform Judaism, the largest movement of organized Jewry in North America and affiliated with the Israel Religious Action Center and the Israel Movement of Progressive Judaism.