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Toward Shabbat: Tazri’a-Metzora

This coming week, we encounter the back-to-back holidays of Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’Atzma-ut. On Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Day of Remembrance of Fallen Soldiers, the sadness and grief in the country is palpable. In the U.S., by comparison, our Memorial Day is marked with barbecues and shopping sales—perhaps because so many fewer Americans are connected to the military and to fallen soldiers.

But in Israel, almost every single person is related to someone, or knows someone who is related to someone, who was killed while serving in the army or by a terrorist attack. This feeling of connection and loss is pervasive, and the country mourns together. One of the many ways the country remembers these losses is with a literal reminder: At 11:00 AM every Yom Hazikaron, a siren goes off and the entire country pauses for two full minutes of remembrance. On my first Yom Hazikaron in Israel, I was on a crowded light rail train in the center of Jerusalem. When the siren sounded, the train stopped and everyone stood at attention. Looking out the window, I could see that even people in cars had halted in the middle of the street and stood still by their open doors.

Myriad other commemorations take place throughout the day. School is not in session on Yom Hazikaron, but students and their families are expected to attend ceremonies commemorating graduates of their schools who died in the line of fire. A few years ago, I attended one such ceremony at the Gymnasia in Jerusalem, the oldest secular high school in the city. When we arrived for the ceremony, we were ushered towards tables covered with books full of pictures and short descriptions honoring those students now deceased. In the courtyard, we sat in a sea of people wearing white with red flowers pinned to their shirts to represent the bloodshed for their country, listening to sad Israeli songs and stories of lost family members from siblings and parents fighting back tears. As the ceremony finished at 11 AM exactly, the siren rang throughout the country. We all stood with reverence. All we could hear was the siren and the gentle breeze rustling the trees.

As the holiday comes to a close, there is an official ceremony on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, where many fallen soldiers are buried. Hundreds of uniformed soldiers and government officials swarm the area. As the sun sets, even with all of those people, the entire mountain is silent as an Israeli flag is raised from half mast to the top of the pole. At the end of the ceremony, another siren sounds and people wipe away their tears. As Yom Ha’atzma-ut begins, Israelis replace their sadness with grins of joy. Despite the stark difference in emotions, these holidays flow one after another to acknowledge that Israel’s Independence, and the very existence of the State, would not have been possible if it were not for the soldiers who have sacrificed their lives. And so, the faces that were just one moment ago exhausted with grief and mourning are now exuberant.

Almost instantaneously, the entire country erupts into a giant national block party in celebration of Israel’s birthday, with bands playing Israeli dance music in every square. Fireworks go off in the main cities, and kids spray silly string at each other and dance in the streets. The year before the pandemic, I was in Kikar Zion in Jerusalem, dancing in huge circles holding hands with both close friends and people I had never met.

The movement from Yom Hazikaron into Yom Ha’atzma-ut is lovingly called “the switch” because it is as if, with the flip of a switch, the country transforms from mourning to celebration. This year, though, Israel’s government inches closer and closer to undermining the checks and balances that fortify their democracy. Thus, the transition from Yom Hazikaron to Yom Ha’atzma-ut may feel less like a stark “switch” and, instead, like a gray area because we may not be sure what we are celebrating. We want to feel proud of Israel and, yet, we struggle to understand what the Israeli flag has come to mean. Does it symbolize a place of pluralistic values, a homeland for every Jew, or does it symbolize a place of intolerance and marginalization? Does it symbolize the bastion of democracy in the Middle East in which Israelis and Palestinians work toward peace, or a violent struggle for domination? We want to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the only Jewish country with an eruption of love, exuberance, and excitement, but this year, as we come to terms with this government and the part that we have played leading up to the election of the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history, our joy may be replaced by feelings of fear and concern for what lies ahead.

It is in this moment of ambivalence that I am reminded of the lyrics of the song Al Kol Eileh, by legendary Israeli composer Naomi Shemer.

על הדבש ועל העוקץ

על המר והמתוק

על בתנו התינוקת

.שמור אלי הטוב

על האש המבוערת

על המים הזכים

על האיש השב הביתה

.מן המרחקים

על כל אלה, על כל אלה

.שמור נא לי אלי הטוב

על הדבש ועל העוקץ

.על המר והמתוק

On the honey and the sting 

On the bitter and the sweet

On our baby girl

Keep watch my good God

On the fire which is lit 

On the pure water 

On the one who returns home

From far away

On all those, on all those,

Please keep watch my good God

On the honey and on the sting

On the bitter and the sweet. 

While this song reflects the bittersweet nature of the enormous loss suffered for the miracle of having our own Jewish state, it brings me new meaning entering Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzma-ut this year. Even as I am faced with my own feelings of disappointment and anger with threats to democracy in the state, I know that I cannot allow them to overshadow the sweetness of having a Jewish state, or, even more so, my hopes for what Israel can be.

So, too, this Shabbat, let us not allow our ambivalence to lead us into apathy. Rather, as we prepare for these holidays, we must be cognizant of our bitterness and use it as motivation to take action toward building the Israel we want to see. It is only by embracing these complexities that we can make the Israel of our dreams into a reality.