From Tears to Joy: Yom Hazikaron to Yom Haatzmaut
Last summer after our daughter Meirah’s high school graduation we visited Salzburg, Austria where my mother’s family is from. We saw the house where she grew up, the building that housed the family store and other sights of what is a physically beautiful city. We also went to visit the Jewish cemetery. While much of the cemetery was destroyed, there were a handful of large tombstones that were not touched. Years ago I had visited Salzburg with my mother, and on visiting the cemetery we found the gravestones of our family members buried there, including my great grandparents’ graves.
There was something extraordinary that I found on this trip that we did not notice when we were here years ago, probably because I could not read Hebrew back then. On the tombstones of my great great aunt and uncle Adolf and Katharina Pollack we found plaque. There inscription on was in memory of Ernst Pollak, their grandson who was born in 1901 and died in 1920 in Palestine, ‘an enthusiastic pioneer for the Jewish ideal.’ Other members of the Pollaks family subsequently made Aliyah, however I was poignantly struck by this testimony to a young man who lost his life at nineteen years of age pursing his desire to help build a Jewish homeland.
Today is Yom Hazikaron, Israel Memorial Day for those who died defending the land of Israel and in terrorist attacks. It is very moving that this day is commemorated right before Yom Haatzamut, Israel Independence Day. Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the first chief Rabbi of the IDF in his autobiography With Might and Strength (a must read), recounts how this was not planned. As the first Yom Haatzmaut was approaching they realized they had not done a proper commemoration for the soldiers who died defending the new State, and so last minute it was done the day before the celebration of Yom Haatzamut.
Some people find the jolt of going from a day of national mourning for the 24,068 casualties of war and the 4216 victims of terror to a day of celebration of the miracle that is the re-establishment of the Jewish people in our homeland to be very jarring. Yet for most Israelis it is precisely the juxtaposition of these days that gives each its meaning. The celebration of Yom Haatzamut gives meaning to the loss of those who passed away, they died so that the Jewish people can live with self-determination in our homeland, a land we believe is imbued with historical significance and holiness. And the mourning of Yom Hazikaron teaches us not to take for granted our lives here, it reminds us that others have given their lives so that we can have the privilege of living here, and that even if it comes at great cost, we are willing to pay it even if it means putting our lives and the lives of our families on the line.
Ernst Pollack was one of the many young pioneers who lost their lives to hardship, disease, and danger settling the land of Israel. These true heroes should also be remembered amongst those who were willing to put their lives in danger, and to give up their lives for the future of the Jewish people. Today moving to Israel does not require draining swamps, living on the brink of starvation, braving the extreme heat and cold without modern comforts. Our challenges pale in comparison to those of the olim who came before us, but they are challenges. It requires dedication to move to a new country, to make new friends, to find a new job, and to adjusting to a new culture. However I believe that Israel is all the more precious to us because of the dedication called on to live here.
The Talmud tells us that the land of Israel is one of the three things in our lives that are acquired through challenges (Babylonian Talmud Brachot 5a, the other two are the world to come and torah). Howeve,r Abraham, who went through hardships in coming to Israel was also promised the rewards would be great. We are blessed to be living amongst our people, to build the future of the Jewish people, to live in a beautiful and amazing country, and to be in the land where our spiritual connection to the Almighty is the strongest. But perhaps the greatest reward is the love for the land, our fellow Jews and our country that comes from knowing that we have given of ourselves to make our dream of living here a reality. May we merit to feel the blessings, to overcome the challenges and to celebrate many more Yom HaZikaron/Yom Haatzmaut here. And those of you who are not here yet, realize that the blessings are so great precisely because of the effort you will invest to make your dreams a reality.