Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • IDF Memorial Day
To dedicate this lesson

Lessons from Gush Etzion, Hevron – and My Great-Grandfather

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Rabbi Moti Weissrosen

Iyar 5 5782
Translated by Hillel Fendel

As we exit the magical duo of milestone days – Memorial Day for fallen IDF soldiers and terrorism victims, and Israel Independence Day – it behooves us to understand the concept of "remembering" in general, and the idea of remembering the deceased in particular.

Jewish history and Jewish Law [Halakhah] put a strong emphasis on the concept of remembering: We often mention "in memory of Creation" (zekher l'maaseh B'reshit) and "in memory of the Exodus from Egypt" (zekher liytziat Mitzrayim), and we are commanded to remember what Amalek did to us, and what happened to Miriam, and the Sabbath day, etc. The idea is that via remembering the past, we are able to learn lessons for the present and in anticipation of the future.

So too our Memorial Day is a day of learning: learning about the self-sacrifice of so many soldiers on behalf of their friends and the entire community of Israel; learning about love of Land; and above all, learning about the tremendous level of our holy Jews. Rav Kook [Rabbi Avraham Kook, the first Chief Rabbi in modern-day Land of Israel] wrote how tortured he was by a request to eulogize two pioneers who were murdered by Arabs. The victims had "separated themselves from the public path, and had thrown off the yoke of keeping the Torah," and therefore fall under the Halakhic category of those who may not be eulogized. However, Rav Kook ultimately concluded that "even those who are totally separated, the wings of kindness of motherly love are spread upon them given that they were killed by foreigners… How beloved are they above, on the level of holy and pure, shining like the brilliance of the heavens."

That is, when soldiers and civilians are killed by the enemy because of their Jewishness, we see their greatness to an amazing extent, to the point that they shine like the brilliance of the heavens! But – we learn not only about those who are no longer with us, but also the greatness of all those who are with us! All those who were wounded, physically or otherwise, and from those who are whole but bereft of their loved ones. From them we must learn what it means to have greatness of soul, and how to struggle and overcome personal and national challenges.

In the War of Independence my late great-grandfather lost three children and a brother. After the war, he and his family were driving south in a bus driven by his son Meir. Towards the end of the trip, Meir's father told his son, "Meir, I am comforted." Meir stopped the bus and asked him in astonishment, "What has comforted you?" He said, "We traveled from Jerusalem, and we passed Lod, Ramle, Yehud and Beit Dagon [populated by many Arabs], and not a stone was thrown at us. We traveled in complete freedom and safety. It cost me a lot – three children, a brother, and my home [in the destroyed village of Kfar Ivri, which is now the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of N'vei Yaakov], but now the Land of Israel is ours!" Meir later recalled, "I right then said to myself: Parents like these are something to be proud of!"

These are the people who remained with us, and from them we must learn.

Following the murderous pogroms in Hevron and elsewhere in 1929, Rav Kook said this: "If we are holding this memorial ceremony, its purpose is to bring these memories and the feelings bubbling in our hearts into action, turning them into deeds for the purpose of building up the ruins of Hevron."

It appears that the story of Gush Etzion can be a perfect example of the strength of "remembering" the past for the present and future. Gush Etzion fell to the enemy during the War of Independence, and we then spent 19 years remembering it and hoping to return – until the IDF liberated it during the Six Day War. We then immediately returned and built up one of the kibbutzim, Kfar Etzion, paving the way for the reconstruction of many communities in the Etzion bloc. Today, over 37,000 Jews live in Gush Etzion!

Not Only Learning – Also Honor

Another aspect of memory is the respect and honor we pay to those we remember. Forgetting them would mean throwing them and their actions into an abyss of abandonment. But remembering them preserves them, and thus honors them. When we remember the fallen, we are as if building a monument to them here in the land.

And just as we learn from those who survived – the wounded and the bereaved – we must similarly respect and honor them, from those who bear their sorrow in silence in the name of all of us. Their actions pave the way for us to live our lives to their fullest value and worth.

We thus see that Memorial Day must not be one of sadness, depression and despair, Heaven forbid. Yes, it is a painful day - but it is a pain of honor and learning, a pain that brings to pride and standing upright.

Let us add in conclusion that when we learn Mishnayot or recite Psalms for the merit of the deceased, let us remember that it is not only for their merit, but in their merit. For if it were not for their sacrifice, we would not be able to sit and study, or to live here in security – and thus it is in their merit that we learn. As the Talmud states (Sanhedrin 49b): "If it were not for David, Yoav would not have been able to wage war – and if it were not for Yoav, David would not have been able to engage in Torah."

May we merit to mourn with Jerusalem and its fallen, so that we may merit to rejoice with them during the complete Redemption, which is well on its way!

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