I’m sure many of you will agree: there are many confusing and often jarring aspects of contemporary Israeli society and culture. Yet, personally, I think none is stranger than the extreme switch between the two chief days of the secular calendar: Yom haZikaron and Yom haAtzma’ut. Today (Wed night-Thur night) is Yom haAtzma’ut and immediately before it was Yom haZikaron (Tue night-Wed night). One flows immediately into the other– with the crepuscular darkness that descended last night also came a tremendous change in mood: from somber to celebratory, from serious to silly.
Yom haZikaron (Day of Memory) is the designated day to observe the memorialisation of all those lost in combat on behalf of the State of Israel. During yesterday’s ceremonies the new tally was announced: 23,741. Officially, the day is called Yom HaZikaron LeHalalei Ma’arakhot Yisrael ul’Nifge’ei Pe’ulot HaEivah (The Day of Remembrance for the Casualties of Israel’s Battles and for those Fallen by Acts of Hatred.) It’s rather a mouthful– but it conveys well the way in which offensive military operations are interlinked with defense and counterterrorism in the Israeli mindset. On Yom haZikaron, all shopping and entertainment are closed by law, and for 24 hours, the TV simply shows lists of scrolling names next to an image of a Yahrzeit candle. Flags around the country are lowered to half-staff, and thousands flock to Mt. Herzl’s military cemetery to pay their respects. Then, as the sun goes down again– everything changes.
After such a day of solemnity, it is surprising to suddenly see the sky illuminated by fireworks, raucous music fill the streets, and the flags which have returned to full-staff now mirrored by people carrying, waving, and draped in flags in public squares around the country. As Yom haAtzma’ut (Day of Independence) begins with sunset, many revelers spend all night singing and dancing in the streets, with huge ceremonies taking place in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The next day (today), Israelis go out en masse to barbecue in public parks, the Air Force does cinematic fly-bys around the country, military bases are often open to the public, and several notable events take place; among them the International Bible Contest (Chidon haTanakh) and the ceremony for the Israel Prize.
I remember when we lived in Jerusalem for the year, being quite taken aback at the whiplash of going from the sad commemoration of Yom haZikaron to the festive ferocity of Yom haAtzma’ut. Emotionally, it’s a bit of a rollercoaster. Yet, it’s all very purposeful– and there’s a few factors which have contributed. Of course, a big part is narrative: independence is achieved through sacrifice and through war, and the switch from sadness to joy is a potent reminder of how much is lost and what the costs are of liberty and self-determination. However, I suspect it also goes far deeper.
The polarity between despair and joy is critical to a certain Hebrew mindset– it’s riddled throughout the Tanakh and throughout the rabbinic system built from it. Consider the Psalm we sing to introduce Birkat haMazon on happy occasions (Ps. 129) and it’s famous line: ‘Those who sow in tears will reap in joy.’ Consider the mixing of sadness into the joy of a wedding (in the breaking of the glass) or the addition of a bit of joy to the sadness of a funeral (in the stories told and laughs shared over Shiva). We’re most comfortable in Judaism when we are radically oscillating between these emotional states– perhaps recognising the codependence they have on one another. Our joys are all the more joyful because of the sadness that is intermixed in them, and our memories are all the more heartbreaking because we remember the joy first and foremost.
I think there’s a certain theatrical, romantic, definitely religious beauty to the purposeful mashup of great sadness and great joy. The open expression and deep embrace of this severe switch from Yom haZikaron to Yom haAtzma’ut is a beautiful thing, and one that I think characterises Israeli, and Jewish society, fairly well. In this very strange ‘two day chag,’ may the memory of those fallen to provide the freedom we so cherish be a blessing, and may we celebrate our independence without ignoring the sacrifices that have allowed us to reach such a day.
Chag haAtzma’ut Sameach, and Shabbat Shalom,