Friday, April 12, 2013

Dipped in blood, but flying free: Thoughts on Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha-Atzma'ut and Parashat Metzora


Jewish holidays feel different in Israel.  Maybe it’s because outside of Israel, celebrating a Jewish holiday is a somewhat counter-cultural activity, while in Israel, Jewish holidays are mainstream and celebrated by the entire society.   Or maybe it’s because so many Jewish holidays celebrate events that took place in Israel.  And some holidays are celebrated completely differently in Israel from how they are celebrated outside of Israel.

Yom Ha-Zikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, falls every year on the day before Israel’s Independence Day, Yom Ha-Atzma’ut. (This year, Yom Ha-Zikaron is on April 15, and Yom Ha-Atzma’ut is on April 16.)   Israel’s independence day bears some resemblance to Independence Day in the United States.  It’s a day for parades and barbecues, a day for celebrating and not necessarily for reflecting deeply on the meaning of the holiday.

But Yom Ha-Zikaron, Israel’s memorial day, bears almost no resemblance to the American Memorial Day that we will observe in May, that is for most Americans simply a day off to have a barbecue and go to the beach or go shopping.

The most outstanding observance of Yom Ha-Zikaron in Israel is that twice during the day -- at 8pm the previous evening, and then at 11am in the morning -- sirens sound throughout Israel, for an entire minute.  People stop whatever they are doing and stand still, in memory.  Traffic stops, and people get out of their cars, and stand by their cars.   One year I was on an Israeli city bus on Yom HaZikaron at the time of the siren.  The bus stopped, everyone stood up and stepped into the aisle.  Cultural events stop.  Busy marketplaces, restaurants, workplaces come to a complete standstill for an entire minute. The entire nation transformed into monuments and memorial stones, for just a minute.  

(See this video to get a sense of what it's like: (actually filmed on Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, when there is an identical siren):

To know that the entire country is united in memory is extraordinarily powerful, and all the more striking for those, certainly the majority in Israel, who are thinking during those minutes
of very specific people they knew:  parents, siblings, spouses, children, grandchildren, and other relatives and friends who fell in Israel’s wars or were murdered in acts of terror.

The decision that was made to place Yom HaZikaron on the calendar each year on the day immediately preceding Israel’s independence day was an effort by Israel’s founders to remind everyone that freedom, independence, and security come at a cost.

Visitors to Israel for the first time are often alarmed to see just how many soldiers are walking around and carrying weapons.   But everyone across the Israeli political spectrum, from the far right to the far left, knows that it is only because of the existence and strength of the Israeli military that they manage to live in any sense of security and freedom.  This sense is all the more heightened by the fact that each year, exactly one week before Yom HaZikaron, is Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day (this year on April 7), just as the Shoah, the Holocaust, happened in such close proximity to Israel’s independence.  Only three short and full years separated 1945 and the end of the Holocaust, from 1948 and Israel’s independence.

Jews are fortunate to live in conditions of freedom; such conditions are new and unfortunately unusual for us as a people.  These truths are not lost on Israelis.

Some of us may have known personally people who have been killed in America’s wars in Afghanistan or Iraq.  For many of us, though, these have been far-away conflicts whose impact on our day-to-day lives can’t really be felt.  In Israel, however, conflicts are not far away, and their impact on day-to-day life is abundantly clear.  This, too, probably contributes to why Yom HaZikaron in Israel feels so different from the American Memorial Day.

This year on Saturday April 13, the Shabbat between Yom Ha-Shoah and Yom Ha-Zikaron, Jewish communities around the world will read the combined torah portions of Tazria and Metzora, from the middle of the book of Leviticus.  These portions are not usually regarded as among the most exciting torah portions of the year.  They focus on issues of purity and impurity, with an emphasis on a skin disorder called tzara’at, often translated as ‘leprosy’ but clearly different from the disease we call ‘leprosy.’

The beginning of the torah portion of Metzora describes a ritual that people were supposed to undergo, back in the time of the temple, when they had recovered from this disease called
tzara’at.  The torah tells us that they were supposed to take two birds, together with various other substances like cedar wood and crimson thread, and bring them to the Temple, where a priest would slaughter one of the birds.  Then they would perform a remarkably powerful but troubling ritual that would involve taking the other bird, the live bird, and dipping it in the blood of the slaughtered bird, and then letting it fly away.

I don’t think I can think of a more powerful symbol for a narrow escape from danger and death.
it’s as if the person who recovered from illness is saying,  “I could easily have been like the slaughtered bird.  This disease could so easily have killed me.  And yet even though I have been dipped in blood, I have been allowed to fly free.”  Such a gesture reminds the person who recovered to express gratitude to God, who is responsible for his or her recovery.

It seems to me that this also reflects how many Jews feel after the Shoah which truly nearly succeeded in wiping out the entire Jewish people.  It’s also how most Israelis feel, knowing that they, too, have survived when others have not.  (If non-Israeli Jews don’t feel this sense of survival as palpably as Israeli Jews do, it’s only because we have the luxury of a few more years of distance between our own lives and the dangers that have threatened us.)    This feeling makes the celebration of Israel’s triumphs all the more intense, while it also compounds the anxiety felt by those who love Israel when it is in danger.  

As Israel reaches its 65th anniversary this year, we pray that the coming year will be a year of blessing for all its inhabitants, a year of achievement, and above all, a year that brings the dream of peace ever closer.

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