3 High Holidays redefine Israeli life

The Jewish national calendar of Israel is populated by new holidays that Israel has placed at the center of our national and Jewish consciousness and which define and set aside the most significant time of the year in Israeli society.

These holidays — bunched together within one week — are Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day).

It would not be an exaggeration to say these three days together constitute the “High Holy Days” season of Israeli life.

On Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron we are commanded to remember, on Yom HaAtzmaut to celebrate.

What is it that we are charged to remember? For Yom HaShoah, in the early Zionist narrative, there was a deep rejection of the passivity and the powerlessness of European Jewry and an implied criticism of them in their complicity in their own deaths.

For the Zionist, Israel was the antidote to the Holocaust, the land of the

new Jew who did not go like a sheep to the slaughter, but who rather trained in the art of warfare and was capable of defending himself in times of danger.

In recent years Yom HaShoah has undergone a rebirth in Israeli society. It now serves as a primary vehicle for reinvigorating Zionist sentiments. It is not the passivity of the Jews but rather the potential for anti-Semitism and its ongoing dangers that serve as the focus

of the memory. It’s something along the lines of, “There but for the grace of Israel go I.”

If I can remember, and in a certain way re-experience the dangers of diaspora Jewish life, I feel to a great extent the blessing that is Israel.

Gone are the days of criticizing; now there is empathy. Israel is still the antidote, and now the disease is not the diaspora Jew, but the anti-Semitic enemy, who was and who may still be lurking around, and whose existence gives perpetual meaning to the state of Israel.

Yom HaZikaron in Israeli consciousness has a different significance. In remembering our fallen, the country mourns the price we have had to pay to build our state. That which so many worldwide take for granted — the right to live at peace within the confines of a homeland — is something we Jews have not been able to achieve in the first 60 years of our state’s existence.

On Yom HaZikaron in Israel, we do not remember the fallen in order to give thanks to those whose sacrifice made our lives possible today. That was the language of Memorial Day I heard when I lived in the United States.

Here in Israel, we don’t primarily honor the dead; we mourn them. It is not “the fallen” or “the dead” as some abstract concept that applies to someone “I do not know.” Every family, every citizen has a direct connection to someone who was killed. We remember the people whose presence we miss. We go to graves and see the fallen soldier’s friends a year older.

Unlike the memories of Yom HaShoah, the sadness of Yom HaZikaron does not give new meaning to Yom HaAtzmaut; rather it gives it gravitas. It reminds us of the price we paid and, as a result, the care, responsibility and duty we have to build a great country and to live and to give our lives special meaning.

It is my belief that the connection between Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaShoah must begin to redefine the way we commemorate the latter. It is time to remove Yom HaShoah from its service in the Zionist cause.

Those who perished in the Holocaust were not passive sheep, but rather victims of the depravity to which humankind is capable of descending. Just as life in Israel was paid for in blood, so, too, has life as a Jew.

The deepest lesson of Yom HaShoah is in the responsibility it places on all of our shoulders. As Jews, we are all survivors. As a people who survived, we did not choose the path of bitterness and despair. We chose the path of recommitment to life, its challenges, opportunities and responsibilities. When we remember the Holocaust, we mourn those who died, and give new respect to those who survived and the ways they survived, and commit ourselves to walking in their path.

This is the real meaning of Yom HaAtzmaut following both Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron. It reshapes and redefines Israel as a family that mourns together, and through the memory of the price we have paid to be free Jews, it redefines the meaning of Israel.

Israel must be that which remembers, and through that memory constantly commands itself to be worthy of the price we paid. It is a memory that commands us to embrace life and challenges us to live it to the fullest, to build lives individually and collectively of greatness. That is the task of Israel; that is the legacy of our past and the challenge of our future.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman is the co-director of Shalom Hartman Institute, a pluralistic research and leadership institute in Jerusalem.