This week we celebrated Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) and Yom Ha`atzma’ut (Independence Day) in Israel. Unlike in America, Memorial day is intrinsically connected to Independence day, one following immediately upon the heels of the other, the mourning and remembrance ceremonies of Yom Hazikaron flowing directly into the celebrations of Yom Ha`Atzma’ut.
In a commentary on this week’s double portion, Acharei Mot – Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27) Rabbi Ephraim Mervis notes the fact that atzma’ut, the Hebrew word for independence comes from the word etzem, meaning bone. Among other allusions, the Chief Rabbi points out the famous prophesy of the Valley of Dry Bones, in which the prophet Ezekiel sees a valley full of dry bones rise up, transform into living, breathing people and begin marching towards the land of Israel (Ezekiel 37:1-10). This prophecy would seem to describe the experience of world Jewry in the 1940’s when, in the space of a few short years we emerged from the graves of Europe to achieve the dream of centuries—a sovereign, independent Jewish state. This is a journey from atzamot, to atzmaut, from death and destruction to independence and sovereignty.
According to this interpretation of the writings of Ezekiel, it would seem to argue in favor of the close proximity of Yom HaSho’ah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) to Yom Ha’atzma’ut. But what of the even closer proximity of Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha`azma’ut? This too is about the connection between atzamot and atzma’ut. The independence, the ability to stand on our own to feet, which we celebrate on Yom Ha`atzma’ut, was not won bloodlessly. People fought and died in order that our people might live free in our homeland for the first time in two millennia. Just as no human being can stand up without bones, without a skeleton, no nation can stand, without the sacrifices of those who have been willing to fight for and defend it. This is a painful fact of history, which for too many families is not just an abstract idea but a tragic reality they live with every day, not just on Yom Hazikaron.
Though we live here in the Diaspora, we must be grateful for those who continue to put their lives on the line to defend Israel and even too, the United States of America; they are the skeleton without which our nation could not stand. Though most of us are not planning to make Aliyah any time soon, or are too old to serve in the army if we did, I invite us, to ask ourselves, what would I sacrifice for Israel? What would I sacrifice for the Jewish people? Maybe I’m not in a position to lay down my life, and maybe I’m not that kind of hero, but perhaps there are other kinds of sacrifices, other kinds of risks (emotional, spiritual risks) that I could do for the sake of my Jewish brothers and sisters, for my people here, in Israel and around the world. Are there unmet needs in my local community that I could help meet if only I was willing to make the sacrifices? Our willingness to give of ourselves is the foundation (the skeleton, if you will) that holds up the Jewish community—our ability to survive and thrive physically and spiritually as a people depends on the sacrifices and contributions made by every Jew. Sacrifice is not fashionable; it’s not part of the standard outreach curriculum, but it is an essential part of what it means to be Jewish.
That brings us to Leviticus 19:18, which commands us to “Love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Eternal.” This is the high point along the way. Here we have aimed high enough so that our human holiness is reflected in what we’ve made of ourselves and then extended to others. May each of us have the courage to make sacrifices in the service of God and the Jewish people that surprise us, that go beyond what we thought we were capable of. We each can be the foundation of goodness that we will create together.