Three Days in Israel

There are three notable events coming up on Israel’s secular calendar. First comes Yom HaShoah, April 21st, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day. On April 28th is Israel’s Memorial Day, Yom HaZikaron, for her fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. Last is Yom HaAtzma’ut, April 29th, Israel’s 72nd Independence Day (1948 – 2020).

The first two of these days are overshadowed by grief and sadness, while the third is a source of continual joy and celebration. In Israel, as well as the Jewish community worldwide, these three holidays are community events. Traditionally, just as with Pesach, these are days of remembrance that are commemorated or celebrated by families and friends gathering together: either to mourn their loss or to celebrate their freedom.

For Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron, memorial services and prayers are held throughout the country on national, local, and communal levels, with special prayers in synagogues. On Yom HaShoah at sundown, the national ceremony is held at Yad Vashem, Israel’s National Holocaust Memorial, where the President and Prime Minister speak and Holocaust survivors light six torches that symbolize the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. On Yom HaZikaron, the official national ceremony is held at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and the national military ceremony is held at Mt. Herzl, Israel’s national military cemetery. Both of these days, sirens are sounded throughout the country calling for moments silence in honor of those who have fallen in the Holocaust and to preserve Israel. Out of respect, people stop whatever they are doing, even cars driving on the highway, to observe the silence. On Yom HaShoah, the sirens are sounded at 10:00 am calling for two minutes of silence. Yom HaZikaron begins at 8:00 pm with a siren calling for one minute of silence and a siren calling for two minutes of silence at 11:00 am the next day. All of modern Israel’s wars have been fought in the country and terrorism that has wracked the country, so almost everyone knows someone who died, making Yom HaZikaron a very personal time. But the atmosphere swings 180 degrees at sundown between Yom HaZikaron to Yom HaAtzma’ut, when Israel celebrates its independence. Events and celebrations take place across the country on a national scale. Parks are normally packed with people picnicking and barbecuing, playing games, and enjoying special performances celebrating Israel’s Independence.

This year, due to the COVID19 pandemic, things will be different. The yearly ceremony at Yad VaShem held on Yom HaShoah will not take place this year. Neither will the events that are normally held at every school, military base, town, city, village and institution. Commemorations for Yom HaZikaron will be held virtually and at a distance. At the official ceremony marking the beginning of Yom HaAtzma’ut held at Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem, twelve torches are lit that symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel. This year the torches will be lit without the normal crowds and fanfare but will be aired on TV.  Many women have been honored this year to light the torches, including Tzipi Shavit, popular actress and children’s entertainer, Ad Altshuler, head of a youth movement that assists children with disorders, and Yasmin Mazaui, a Christian Arab woman who works as a paramedic for Magen David Adom who has volunteered throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

So, what will this year’s commemorations and celebrations look like in Israel? Many will light candles and cry privately in their homes. Many of the special prayers and synagogues services will be broadcast live either on the television or via the internet. In some areas, the neighborhoods themselves will sound as Israelis venture out on their balconies or in front of their homes in either reverential communal silence or in loud communal prayer and singing. On Independence Day, instead of the aroma of myriads of barbecues being centered in neighborhood or national parks, each neighborhood will experience a cacophony of smells as Israelis of different ethnic backgrounds barbecue on their balconies or on grills hanging out apartment windows.

Whether in sadness or in joy, life will go on; it has to. All around us there is turmoil and chaos. COVID-19 has upset every aspect of daily life. However, Israel will not allow the situations that oppress us to rob us of our joy, of our national celebrations, or our national mourning. We will stand together in silence as the sirens signal for remembrance of those sacrificed in the Holocaust, as well as in honor of those who gave their lives to guard and protect our nation and for those who lost their lives to terrorist activities.

Finally, we will celebrate Israel’s 72nd Independence anniversary – not simply because we are back in our land but more importantly because the eternal Word of God stands firm. Hashem told Abraham In Genesis 17:8,

I will give to you and to your seed after you the land where you are an outsider—the whole land of Canaan—as an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.

And then in Judges 2:1, it is written,

Now the angel of Adonai came up from Gilgal to Bochim, and He said, “I brought you up out of Egypt and took you into the land which I swore to your fathers. I also said, ‘I will never break My covenant with you.'”

We in Israel are a modern, living testimony to the faithfulness of God, His Word and His faithfulness. This year’s remembrances and celebrations honor Him as God who still sits on the throne.

Am Yisrael Chai!

This post was written by Registrar Rabbi Michael Hillel. For more by Rabbi Hillel, read his articles about living in community or finding meaning in purpose.

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