…And as the siren echoes through the calm air of the Samarian hills, the faces swim before my eyes. The faces of friends who did not return to base with me, the friends who will never return home. The landscape blurs in my eyes; once again I see Baruch, who was born in the Soviet Union. We were in the same platoon; I lived in Jerusalem, he lived in Beit Shemesh, and more times than I can recall, we hitchhiked home together from the Negev Desert, from the Golan, from Lebanon. Baruch (he hated being called Boris, the name that was still on his te’udat zehut, a throw-back to his unhappy past) and I often played chess together – in fact, when we had an informal platoon chess championship, he and I were the joint winners. We were level, having won two games each; the fifth one was to be the tie-breaker. Baruch will never play that fifth game, and we will be forever joint chess champions of A Platoon.
And I recall Rachamim, who I spent hours trying to teach English to. He had begun to realise how important an education was, and wanted to go back to school after the Army, to matriculate, and go on to university. He needed English, and those long patrols together were ideal for learning. We would talk in English, and then I would give him simple written assignments – sentences in Hebrew for him to translate into English; when I would find the time I would mark them. His English improved amazingly, until the day he went on patrol; the previous day I had been on the jeep, this time was his turn. He jumped on to the jeep, turned his sunburnt, rugged face to me, and called out, in his atrocious accent, “You find my paperrr on my bed. I sink I do betterrr zis time. Tell me when I getting beck”.
Those were the last words he ever said to me: he came back from that patrol in south Lebanon on a stretcher, and never recovered consciousness.
And the faces of friends who were murdered by terrorists swim before my eyes, drifting in and out of focus. The face of my friend and mentor, Rabbi Binyamin Ze’ev Kahane Hy”d and his wife Taliya Hy”d, murdered by Arab terrorists as they were driving home on a bright Sunday morning eight years ago. Amihud Hassid Hy”d, who died preventing an Arab suicide terrorist from approaching the petrol station in Ariel. Gila Hy”d, whose voice and smile are forever seared in my heart, whose soul is bound up with my soul, who was murdered at the hitch-hiking station in Jerusalem, and now waits for Mashiach in the cemetery of Eli.
Just a handful of soldiers out of 22,437 who have died defending our country, a few of the 1,634 civilians who have been murdered by Arab terrorists. This is the price of freedom. This is the price for being responsible for our own destiny.
Sixty years ago, when Israel was born in the crucible of fire, my mother z”l fought in the Gadn”a – the g’dud no’ar, the youth battalion of the Haganah. She conquered Sheikh Munis, the village today called Ramat Aviv Gimmel, home of extreme leftists like Shimon Peres, the Rabin family, Shulamit Aloni, and others who call me an “occupier” because I live in Samaria.
I think of the price of freedom, of independence. And then I think of the price of not having freedom. In the four years of the First World War, 1,500,000 Jews fought in the battlefields scattered across the world; 140,000 died. 320,000 Jews served the Austro-Hungarian Empire alone. My grandfather z”l, a pious Jew and a proud Austrian, volunteered to fight for his country, and became an officer in the Cavalry. He asked to be transferred away from the front lines when, facing the Russian trenches, he shot at an enemy soldier; in the darkness, he saw the figure convulse, and heard the dying scream, Shema Yisra’el…. Such is the price of not having our independence in our own Land.
40,000 Jews died fighting for Austria-Hungary in the First World War, and another 12,000 for Germany. A generation later, we saw how these countries repaid their loyalty. Such is the price of not having our independence in our own Land.
…And as the siren dies away, the hills of Samaria drift back into focus. The country is starting to move once again. We have paid the price of not having our independence in our own Land; for 2,000 years we paid that price.
Baruch and I will never play that final chess game; Motti and I will never learn the final chapter of Tractate Megillah together. There are friends who will never come home, who will be twenty forever. They, and those who love them, have paid in full the price for our independence in our Land. They are sleeping in the dust of the Land of Israel – the Land that they paid for with their lives.
As Yosef Trumpeldor said as he lay dying, felled by an Arab bullet in Tel Hai on the 11th of Adar 5680 (1st March 1920): “Eyn davar – tov la-mut be’ad artzeinu” (No matter – it is good to die for our country).
How sweet the word artzeinu sounds! OUR country! The only country on God’s earth that we can call home. On this day, we all commemorate friends and loved ones whose smiles we will never see again, who will never grow old, who will never complete that tractate of the Talmud. And the comfort comes tonight, celebrating our independence in our Land. After the hardship comes the redemption, after slavery comes freedom, after mourning comes celebration – celebration of life, of freedom, of independence.
And in spite of the worst that our enemies can do, tomorrow Jewish children will play in the streets of Jerusalem, and Hebron, and Tel Aviv. “And in this place, about which you say that it is a wasteland, desolate of man and beast – in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem, which are desolate, with no man, no inhabitant, and no beast – there will yet be heard the sound of joy and the sound of rejoicing, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride” (Jeremiah 33:10-11).