They Fought, They Sacrificed - and They Brought Us Back to Life

Memorial Day precedes Independence Day for an obvious reason; without the sacrifices made by our fallen heroes the State of Israel would never have come into existence. But in fact we owe them so much more: they brought us back to life.

Tags: Memorial Day
Ari Soffer

OpEds Ari Soffer
Ari Soffer
Ari Soffer

The juxtaposition of Israel's Memorial Day (Yom Hazikaron) and Independence Day (Yom Ha'atzmaut) has an obvious and powerful symbolism. Were it not for the sacrifices of 23,320 courageous, dedicated men and women, there would be no independent Jewish state of any form to speak of.

How much more so then must we be grateful; for this vibrant, thriving and growing (despite all the challenges) third Jewish commonwealth in the ancient land of Israel after 2,000 years of exile and slavery is only possible because those brave warriors of the Jewish resistance, the Israel Defense Forces and security forces were willing to spill their blood and give their lives for it, for us - and because countless other brave Jewish (and some non-Jewish) soldiers stand ready to do the same today.

And yes, the same applies to the many thousands of civilian martyrs of terror we remember today. Because these are not mere "victims"; ultimately, the very presence of Jewish life and spirit in this land - from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, from the "Gaza belt" region to Samaria, from the Galilee to Judea - is an act of defiance, of resistance to those who wish to wipe us out and and expel us from our land. They, too, are counted among the fallen heroes of Israel, and rightly so.

So of course, our debt of gratitude to those fallen Jewish souls is immeasurable. And I speak not just of the more than six million Jews (and what a miracle that is!) fortunate enough to live in Israel - who obviously owe their lives to the brave men and women who guard us with their bodies day and night. In fact, every single Jew in the Diaspora owes that same debt. For whether they know it or not, because of these sacrifices made on their behalf they are able to lift their heads that bit higher, to breath that bit easier, to walk that bit more confidently in the knowledge that we are no longer a slave-nation in exile but a free nation in our homeland; and most importantly they know that in times of crisis there is a refuge - but more than a refuge: a home, a place we truly belong, a place we will never run from.

That is why, before we celebrate our glorious, miraculous independence, we remember our fallen heroes - because we owe it to them, and equally we owe it to ourselves to never forget how this all came about, to never take it for granted.

But there is another, deeper, even more miraculous thing for which we are eternally indebted to those lions of Israel, who with Divine Strength shattered the shackles of our slavery.

For slavery is not just the physical state of being controlled by another person or nation - it is a psychological state of mind as well.

A person physically enslaved - like the Biblical Joseph for example - can still retain the heart of a king, and remain a free man even in the deepest, darkest dungeon. For such a person to take back his destiny (as Joseph did) is still no mean feat of course - but the potential is always there because he never gave up hope, never stopped relating to himself as a free man, and in contrast relating to his physical slavery as only a temporary, though agonizing, aberration.

It is only when the spirit of a person - or indeed a nation - is crushed to the point that they no longer view themselves as free men but resign themselves as slaves, as victims, that the last glimmer of hope is snuffed out. All hope is lost, because even were the opportunity for freedom to present itself, such a person would not take it - he simply couldn't.

That is precisely what happened to the generation which left Egypt, which just could not come to terms with a life of independence - who preferred the "safety" of a slave existence to the often terrifying thrill of liberty - and were therefore condemned to die out in the desert. Even though they left Egypt with 600,000 armed men (Exodus 13:18), deep down they were the perpetual victims, unable to stand before their enemies - whether the Philistines, or the pursuing Egyptians, or the warriors of Canaan.

Their physical arms were useless, and thus their shackles remained until their dying days, when their children, born as free men and women, could finally enter the Land of Israel.

And yet, the many thousands of fighting Jews and civilian pioneers we remember today (and of course, those who did not die as well) did something their ancestors could never do.

Even under the suffocatingly black shadows of the Holocaust and ethnic-cleansing of Mizrahi Jewry - just one of which would have knocked the fight out of any other people, never mind two in the same century - they achieved the impossible: they walked free. Not as thieves in the night, but with their heads held high and their guns blazing. Physically armed, but more importantly, mentally ready and able to use those arms in the name of the Nation of Israel.

On Memorial Day we remember those who liberated the Jewish people not just from physical exile but from the slave-mentality, passed on through generations of humiliation and bitter oppression, that told us there was no point in fighting back, because it was hopeless, that "the goyim" are stronger, so our only option is to run.

That is not to say that our physical and psychological redemption is yet complete: clearly, there is work to be done. But these martyrs are the ones who broke the shackles, who freed our hands and thereby gave us the ability to take our destiny into our hands.

In a national sense, the establishment of the State of Israel was no less than the resurrection of the dead - and it was they who breathed life into those hopelessly dry bones.

If today Jewish children grow up knowing that a Jewish army and police force, a Jewish air force and a Jewish navy, Jewish special forces and Jewish secret agents, are a normal thing; or that the concept of a Jew fighting back and winning is not something we have to look thousands of years back in our history to remember, that is because these holy martyrs made it so. And if our children can aspire to more than just "surviving as Jews in the exile," but to dare to look forward to the final redemption of Israel - that is thanks to them as well.

On Memorial Day, we remember those who liberated the Jewish land - and perhaps even more importantly, liberated Jewish history.

Yehi zichram baruch.