The Siren

Twice in seven days, all Israel stands still for two minutes of silence. Pedestrians stop walking, and drivers and passengers exit their cars and stand at attention. The first is for Remembrance Day for the Holocaust and the Heroism, and the second for “Yom Hazikaron l’challelei ma’archot Yisrael v’nifg’ei pe’ulot eiva,” “Remembrance Day for the Casualties of Israel’s Campaigns and Victims of Acts of Hatred.” That unwieldy name encompasses all the victims of Israel’s wars and Arab terror – almost 24,000 soldiers of the IDF, Air Force, Navy, underground, intelligence, police and prison officials, and the more than 2800 victims of Arab terror that has not yet ended. Hashem Yikom Damam.
Of course, what makes the moment extremely powerful, even haunting, is not the silence. There is no silence. An intense, sonorous, booming siren rings for exactly two minutes throughout the country. It builds to its crescendo within three seconds, retains its decibel level, and then winds down in the last three seconds. I have often heard criticism of the siren – and even more of and by the handful of religious Jews who do not honor it – as a non-Jewish custom, as inherently meaningless, even as Bitul Torah. How foolish.
Two minutes is a long time (the siren that heralded the start of this Yom HaZikaron lasted just one minute). It took me a few seconds last week to realize that what I was hearing was the modern equivalent of the shofar – a tekia gedola that never wavered or weakened and that penetrates the heart of the listener, if only he is open to it.
There is no silence. The siren carries the cry of all the sacrifices made to create, sustain and defend this land, and all the tears and heartbreak of the loved ones of the casualties. It is impossible not to think of them – as the tekia is a cry as well. Interestingly, and somewhat controversially, Remembrance Day joins together soldiers and civilians in a fraternity of people whose blood was shed by the enemy who seeks our destruction. In some quarters, it could be argued that there is a fundamental difference between a soldier who loses his life on the battlefield, and a victim of Arab terror killed in a marketplace or on a bus.
That argument is also misplaced. The “suffering” with which the land of Israel is acquired (Masechet Berachot 5a) does not distinguish between those killed with guns in their hands and those sitting in a coffee shop, between those killed by “friendly fire” and those murdered because they are Jews living in the land of Israel. To combine the two groups is inspired and unifying; the television shows (like on the first Yom HaZikaron, there is no news or entertainment on TV for 24 hours) are interspersed with accounts of the lives and deaths of soldiers and terror victims. Each story is searing, even heroic. Children who did not know their fathers, including some whose fathers were killed while their mothers were still pregnant and who know of their fathers through large pictures that grace the walls of their homes. Young widows who have aged and whose eyes sparkle at memories of their husbands, and fathers and mothers whose sons are forever young. Every bereaved family carries within it a void that cannot be filled. The day and the stories are relentless.
Last week, a group of bereaved families petitioned to detach Yom Hazikaron from Yom Haatzma’ut, arguing that the transition is too painful. (An advertisement featured a mock dialogue, from Yom Ha’atzma’ut Eve: “Why are you still crying?” said someone to a bereaved father. “Didn’t you hear the siren ending Yom Hazikaron?”) It is hard not to be sympathetic to their cry; the pain of loss is overpowering. In PM Netanyahu’s speech at Har Herzl Military Cemetery, he made that clear. Some losses define a person’s life. One can persevere, but one never forgets or overcomes.
You think of them during those powerful two minutes.
And you think of the self-sacrifice that is unending. I visited the Shomron on Sunday as a guest of the One Israel Fund, and saw the dedication and altruism first-hand – new communities being built, living under constant threat but with an inner joy and contentment that is unsurpassed elsewhere. I watched as the indefatigable One Israel Fund representative distributed medical and security equipment to various individuals whose gratitude was enormous and heartfelt. The first aid kits, and other material handed out to soldiers, civilians and security personnel has saved lives and will save more in the future. Veteran security chiefs are filled with gratitude at small things that will make their lives easier.
To see the new farms and vineyards, built, planted and maintained by people without any illusions as to the future but simply because they live with the overpowering reality that God gave this land of Israel to the Jewish people and brought us back here after two thousand years of exile, is to be inspired as few things can in our jaded, materialistic world.
“Those who sow with tears will reap with song.”
One thinks of the famous poem of Natan Alterman – Magash Hakesef (The Silver Platter) – that graces the wall of the Bet Eliyahu Museum in Tel Aviv that we visited today, that ends:
“Full of endless fatigue and unrested,
Yet the dew of their youth. Is still seen on their head
Thus they stand at attention, giving no sign of life or death
Then a nation in tears and amazement will ask: “Who are you?”
And they will answer quietly, “We are the silver platter on which the Jewish state was given.”
Thus they will say and fall back in shadows
And the rest will be told in the chronicles of Israel.”

All these thoughts pass through the mind while listening to that two minutes’ long siren, that awesome tekia that mourns the sacrifice but also heralds the coming redemption.
And when it ended – and the shofar was again silent – I realized that two minutes was simply not long enough to feel the pain, the gratitude and the appreciation – for those who paid the ultimate price, for those who continue to live and build, and for the Creator who made it all possible in our time.


4 responses to “The Siren

  1. Wouldn’t “HaShem Yinkom Damam” be more correct than “HaShem Yikom Damam”?
    I believe the verb is לנקום.

  2. Elan Shlomo ben Tzvi Gershon

    Lovely essay.

    Mr. Cohen: not at all. See, for example, the end of shirat ha’azinu. If you want to be really persnickety, you would transliterate as Hashem yikkom damam, with the doubled k indicating the dagesh chazak in the kuf, but that’s as far as it goes.

  3. Sue Hausdorff

    Always inspiring…. Mom..