Begin with Shame, Conclude with Praise

The two weeks after Passover in Israel are a carefully crafted national narrative. About four days after celebrating the freedom of the Exodus from Egypt in the distant past, the nation commemorates the depths of the Holocaust with Yom Hashoah. A week later, Israelis remember the fallen in war and terrorism on Memorial Day, Yom Hazikaron, immediately followed by a celebration of modern redemption on Independence Day, Yom Haatzmaut.

I have always thought of this sequence, devised by the Knesset, as ritually genius. The ancient tradition is linked to current realities. Our modern day liberation is tied closely with the holiday most associated with freedom. Going from Holocaust to military memorial to celebration mirrors the structure of the Passover seder. In the Mishna, the rabbis instruct us that on Pesah one “begins with shame and concludes with praise”.

While most nations build up civic holidays over time in an organic way, Israel, as a young country, was able to forge its national commemorations from scratch. While the dates make sense, they also feel manufactured. For one Israeli, they feel emotionally manipulative. Elana Sztokman writes that “it feels both difficult and unnatural to go straight from the hardest grief into the greatest joy within moments of each other.”

I am not Israeli, so I don’t have a direct experience of the pain of loss from Israel’s wars, but I can see Sztokman’s point. Linking memorial to celebration makes a clear statement: these people died for the very existence of the nation. While that message may be true and resonate from many, it also takes a complex emotional situation and reduces it to one simplified meaning.

In America, where Memorial Day and Independence Day are separated by months, there is a bit more space to let the significance of these dates stand for themselves. While many would agree that the sacrifice of our military is something to honor, many would also argue that some of the wars American fought were ill-advised.

I just returned from the Rabbinical Assembly convention, were I attended a learning session that explored the idea that the ancient rabbis of the Mishna shaped the memory of the Jerusalem Temple and its ritual. They created narratives of a past they themselves did not experience in order to lend authority to their institutions.

The ancient rabbis and Israel’s Knesset reinvented the past to frame the present, and while this process may serve the needs of the collective, it sometimes may be disturbing to the individual. Israel’s fallen should be remembered and honored. Israel’s creation should be celebrated with joy. Whether those two days need to be observed back to back may require more thought.

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