By Rabbi Raphael B. Butler
How do you remember events from the past? Repeat the information back to yourself? Take notes? Put a reminder in your calendar and hope for the best?
How do you remember people who have passed? People you loved, or perhaps even strangers to whom you owe a tremendous debt. How do you make sure to remember them?
It isn’t always easy to do, which is why most societies have developed traditions of remembrance for those who died defending their country. In Canada, people wear poppies in anticipation of Remembrance Day. In many countries in the commonwealth, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — the time of the Armistice of World War I — there is a moment of silence in respect for those who lost their lives in battle. On Memorial Day in the U.S., flowers and flags are placed on veterans’ graves. In France, the blue cornflower (the bleuet) is used. In many countries, memorial day is marked by military parades and/or solemn ceremonies.
Judaism has always emphasized remembering those who have passed, and so it is no wonder that modern Israel’s customs are unique and touching. Yom HaZikaron opens with a siren on the evening preceding the day. It is a sight to be seen — but not heard: everything stops. People stop their cars (even on highways), stand in complete silence and show respect to the “Hallalim,” the fallen. During the evening, entertainment places such as restaurants and theaters are closed. Special programming appears on television. The next day, throughout the country, memorial services are held at all 43 military cemeteries across the country, usually including the special “Yizkor” prayer, wreath-laying and a military gun salute. Memorial candles are lit in homes, schools, synagogues and public places, and flags are lowered to half-staff. On this day, many relatives visit the graves of loved ones who fell in battle.
Around the world, the symbols and traditions vary but the core ideas are quite consistent. We want to remember. We want to honor.
All of this feels “right” in a very deep way. It is the right thing to do for the memory and respect of the fallen, and the right thing for us, the living. It teaches us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. It reminds us that others “gave” so much to us, motivating us to give to others. It inspires us to be better, to give more — and to be more.
Connecting to the past — on an individual and national level — is important. Henry Ford — famous automobile industrialist — is known to have said, “We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.” This view of his comes as little surprise, as he was a virulent antisemite: If you focus on material achievements, you won’t think highly of the past, of community, of identity — or of Jews.
The Jewish view is much closer to this quote from Sigmund Freud: “Only a good-for-nothing is not interested in his past.” Being connected to the past, being connected to those who sacrificed for us, to the heroes of Israel is not just he right thing to do for their memories and spirits, as important as that is. It is the right thing to do for us. It changes us. It makes us better people.
This year, the Yizkereim: Honor Israel’s Fallen (honorisraelsfallen.com) program and website are helping individuals and groups take remembrance to a whole new level. Spearheaded by Olami, the international Jewish education organization in partnership with the Afikim Foundation, Yizkereim is a unique program to memorialize each of Israel’s 23,786 fallen in that it helps us engage in what I call “Active Remembrance.”
On the Yizkereim website, visitors can choose one of the fallen, read a short “blurb” about who the person was and sign up to do a good deed in his or her memory. You choose what to do: give charity, say a chapter of Psalms, read a poem or a short piece of prose… whatever you are comfortable with. Impressive resources such as poems, songs, readings, prayers and video links are easily available. Groups, schools and organizations can easily sign up to make this into a meaningful group project.
Since its launch in 2018, honorisraelsfallen.com has had more than 42,000 positive actions performed in memory of Israel’s Fallen. With an impressive new website allowing individuals and groups to participate, and in partnership with Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, Yad Lebanim and the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization, 2022 is expected to be the largest year yet.
Let’s remember those who gave so much. On the days leading up to Yom Hazikaron on May 4, let’s actively remember them.
Raphael B. Butler is president of Olami, a community of campus and young professional centers worldwide.