There are tens of thousands of stories of sacrifice that will be told today, on the eve of Israel’s 65th birthday.
This is the one that I know best.
My husband moved to Israel from New Jersey the day after his 18th birthday. He spent a year in the Mechinah program at Hebrew University before officially making aliyah and being drafted into the army.
For 30 months, he served in the Golani Brigade. Two tours of duty in Gaza, and three in Lebanon, his last as a combat medic.
My husband and I met in the courtyard of the Jerusalem apartment where we both lived. I had heard that there was a “dati” guy in the building – but he was in the army, and a few years younger than me.
We met on an unusually humid August afternoon — Erev Tisha B’Av.
He had been released from the army four days earlier.
I knew instantly that I liked him. He was tender and tough – his sweet face hidden beneath the scruff of the Nine Days.
We began dating immediately.
Two weeks later, we had joined a group of friends for drinks in Jerusalem. It was getting late, and I had work the next day, so we grabbed a cab together.
As the driver pulled up in front of my entrance, the news was droning on in the background. We had been chatting, not paying attention, and then, all of a sudden, he froze.
He knew immediately.
I, however, was a new olah. My Hebrew was still haulting and so, I was clueless. “What’s the matter? What’s wrong?”
He sat motionless as I paid the cab driver and practically pushed him out of the cab.
“Do you have a TV?” he asked, wide eyed – terrified.
He bound up my stairs, three at a time, and turned on the 11 o’clock news. Again, we caught just the tail end of the story. We saw a body, an Israeli soldier, covered with a tarp, being carried on stretcher.
Only the bottom of his leg, and his black army boot, was visible.
My husband collapsed. His legs crumpled under him, his head crashed to the cold tile floor. He was sobbing.
“What?! What is it?” I demanded.
“That’s him,” he kept saying, over and over again.
There had been a raid in southern Lebanon — a raid planned by the IDF to root out terrorists who were launching attacks into northern Israel from their hidden vantage points.
A firefight ensued and my husband’s unit (machlaka – a group of 15 or so soldiers) took up their positions on the slope of a rocky hill. The battle continued throughout the day.
It was the dead of summer. Hot. Dry.
The tumbleweed brush in the valley below had been barraged for hours by sparks from flying bullets.
A slow smoldering eventually erupted into a fire, but their unit was ordered to hold their position.
Suddenly the wind picked up and whipped the flames higher, churning up the hill where they held their posts.
The soldiers could not outrun the flames. Even as the orders — “Retreat! Retreat!” — were issued, they fell, engulfed in the inferno.
Four Israeli soldiers, sons, died on that hill. A fifth later succumbed to his wounds.
In Jerusalem, burials take place without a casket. Instead, bodies are wrapped in tallisim, carried on a stretcher, deposited into the ground.
Dust to dust.
Military funerals are different, though. There, the bereaved families cling to each other, held up by the comforting arms of thousands, as their sons pass by in caskets draped in blue and white.
At a Golani funeral, on Har Herzl, those thousands are an undulating wave of brown berets and M16s, crashing into the cedar-lined walkways. The wails echo against the rocky walls.
There had been two medics in my husband’s unit. Frankie was the more experienced. His replacement, Roie Shukran, had just completed his medic’s training.
Roie grew up in Jerusalem’s Ramot neighborhood and was an avid reader. He would often ask my husband to bring him American novels, so he could practice his English. Roie planned to study medicine at Hebrew University.
Roie tragically died in the fire on August 28, 1997.
My husband survived, by virtue of his release date. Two weeks before the fire.
For a nation, the grief of Yom Ha’Zikaron knows only the boundary of its transition into Yom Ha’Atzmaut.
For a friend, a brother, a mother, the grief is boundless.
For the 25,578 who have fallen in the defense of Israel, I pray that their memories may be a blessing and that we may be worthy of their sacrifice.