A few hours ago sirens resounded throughout Israel marking the start of a day of remembrance (Yom Hazikaron) for 23,085 soldiers who lost their lives defending the country and the 2,493 civilians who have been killed in terror attacks.
There are currently over 17,000 Israeli families who lost at least one family member serving in the IDF, and thousands more who lost a parent, sibling, spouse, or child to terrorism.
In the years since then, I have met and spoken with politicians, journalists, diplomats and public figures from many countries. It has been a privilege to engage with them, to address their questions of how it is to live in a society where so many people have experienced personal loss from war.
It is much rarer to express those feelings to one’s own neighbours. What can be said to them that they do not know already?
Perhaps nothing, because we live our lives so close to each other and therefore we share many experiences. We see each other on the bus and at the kanyon (shopping mall). Walking along the street, going to the youth center or the synagogue, waiting at the same traffic lights for the red light to become green.
With all that we share, it is inescapable that our stories are individual, personal, unique and non-standard. Our experiences in life are like that too: different from one another’s. The music that some of us enjoy is not so enjoyable to others. The same with food, with politics, with the color and style of our clothes, with the books we like to read.
I know very little about what is going on inside the heads of the people who stand on line with me at the supermarket. I expect that what they know about me is very little, too.
Each year, I ask myself: What are they thinking when all of us stand in silence as the siren to mark the minute of silence is sounding?
I know what I am thinking about. I know we are probably not thinking the same things.
There are some who will surely say that what we need to think about is the soldiers who paid the highest price in order to defend our land. Or about the heroes of Israel whose blood was shed so that we might gain our national independence.
How unusual is it to find an entire country standing absolutely still, not speaking, not driving, while an unnatural sound fills the air? And not just any unnatural sound, but the sound of the tzefira, the siren? A sound that, if we hear it on a different day, would cause our hearts to beat rapidly and our hands to become sweaty. A frightening sound.
And as we stand there, no trucks, no buses, no cars are moving.
Several million people, who cannot be persuaded to do something together at any other time, suddenly co-operate in doing something at precisely the same moment that brings no personal benefit to any of us. Why?
I feel deep gratitude to the men and women who fought to defend our country.
But it is terribly difficult for me to think about 25,578 korbanot (victims, deceased). I want to feel the pain of their lost futures. Their goodwill and their dedication to our land, our people and our history and the terrible result demand that I should try.
But in the end, it is a number that my mind simply cannot hold.
I have visited many countries. I have never seen anything like an entire nation of people come to a standstill, leaving their cars in the middle of the highway, standing there on the pavement with their heads bowed. I think it is one of the most powerful and moving sights imaginable.
Even as I struggle to think about the vast pain of an entire nation honoring the memory of thousands of its dead soldiers and police and terror victims, I ask myself: But what does it mean? What good does it do to remember?
There are, as I said, large differences between us. All of us can see that while some of us have paid a terrible personal price for the blessings in our lives, others appear to have been completely excused.
There are people who can explain this. Their explanations do not speak to me.
Even as we stand here in silence, our minds filled with the songs and prayers of Yom Hazikaron night, we know that in a matter of hours the sadness is certainly going to turn to celebration and Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day) will abruptly turn into Yom Ha’atzma’ut (Independence Day).
The pain of Yom Hazikaron, as a shared community event, has a beginning and an end. This is how it should be. We confront our collective pain. Then we get back to the challenges in front of us.
When I stand silently with my neighbours while the tzefira, the siren, is sounding its awful wail, I am thinking of my daughter.
This does not make me a bad Israeli, or even a bad neighbor. If anyone asks me what he or she should be thinking at that moment, I will say: If you are asking me, then think about one person.
But I prefer that no one will ask me. There is no right way and certainly no wrong way to remember. No person should feel that there is a standardized and approved way to remember on Yom Hazikaron.
I have learned that the distribution of good and bad does not fall equally among the members of our community.
I don’t know why. I don’t know how to change it. I only know that when we are standing together, with each of us thinking our own intimate, private and unknowable thoughts but doing it together, that we are expressing a special kind of unity.
A people that knows to share pain will surely know to share simcha.