In the Shade of Trees Planted by Others

“A society grows great when men are willing to plant trees, in whose shade they might never sit.”

-Greek Proverb

One of the worst things I’ve ever seen in my life was watching a woman who was six months pregnant eulogize her husband.

It was the summer of 2014, at the beginning of operation protective edge, the day after the country had learned that 13 soldiers from the Golani Brigade had been killed. Her husband had been the deputy brigade commander of the unit that I had served in, the Golani Reconnaissance Battalion. He came up the ranks in the unit, fighting in the Second Lebanon War and the operations in Gaza until he was killed in action that weekend.

The image of her standing there speaking to us about her husband with her belly protruding from under a uniform (she was also an officer) is seared into my memory in a way that I think few things ever will be. She spoke about how when he had come home from Operation Caste Lead, he had told her triumphantly that he had brought all his soldiers home safely. It was the kind of leader he was she said, the kind of leader that the IDF taught him to be. He didn’t care about how many of the enemy he or anyone else had killed, only that the mission had been accomplished everyone had came home.

Except this time, he didn’t. Her words carried the profound sense of sorrow and loss, not just for herself, but for their child. Another person had made the ultimate sacrifice, another widow who would never see her husband again, a child who would never even know its father except as a gravestone.

On the way to the next funeral (the third of the day) a rocket siren broke the silence in the car, as if to remind us that the war was far from over. We pulled over on the highway and got out just in time to watch an Iron Dome interceptor streak across the clear Tel Aviv sky and blossom into the white cloud of an interception. The weeks to come brought more casualties, more funerals, and more emptiness.

This had been my first real war in Israel, It was the first full-scale conflict since I had been released from the army, The first time I would wake up in the morning and not just read the casualty figures, but feel them too. I may never have met most of the people who were killed in action that summer, but I felt like I knew a part of them. There were the Lone Soldiers who had been killed, the Engineering officer who had played water polo, the soldiers from my unit, serving in the exact same places that I did; the sad truth is that it’s part of being Israeli or, in my case, becoming Israeli.

Since that day Israel has lost more soldiers and civilians to a relentless enemy. The book: “Im Yesh Gan Eden” (if there is a heaven) captured this sentiment in painful clarity with the first sentence of the first chapter: “A lot of people have lost a lot of people since we lost Yonatan”. It’s a book written about soldiers in southern Lebanon right before the Israeli withdrawal, but that sentence could have been describing any moment in the short history of the State of Israel.

Grief is something that tends to fill the space that you give it; I think Yom Hazikaron is important because it lets us continue to grieve the people we’ve lost, without letting it overwhelm us, and how easy it would be to let that happen. I think it may be the only way we aren’t either completely immobilized by the steady trickle of the names of people who will never go home again, or completely anesthetized by it; and how easy it would be to grow accustomed to these horrible moments. You can’t go to work, or the supermarket, or anywhere really without passing by some memorial for people killed in a terrorist attack, or a monument to the soldiers that fought and died defending one part of the country or another at one time or another.

As the years go by and more people lose more people, and the names pile up it would be easy to be crushed by them, or to have our country turned into a mausoleum. While the feeling of loss will never completely go away, today we can give it its proper place and time so that after, we can continue forward and still enjoy the fruits of their sacrifice. They would not have wanted for anyone to be permanently mired in this morose atmosphere.

I’ve always thought how unlucky it must be to be an anti-Semite these days. They are the first in generations that have to suffer a Jewish State and a Jewish Army. There are still people alive who can remember what it’s like to not have a place to go, or people sworn to defend them, even if it cost them their lives. This assurance doesn’t come cheap; we commemorated Yom Hashoa last week to remind us and the world of the cost of not having a Jewish State; today we remind ourselves that the preservation of the Jewish State still comes at a price. Today, just for one day, we give a space for loss of those who will never sit in the shade of the trees whose seeds they had planted.

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