We stand here this evening, together, and ask to be comforted, at the foot of the silent stones before us. Stones which have for thousands of years, absorbed the tears of our people – tears of sadness and of joy. A wall of cries of mourning and of hope.
For me, the hardest task bestowed upon the president of the state, is to be in the presence of bereaved families in times of grief and tragedy; to see them, as they agonize, in mourning and grief. Last summer, I traveled far and wide across this country. I visited the homes of beloved and wonderful boys who fell defending the country during Operation Protective Edge. The geography of pain, as I learned, stretched the length and breadth of the country, yet it did not divide it. Death struck at the door of many, regardless of their religious beliefs. No camp was left untouched by death. I saw the sons of the kibbutzim, of the settlements, of the villages, towns and cities, Jews and non-Jews, lone soldiers and new immigrants.
I got to them, though, too late. I got to know them, when they were already gone. I watched them laughing in home movies, I saw them smiling in photographs, hugging their brothers, holding the hands of their girlfriends, who are left bereft, ‘agunot’ of love. With some of them, I believe I would have argued and debated. With others I would have enjoyed listening to music, debating leadership or soccer. I remember painfully how one grieving father told me that when he heard the footsteps at the door, he waited to call to his wife, to give her just one moment more, before she would become a ‘bereaved mother.’ This same father tearfully questioned how from then on, should he answer when asked how many children he had. This summer I learned how palpable is emptiness, which no amount of longing can fill.
Dear families. Not long ago I met a father whose son fell in battle in the Gaza Strip nearly two decades ago. He shared with me his feelings about this day, Memorial Day. He said, “I do not dread this day. On this day, I consider the significance.” He went on, “Each year, they speak to us, the bereaved families, about loss and sadness. But, for us, there is no need to be reminded of these painful notions. We carry them with us each day and each night. On this day, we must turn to Israeli society in its entirety, and talk about self-reflection for the future, about building, about hope. This way, their sacrifice will not be in vain.”
Dear friends, citizens of Israel. It is the request of this father that I ask you, all of us, to honor today. The bereaved family is intertwined, with a shared fate, a fate that was forced upon them. Israeli society, with all its camps, is connected not just in terms of shared destiny, but in terms of purpose and meaning. Memorial Day is a day upon which we, all of us, gather together in the national mourning tent. On this day, we open the tabernacles of terrible grief; we release the pent-up longing. How can we come to terms within ourselves, and with the memory of our loved ones, if there were just one day on which we focused on the pain and sorrow? We mourn tonight for the fate of our sons and daughters. And yet, at the same time, how can we stand at their graves, how can we think of the children that they will never have, or of the children left orphaned, if we do not consider the meaning, the purpose of their sacrifice?
Dear friends, “it is fitting,” wrote Yigal Alon, “that Israel’s youth, and indeed the army, would be educated to hate war, and at the same time, will revel in battle when it breaks out.” Living in this land makes two claims of us as a people and a society. The first is based in the vital struggle for our existence, for the existence of the State of Israel. The second claim is rooted in the vital struggle for the essence and idea for which the State of Israel was established. We are not a people of war. Our sons do not charge bloodthirsty into battle. Not during this nor any other summer, or in those which, sadly and Heaven forbid, still may come. The need to fight has been forced upon us. And for our children it has been decreed that they should continue to bear arms in order to defend to our borders, our homes — this enterprise which we have built here.
The struggle for our existence is still not a matter of choice. Our obligation, to ourselves, our children and grandchildren, is to be sure to do everything in our power to prevent the next war. In order to clarify to our enemies, that should they choose to go to war against us, we will stand strong as we have always stood strong. Along with this, we look at the current reality and must ensure that we are doing everything in our power to be prepared and ready for the next conflict. The reality of our lives here places a great challenge before the IDF and its commanders and soldiers; the challenge of preserving professional and ethical excellence throughout the IDF, from the lowest to the highest rank. This reality places before the security forces the challenge of managing a war in between wars. A war in which, each night, our soldiers return to their bases, from nameless battles which push further into the distance the next conflict, and make us ever more ready for that next conflict.
This is our obligation to those who have fallen. We will always promise that while we will never accept this decree of fate, we are, at the same time, also ready to pay the price of our existence here. This reality which has been forced upon us must not lead us to accept the sacrifice, even if we recognize it is a necessity. Amidst this tension, we are obligated to continue to live, for the sake of our loved ones who are lost, and for our children who remain.
Dear friends, the second claim with which we are dealing today is the struggle for the essence and idea for which the State of Israel was established, and for which our sons and daughters fell. They who lived for the sake of life, to create, to be authors, poets, scientists, farmers, the best of the best of our children, laid down their lives not for us to merely survive, but for us to live. The pages of the history of the Jewish people are awash with hardships and persecution, exiles and pogroms. Just last week, we marked a day of memorial for the martyrs and heroes of the Holocaust. We were persecuted and we survived. We were expelled and we survived. They tried to eradicate us from the face of the earth, and we survived.
Yet, for the Jewish people, survival alone has never sufficed and should never suffice. The DNA of this nation is one of faith and creativity. We insist on survival because we believe in life. Because we believe in a vision of being a free nation, a society that brings together tradition and innovation. A society that finds creativity in its contrasts and contradictions. A society that educates its children about love for their fellow man, and about shared responsibility alongside a drive to succeed. A society that does not compromise on the realization of its values, even in the face of a difficult and complex reality.
From the ashes we have risen. Over the graves of our children, siblings, parents and friends we have risen from misery and despair to have hope and faith. This hope and faith is what leads us on our path. We will continue in our self-reflection on our image, values and future, in their name and in the name of our children. A deep and soul-searching self-reflection. Not for public diplomacy, nor for the international community, but here, between ourselves, between the family that is the citizens of Israel. So we did in 1948, and so we will do today. The deaths of those who died defending our home, force us to deepen our commitment to building that home; as a more just home, as a more compassionate home, as a home where not only those who have fallen, but all those within it are equal. This is our debt to their heroic deeds, and their lives which were lost.
Dear bereaved families, each night as I lie in bed, my thoughts are with you, with your children who are gone. And I cry in silence with you, as King David said of his son Absalom, ‘would I had died for thee.’
‘Spring is So Brief Around Here’ wrote David Grossman of his son Uri:
A young and turbulent spring
Its end already written into the leaves of its buds
Yet it is whirling like a butterfly in mid-flight
And, like it, appears eternal in its own eyes…
You and I are in the know
And how terrible it is that he alone does not
How brief life is, the brief life that was given him
Generous, turbulent and painful, and ever so brief, is the spring.
May the memory of our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, your loved ones, be engraved on our hearts forever. May their souls be bound in the bond of life.
Reuven Rivlin is President of Israel. The above was the address he delivered at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on the eve of Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day for Israel’s Fallen Soldiers and Victims Of Enemy Aggression.