Of silence, soldiers and switching gears

Israelis have to be adept at moving quickly from sorrow to celebration, from despair to iron resolve.

Shortly after our eldest son, Ari, fell in battle in Nablus almost nine years ago, I went shopping for a car. The salesman was quite surprised when I told him I wanted a manual shift rather than an automatic. He told me that while in generations past, virtually every car in Israel had a standard transmission, those days were long gone. “What you’re looking for is the ‘old Israel,’” he told me, sure that I was making some kind of mistake. “No,” I corrected him, “this car exactly represents the character and condition of Israel – then and now – and that’s why I insist on it.”
This is a country where, if we are to survive, we must be adept at switching gears – emotional gears. We are constantly, continually confronted by highs and lows, ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies, and must be prepared to ride out those extremes of daily life. One day we are trumpeting the discovery of one of the largest natural-gas fields on the planet; the next day we “tank” as our petrol prices rise to their highest level in history. One moment we are in mourning for the massacred members of the Fogel family; the next moment we rejoice that arch-terrorist Osama bin Laden has been sent to a well-deserved watery grave. The front page of our newspaper buoys our spirits by reporting that Israel’s “satisfaction level” is the 7th highest in the world, while the same page records that our Palestinian “partners” have once again stabbed peace in the back by cutting a deal with the bin Laden-loving terrorists of Hamas.
How do we do it? How do we jump so effortlessly between the poles and live in two radically different worlds at the same time?
THE QUESTION is most acute this week, when we make the transition between the somber sirens of Yom Hazikaron and the flag-waving festivities of Yom Ha’atzmaut. In just a breath, a heartbeat, we are asked to dry the tears and shelve the painful memories of wars fought and loved ones lost, and celebrate the dream of Israel renewed and resurgent. The stick shift grinds, the gear box smokes, but somehow we make the switch and Israel rumbles along.
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For the bereaved families, every day is Memorial Day. We never blow out the candle or blot out of our mind that frozen picture of our soldier-son illuminated on Yad Labanim’s wall. We live and limp with that loss, as if with a limb blown away or a sense of sight impaired, and it is never more than a familiar song or deficient family picture away. And yet we want to live, too. We don’t want to curl up and die, or wallow in our grief. We still want to enjoy this wonderful world and country in which we live; we deserve to enjoy it.
And so we grit our teeth, gather our courage and resolve to switch those gears, no matter how tough it may be. We dry the tears, embrace our kids and reach for the future, while never letting go of the past. We compartmentalize, creating a sacred space for silence and sadness but reserving another corner for laughter and lightheartedness.
And we try to stay positive, our eyes on the road ahead. We try to bring some good out of the catastrophe by building synagogues and schools and day-care centers. We channel all that furious energy into social causes, fighting for justice by screaming our opposition to the freeing of sadistic Palestinian prisoners or the wholesale ceding of Israeli land to the very monsters who murdered our kids. We, whom God has seen fit to enter into the club that no one wants to join, try to prevent anyone else from becoming a member. And we try to put the best face on our situation, taking pride in the service and sacrifice of our sons.
Sometimes silence says it all. When Aaron the High Priest lost his two precious sons, the Torah records that he stood in silence. Not, as most people think, because he was paralyzed with grief. But because he was torn between two opposite emotions. On the one hand, he was a bereaved father who had just lost his two eldest boys, each an exemplary tzadik. But at the same time, he had a majestic vision that these two righteous souls were being ushered into the highest halls of Heaven. And so, not knowing whether to laugh or cry, he remained silent.
Soon after I came to Israel, my sabra cousin picked me up early one March morning and said, “Today, you will learn all you need to know about this country.”
We drove to the Hermon Mountain, where we went sledding on a thin layer of snow. Then we caught a plane in Rosh Pina and flew to Eilat, where we went snorkeling off the sunny Coral Beach. “Israel is a land of colors and contrasts,” he told me, “a place where in the morning you can be shivering but in the afternoon you are sweating. It is a tiny country in kilometers but a huge nation in experiences.”
But if you want to get from one end to the other, you had better learn to switch those gears.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana and father of Staff Sgt. Ari Weiss z”l.