I will not soon forget the experience of Yom Hazikaron in Israel. The day is not simply a memorial to Israel’s fallen; it is a day in which the country celebrates the value of national service. Whether in emotional communal events, or in the pilgrimage of thousands to the cemeteries, one sees a nation celebrating the role of individuals in its founding and continued existence. Thousands of young students, considering their futures, walk amongst the graves of Har Herzl’s military cemetery hearing seventy year old and seventy day old stories of the individuals buried there, and consciously setting these individuals as their role models. Thousands of family members cluster around graves of close and distant relatives, experiencing both the continued pain of their loss and the pride in their contribution to the presence and safety of their people in Eretz Yisrael.

I observed one impressive family gathered around an older grave, the grave of Esther Ceilingold. Esther was an orthodox Jewish girl who was deeply affected by her work with teenage Holocaust survivors in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, and was moved to become a member of the Jewish community in pre-state Palestine. She travelled there in November 1946 at the age of twenty-one to assume a position as a teacher, and eventually joined the Haganah. She was wounded and died in the siege of Jerusalem in May 1948. Those visiting her grave were the descendants of her siblings, still holding her memory as a beacon for their values and direction. Esther’s letters from that period in Israel are published in a moving book, “An Unlikely Heroine”, with her final letter – written six days before her passing – made famous by her brother-in-law Yehuda Avner, who cites it in “The Prime Ministers”:

May 23, 1948

Dear Mummy, Daddy and everybody,

If you do get this at all, it will be, I suppose, typical of all my hurried, messy letters. I am writing it to beg of you that whatever may have happened to me, you will make the effort to take it in the spirit that I want to and to understand that for myself I have no regrets. We have had a bitter fight, I have tasted of Gehenem (Hell) – but it has been worthwhile because I am convinced that the end will see a Jewish State and the realization of all our longings….

I hope that you will enjoy from Mimi and Asher the satisfaction that you missed in me – let it be without regrets, and then I too shall be happy. I am thinking of you all, every single one of you in the family, and am full of pleasure at the thought that you will one day, very soon I hope, come and enjoy the fruits of that for which we are fighting.

Much, much love, be happy and remember me only In happiness,

Shalom and Lehitraot,

Your loving Esther

On the eve of Succos 1973, while the Yom Kippur War raged, the late Rosh Yeshiva of the Mirrer Yeshiva in Jerusalem, addressed his students. These students were not part of the physical war effort, and Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz z”l – who in deference to the war had effectively cancelled the students’ scheduled time off for the holiday – regularly spoke with them about their spiritual role in the war effort and their attitude towards those fighting on their behalf. Rav Chaim told his students that he viewed the soldiers as modern day versions of the Papus and Lulianus of the Talmud. In the period following the destruction of the Second Temple, a Roman princess had been found murdered, an event that generated a blood libel against the entire Jewish community. These two young men – Papus and Lulianus – stepped forward and took responsibility for the act and in that way deflected responsibility from the Jewish community, averting a massacre. The Talmud (TB Bava Basra 10b) refers to them as Harugei Lud, those murdered at Lud, and sees them as occupying an absolutely exclusive and vaunted place in the World to Come. Rav Chaim believed that the young men of the IDF falling in battle would occupy that same exclusive and vaunted place because of their readiness to sacrifice everything for their people.

This ethos, this value, is one that is sorely absent in our lives and experience. Perhaps America’s military families do live with this value, but we as American Jews do not. And it is a gaping hole in our value system, and in the moral education of our children. We teach them to be charitable, to volunteer for good causes, but we do not have the framework to move them to define themselves as communal servants, as people who should define their lives in terms of what they can do for their people.

This mandate of national commitment surfaces in an important but unexpected place. The Torah instructs us to strive for holiness; “Kedoshim tihyu ki kadosh ani Hashem Elokeichem,” “Be holy, for I – Hashem your lord – am holy.” Our Sages and scholars grappled with the actual meaning of this mandate. What does it mean to be “holy”? Rav Shimon Shkop, one of the great Talmudists of the twentieth century, gave a surprising answer. He described holiness essentially as selflessness. G-d’s holiness lies in the reality that He seeks nothing from the world for Himself, that He is entirely self-sufficient and created the world only to grant life and goodness to others. Thus, if we are to live up to the image of G-d with which we are endowed, we too must orient our own lives around others, defining our purpose and dedicating ourselves to others, and to our people.

Rav Shimon expressed this thought as the centerpiece of the introduction to his classic work of Talmudic analysis, “Shaarei Yosher“. The beauty of his expression of this idea, and specifically the way he identified with it as the guiding value of his own life, are a vivid illustration of this simple but riveting conception of true holiness and godliness. And it is a model of holiness that we need to incorporate into our value system in a meaningful way. We need to ask ourselves what we can do for our people.

Rav Yisrael Zev Gustman was another of the great Talmudists of the twentieth century, a survivor of the Holocaust who reestablished himself first in the US and then in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Rechavia. There, in his yeshiva Netzach Yisrael, he delivered weekly multi-hour Talmudic discourses, many of which were published in his “Kuntresei Shiurim“. On the one occasion that I had to attend this lecture, I was part of a crowd that included his dedicated and obviously advanced full-time students, as well as a sampling of Jerusalem’s intellectual elite, attracted to the Torah of this uniquely brilliant scholar.

One of the regular attendees at this class was Professor Yisrael (Robert) Aumann, a professor of economics and Nobel laureate. In June of 1982, during the First Lebanon War, Professor Aumann’s son Shlomo fell in battle. Rav Gustman joined the funeral at Har HaZeisim (the Mount of Olives), following which he insisted on going to the family home to pay a shiva call. Professor Aumann thanked the Rav for his concern, but urged him to go back to his studies and work. Rav Gustman stayed, and explained:

“I am sure that you don’t know this, but I had a son named Meir. He was a beautiful child. He was taken from my arms and executed. I escaped. I later bartered my child’s shoes so that we would have food, but I was never able to eat the food — I gave it away to others. My Meir is a kadosh — he is holy — he and all the six million who perished are holy.”

Rav Gustman then added: “I will tell you what is transpiring now in the World of Truth in Gan Eden — in Heaven. My Meir is welcoming your Shlomo into the minyan and is saying to him ‘I died because I am a Jew — but I wasn’t able to save anyone else. But you — Shlomo, you died defending the Jewish People and the Land of Israel.’ My Meir is a kadosh, he is holy — but your Shlomo is a Shaliach Tzibbur – a Cantor in that holy, heavenly minyan.”[1]

Each of us needs to learn the role of Shaliach Tzibbur, of dedication to our community, to our nation, to the well-being of others. We too need to see how we can create a culture that helps young people define themselves, their lives and their aspirations in terms that extend way beyond themselves, to live and to model true holiness, the selflessness of those who dream and live to do for their people.

  1. From “The Rabbi and The Professor”, by Rabbi Ari Kahn.