Powerless no more, a people mourns

Powerless no more, a people mourns

A while back, Yuval Heiman went to the beach with his longtime girlfriend. Somehow their conversation turned to the risk of drowning, and he told her that such a death would have no value. It is far better, he mused, to die for a purpose, echoing the words attributed to the early Zionist hero, Joseph Trumpeldor, “Tov lamut b’ad artzenu”– “It is good to die for our country.”

Perishing while on a sacred mission, he surely believed, is to sanctify God’s name, perhaps the only Jewish value greater than life itself.

That conversation was, perhaps, an Israeli exercise in confronting the reality that Israeli soldiers and, at times, many of the country’s civilians as well have to be prepared to sacrifice their lives in defense of the State of Israel.

In the end, Yuval did make the ultimate sacrifice in the battle to ensure that his fellow citizens would be granted a respite from terrorism—Hamas’ cynical and indiscriminate launching of rockets from within their own civilian neighborhoods to kill Israeli Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Yuval, 21, from Efrat, was killed July 21 when terrorists infiltrated Israel and fired an anti-tank missile at his unit.

My son, Aaron, knew Yuval from his gap year at Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa. Aaron and I were both in Israel this summer, he, staffing Ramah Israel Seminar for American Jewish teenagers, and I leading the AJC-Shalom Hartman Institute Christian Leadership Initiative for U.S. Christian scholars. So we were both there, together with hundreds of others, as Yuval was laid to rest at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl. In her eulogy, Yuval’s girlfriend told the story of her beloved’s reflections as they sat on the beach. Hers was a strong and compassionate voice, like that of the other women who spoke, Yuval’s mother and sisters.

Despite dozens of earlier visits to Israel through multiple crises and wars, I had never before been to a military funeral. Witnessing the unbearable collective anguish, it occurred to me that this Israeli-Zionist-Jewish-religious-military-state funeral would have been unthinkable before the founding of the State of Israel and the establishment of the Israel Defense Forces, events that changed the course of Jewish history forever. The flag-draped coffin, the honor guard, wreath presentations from the relevant military branches, the presence of and comments by Israeli government leaders, and the three-gun salute were emblems of a normal state.

A military cantor chanting the traditional 91st Psalm led the soldiers bearing the coffin on their shoulders. They lowered it into the grave and filled in it in with earth. The cantor recited the El Malei Rachamim memorial prayer, Yuval’s posthumous promotion to lieutenant was announced, and the family said the Mourner’s Kaddish. Perhaps the only concession to pre-Zionist, powerless Jewish history was the absence of the elaborate dress uniforms and precision marching associated with serious armies. Maybe Israeli society does not want to get too comfortable with the formality of military protocol and its disturbing resonance in Jewish memory.

The enemy was barely mentioned in the 90 minutes of eulogies and tributes. Soldiers cried together with mothers and fathers who thought of their own children.

These Jews are not my Jewish grandparents from Bialystok. They have accepted both the self-determining power of Jewish defense and the burdens and sometime tragedies it imposes. They will not listen to lectures by those who question their values, those who cannot distinguish between targeting civilians and inadvertently killing civilians whom terrorists use as human shields. They mourn Gaza’s children and even risk their own lives to minimize Palestinian civilian casualties. They crave peace, but live in a dangerous neighborhood.

The State of Israel has the power to defend itself and the Jewish people. Yuval Heiman represents all that is positive in the recent course of Jewish history. He and so many others are willing to die in defense of the State of Israel, and would go to the ends of the earth to save Jews, be they in Sderot, Addis Ababa, Paris, or New York. It is an honor just to live in their time.

Yuval Heiman died on a sacred mission. He died to protect Jews in Israel and beyond. May his memory and the memory of all of our fallen be for a blessing.

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