Holding the Bitter and the Sweet: Learning from One another as we Observe Israel’s Memorial Day and Independence Day

May 10, 2024


You have probably heard the saying, “Two Jews…three opinions.” Jewish tradition is rooted in debate, dialogue, questioning, wrestling – ideally, all in the service of reaching greater truth, of learning from one another. “Who is wise?” an ancient mishna (rabbinic teaching) asks, and answers: “One who learns from every person.”(Pirke Avot 4:1). One of our people’s names, Yisrael (Israel) means “one who wrestles with God.” We are “God-wrestlers” – the people who question, and even wrestle with the deepest ideas, and therefore we wrestle with one another. Sometimes, the wrestling leads to injury. When our ancestor Jacob receives the name Yisrael after he wrestles with the divine, he is not left unscathed — his hip is injured. Right now, the Jewish people are hurting. Many Jews are feeling exhausted and even emotionally injured because of the deep divides in opinion about Israel’s war against Hamas, and our people as a whole is hurting because of the external threat of antisemitism raging throughout the world and in our own backyard.

Next week fall the days sometimes called “Israel’s High Holy Days”: Yom HaZikaron – a day of remembrance for fallen soldiers and victims of terror, followed immediately by Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israel’s Independence Day. These days are always complicated, because the history of Israel is complex. These days are always a profound exercise of a core Jewish value: Holding sorrow and joy at the same time. Just as we break a glass at a wedding, or pour out some of our wine at the Passover seder, or sprinkle our sweet challah with salt, even our greatest joys are not complete because we know that others are suffering. We are a people expert in holding it all at once. The deep truth of human experience is that it is both so beautiful and so broken. That, in the words of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai: “A man doesn’t have time in his life/to have time for everything./He doesn’t have seasons enough to have/ a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes/was wrong about that. A man needs…to laugh and cry with the same eyes/with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them/…and to hate and forgive and remember and forget/to arrange and confuse to eat and digest/what history takes years and years to do.”

This year, every Jewish leader I know has been acknowledging and expressing that Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut feel more complicated than ever. There are too many losses to grieve this Yom HaZikaron, along with the grief that 133 hostages remain in captivity, their fate unknown. And what is the appropriate way to celebrate Israel’s existence right now in the shadow of war and trauma, and with the incomprehensible humanitarian catastrophe that has ensued in Gaza as a result of this war, and with Israel’s right to exist being questioned and threatened by so many?

While our people wrestles and hurts in new and deeper ways this year than anytime in most of our lives, what I hope and pray for and want to do my part to help bring to our people, is that no Jew feels excluded; that we can see and hear one another in our hurt, in our differences of opinion; in our grief, our fears, and our joys. No matter what you believe, no matter where your head and heart are in this historical moment, we are am echad b’lev echad, (one people with one heart). Our communal heart is expansive enough (perhaps even more expansive in its brokenness – as Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk taught: “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart”) to hold all of it at once.

With that as my intention, I want to offer you several resources for learning, for exploration, and for action from a wide array of organizations representing a wide diversity of opinion, as we mark Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut this year. I have been in awe of the depth of the wrestling that my colleagues in positions of Jewish leadership here and in Israel have been doing in the service of living this historical moment marking these “Israeli High Holy Days” with integrity and with the intention of learning from each other. Though it might be tempting to disengage, the Jewish people needs every one of us to lean in and dig deeper – to listen to one another through learning and action so that we can live up to our sacred calling as God-wrestlers. The Jewish people comprises 0.2% of the world’s population, and about half of us live in Israel. We cannot turn away. May we find truth and strength as we turn toward each other with hearts full and broken, open and curious, in the service of a better world.


Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman