“Who can count the dust of Jacob or number the seed of Israel.” Numbers 23:10
Flags fly at half mast, the torch of remembrance is lit, memorial candles are held in shaking hands and the country’s own version of the Flanders Field poppy, the Red Everlasting daisy, dubbed Blood of the Maccabees, adorns lapels. And so begins the Yom Hazikaron, Heroes Remembrance Day, the day of remembrance for fallen soldiers and victims of terror– Israel’s Memorial Day.
What is a memorial day in a country that has always known war and where remembrance means adding the toll of one year’s dead and wounded to the scales of history? A country where war never ends, where the sirens may pause but never stop, where each generation grows up knowing that they will have to fight or flee. To stand watch or run away. It is not so much the past that is remembered on this day, but the present and the future. The stillness, a breath in the warm air, before setting out to climb the slopes of tomorrow.
Who can count the dust of Jacob.
And yet each memorial day we count the dust. The dust that is a fraction of those who have fallen defending the land for thousands of years. Flesh wears out, blood falls to the earth where the red daisies grow, and bone turns to dust. The dust blows across the graves of soldiers and prophets, the tombs of priests hidden behind brush, the caverns where forefathers rest in sacred silence, laid to rest by their sons, who were laid to rest by their own sons, generations burying the past, standing guard over it, being driven away and returning each time.
On Memorial Day, the hands of memory are dipped in the dust raising it to the blue sky. A prayer, a whisper, a dream of peace. And the wind blows the candles out. War follows. And once again blood flows into the dust. A young lieutenant shading his eyes against the sun. An old man resting with his family on the beach. Children climbing into bed in a village on a hilltop. And more bodies are laid to rest in the dust. Until dust they become.
In this land, the Maker of Stars and Dust vowed to Abraham that his children would be as many as the dust of the earth and the stars of heaven. In their darkest days, they would be as the dust. But there is mercy in the numberless count of the dust. Mercy in not being able to make a full count of the fallen and remaining ignorant of that full measure of woe. Modern technologies permit us terrible estimates. Databanks store the names of millions; digital cemeteries of ghosts. But there is no counting the dust. And when we walk the length and breadth of the land, as the Maker told Abraham to do, it the dust that supports our feet, we walk in the dust of our ancestors.
Some new countries are built to escape from the past, but there is no escaping it in these ancient hills. IDF soldiers patrol over ground once contested by empires, tread over spearheads and the wheels of chariots buried deep in the earth. The Assyrians and the Babylonians came through here in all their glory. Greek and Roman soldiers and mercenaries pitted themselves against the handful of Judeans who came out of the Babylonian exile. The Ottoman and the Arab raged here, and Crusader battering rams and British Enfield rifles still echo in the quiet hills.
Here in the silence of remembrance the present is always the past and the sky hangs like a thin veil fluttering against the future. The believers cast their prayers out of their mouths against the veil. The soldiers cast their lives and their hearts. And still the future flutters above, like the sky near enough to touch, but out of reach. Beneath it, the sky-blue flag, the stripe of the believer’s shawls adorned with the interlocked star of the House of David.
Can these bones live, the Lord asks Ezekiel. And generations, after each slaughter, they come again, the descendants of the dead to reclaim the hills of their ancestors. Rising like the red flowers out of the soil. Like the bones out of the earth. They come up as slaves out of Egypt and out of the captivity of empires, their tongues as numberless as the earth. Here they come again to set up kingdoms and nations. And there in shadows on the dust, a handful of men fight off a legion; swords, spears and rifles in hand they face down impossible odds. They fight and die, but they go on.
The calendar itself is a memorial. Israel’s Memorial Day, Independence Day and Lag BaOmer; the commemoration of the original Yom Yerushalayim, the brief liberation of Jerusalem from the Romans, still covertly remembered in bonfires and bows shot into the air, all in a season that begins with Passover, the exodus that set over a million people off on a forty-year journey to return to the homeland of their forefathers.
The battles today are new, but they are also very old. The weapons are new, but the struggle is the same. Who will remain and who will be swept away. Some 3,000 years ago, Judge Jephthah and the King of Ammon were exchanging messages not too different from those being passed around as diplomatic communiques today. The King of Ammon demanding land for peace and the Judge laying out the Israeli case for the land in a message that the enemy would hardly trouble to read before going to war.
Take a stray path in these hills and you may find a grinning terrorist with a knife, or the young David pitting his slingshot against a lion or bear. This way the Maccabees rush ahead against the armies of a slave empire and this way a helicopter passes low overhead on the way to Gaza. Time is a fluid thing here. And what you remember; you shall find.
The soldier is not so sacred as he once was. The journalist and the judge have taken his place. The actors sneer from their theaters. The politicians gobble their free food and babble of peace. Musicians sing shrilly of flowers in gun barrels and doves everywhere. But the soldier still stands where he must. The borders have shrunk. The old victories have been exchanged for diplomatic defeats. From the old strongholds come missiles and rockets. And children hide in bomb shelters waiting for the worst to pass. This is the doing of the journalist and the judge, the politician and the actor, the lions of literature who send autographed copies of their books to imprisoned terrorists and the grandchildren of great men who hire themselves on in service to the enemy.
The man who serves is still sacred, but the temple of duty is desecrated more and more each year. Leftist academics dismiss the heroes of the past as myths or murderers. Their wives dress in black and harass soldiers at checkpoints, their children wrap their faces in Keffiyas and throw stones at them. Draft dodging, once a black mark of shame, has become a mark of pride among the left. Some boast about how easy it is, others enlist only to then refuse to serve. They call themselves Refusniks , accepting the Soviet view of Israel as an illegitimate warmongering state, but laying claim to the name of the Zionists who fought to escape the Soviet Union.
Some are only afraid, but some are filled with hate. They have looked into a twisted mirror and drunk of the poisoned wine. They have found their Inner Cain and go now to slay their brothers with words.
How shall I curse whom G-d has not cursed, asks Balaam. But the King of Moab is determined to have his curses anyway. And today it is to the UN that they come for curses. The Arab lands boil with blood, but resolution after resolution follows damning Israel. China squats on the mountains of Tibet, Russian government thugs throw dissidents out of windows and Iranian thugs assault girls for removing their hijabs. And still the resolutions come like curses.
In a land built on memory, it is possible not to remember, but it is impossible to entirely forget. A war of memories comes. A war for the dust. Is this a day of remembrance or a day of shame. Were those men who fought and died for Judea and Samaria, for the Golan and Jerusalem, for every square inch of land when the armies of Arab dictators came to push them into the sea, heroes or villains. Were Nasser, Hussein, Saddam, Arafat, Gaddafi, Assad and the House of Saud the real heroes all along. The tiny minority of 360 million pitted against the overwhelming majority of 6 million.
Yet though men may forget, the dust remembers. And the men return to it. For some four thousand years they have done it. And they shall do it again. For He who has made men of the dust and made worlds of the dust of stars does not forget. As the stars turn in whirling galaxies and the dust flies across the land, so the people return to the land. And though they forget, they remember again. For the dust is the memory of ages and the children shall always return to the dust of their ancestors.
In the cities, towns and villages– the dead are remembered. Those who died with weapons in their hands and those who just died. Men, women and children. Drops of blood cast to the dust, reborn as flowers on lapels. Reborn as memory.
All go to one place, said King Solomon, all that lives is of the dust, and all returns to the dust. There is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his works. And so memorial day precedes the day of independence. That we rejoice in that which those who sleep in the dust have died to protect. The skyscrapers and the orchards, the sheep ranches and the highways, the schools and the synagogues. For they who drained the swamps and built the roads, who held guard over the air and built the cities, may not have lived to see their works. But we rejoice in their works for them. And a new generation rises to watch over their dust and tend the works that they have built. Until the day when He that counts the dust of Jacob shall count them all, and the land shall stir, and in the words of Daniel, they that sleep in dust shall arise, and then rejoice with us.