As a Jewish-Israeli, woman, Memorial Day has always been a most significant day for me. In 1967, when I was 5, I lost my beloved cousin Nimrod in the Six Day War; and ever since, it has always been a day of profound and contained personal pain. As a feminist and human rights and peace activist, I search for the unheard voices of women; I search for words of solace and compassion.
So when the Rabbi of our small Reform Congregation in Kiryat Yovel in Jerusalem asked me to participate in a Havdalah ceremony, marking the transition from Memorial Day to Independence Day, I felt honored. I knew I would want to write words of solace and compassion, and that I would look for inspiration in the words of wise women, near and far.
Here is what I wrote for the Havdalah ceremony that will take place tonight, at First Station in Jerusalem.
Pain, Memory and Hope
“The soul doesn’t have set holidays,” my grandmother, Gila Gouri of blessed memory, used to say.
Such a short sentence, merely six words, yet in that sentence my grandmother revealed her deepest wisdom and understanding of the human soul: – Our souls do not observe the calendar.
My grandmother’s saying takes on particular significance as we transition from Memorial Day to Independence Day – from the memory of those who fell in battle and conflict to the joyful celebrations of our independence and sovereignty. The transition is difficult, because our souls keep to their own rhythm, and they cannot feel pain or joy according to the cycle of the sun as it rises and sets.
“After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” wrote Emily Dickenson in her wonderful poem about the paralyzing, freezing sense of pain that breaks our hearts. This is the pain of loss, the pain we feel when someone dearest of all is no more; the sorrow of the longing that can never end. Perhaps, today, those who have lost their dearest ones feel that pain more sharply. Today, we are called upon to remember not only those who have gone, but also those who carry the pain and memory in their hearts every day and each moment. At this moment of Havdalah, of Transition, we are called upon to recognize that among us are many for whom the memory – whether it is fresh or a memory that they have carried for years – persists and goes on even after the ceremony ends and as the vivid fireworks light up the skies.
And Grandmother Gila also used to say, “We live as long as the living remembers us.” Memory is our way to keep those who have gone among us, to carry them with us. Memory sharpens the pain of loss, but at the same time, it keeps alive the love that we felt towards those who have fallen, maintaining it as a living, breathing emotion.
This moment marks the transition from memory to hope, from pain and loss to the excitement of celebration. The human heart is the strongest of all our muscles. Pain paralyzes and freezes the heart, until it feels that it will break. Joy, love and hope expand our hearts beyond all limits. At this moment of Havdalah, we ask our souls to contract into the pain of memory and to expand into love and hope; at this moment of Havdalah, we call on our hearts to contain both that that brings us pain and that that brings us joy. The heart can do this, we can do this, and this moment of Havdalah is intended to enable us all, as a community, to perform this complicated transition together.
At this moment of transition from holy to holy, we remember those who have died and we commit ourselves before them to do all that is in our power to create life filled with hope and peace and lives filled with compassion.
English translation by Etta Prince-Gibson