"Who can count the dust of Jacob or number the seed of Israel." Numbers 23:10
The sun sets above the hills. The siren cries out and on the busy highways that wend among the hills, the traffic stops, the people stop,
and a moment of silence comes to a noisy country. 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
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 beneath the hills. 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. In remaining ignorant of that full
measure of woe. Modern technologies permit us terrible estimates.
Databanks store the names of millions, village by village and city by
city. Terrible 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 stand
upon the shoulders of giants. 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 on 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.
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
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 at the armies of a slave
empire and this way a helicopter passes low overhead on the way to
Gaza. Like Dali's melting clocks, 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 Saudi firefighters push girls back into a
burning building. 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.
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.