Dedicated to Second Lieutenant Erez Orbach, who was killed in Jerusalem on January 8, 2017.
When I was a commander in the Israel Defense Forces, I gave my soldiers a tour of Har Herzl, Israel’s military cemetery. As we walked through the different sections of the cemetery, I tried to convey to my soldiers the connection between themselves and those buried on that hill. Har Herzl honors Israel’s fallen soldiers by laying them to rest side by side, regardless of rank or distinction. My soldiers, all of whom were privates, walked among the graves and saw colonels buried beside corporals and captains buried beside privates — every soldier respected for his or her contribution to Israel’s military, the same military to which my soldiers were now contributing.
Toward the end of the tour, I played a song called “A Million Stars.” This song was recorded by Amit Farkash at the funeral of her brother, Captain Tom Farkash, who died in a helicopter crash during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Amit sings, “I wanted one second to say goodbye to you... Just give me one second to say goodbye to you,” and at the very end of the song, in a barely audible voice, she says “Bye, Tom.” I thought of my siblings and I cried. I cried for Tom, who would forever be 23. I cried for Amit, who never got the chance to say goodbye to her big brother. I cried for their parents, who no longer wonder if their son is safe. I cried for the men and women laid to rest on that hill. I cried for their families, their wives, husbands, girlfriends, and friends. I cried for those whose stories are well-known and for those whose stories are untold. And my soldiers cried with me. We cried together, breaching the barrier of emotional distance between newly enlisted soldiers and their basic training commander, because the men and women buried around us, unseen but strongly felt, all wore our uniform. And we could relate, even if only a little.
Last year on Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, I stopped by a table at the school where I work which depicted the pictures, names, and hometowns of some of the soldiers who died during Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Included was the manner in which they fell and their age. I read each card and looked into the photographed eyes of each soldier. Then I went back to the top and started counting how many there were. But the tears came and I stopped. How can I count them, as if they were numbers? They’re not numbers. They were strong, attractive, young men whose lives were cut short because they wanted me to live mine.
I tried to choose a story to share for Israel’s Yom HaZikaron this year, but there are too many stories. Too many names, too many pictures, too many videos, too many lives cut short or forever altered. But they’re not numbers; they’re brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, grandchildren, spouses, and friends. They’re people. And I wish I could tell you all of their stories.
By Atara Mayer
Atara Mayer served as a basic training commander in the Education Corps at Michveh Alon, a base located in the Northern part of Israel.