“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 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 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.