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Despair and Hope - Yom HaZikaron

By: Rav David Milston

I came across an anecdote last Friday, the point of which was to compare an incident regarding Taanit Esther and Purim, to the days of Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut:

The story was conveyed by Rabbi Chezi Cohen:

Rabbi Yom Tov Yisrael Shirzeli (Chief Rabbi and Av Bet Din in Egypt in the 19th Century) was a renowned leader and was very much respected by the non-Jewish authorities of the time. On occasion he used his relationship with the local law enforcers in order to ensure the upkeep of halacha in the community:

Once on Ta'anit Esther, Rabbi Yom Tov was informed that a certain Jew was sitting in a local café, blatantly drinking and eating in front of everyone and anyone. The Rabbi sent a messenger to ask the man to refrain from eating publicly on a fast day – but to no avail. Another messenger was sent, but once again, the Jew in the café insisted on continuing his meal in the public domain.

Eventually, Rabbi Yom Tov asked the local police to intervene, and had the man arrested and brought before him.

The Rabbi asked the "rebellious Jew" to explain his actions, to which the man replied that he saw no purpose to fasting on this occasion and that he had every intention of returning to the restaurant immediately after his release.

Faced with such overt disobedience the Rabbi asked the authorities for the man to be jailed for three days; he was to be imprisoned for each day that Esther and Mordechai had fasted at the time of Purim. The man was devastated: 'How can you give such a harsh judgment' he complained, 'my family is waiting for me at home for Purim celebrations!' To which the Rabbi replied: 'He who is not willing to remember the anguish and suffering cannot be allowed to join in the consequent celebration!'

The relevance of the story and the inherent comparison between Taanit Esther and Purim on the one hand and Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut on the other is fairly obvious, but I would like to take the point made a step further. In order to do so we need to understand something fundamental regarding Ta'anit Esther:

There are, of course, numerous opinions regarding the significance of the "Fast of Esther", but in the context of this sicha I would like to humbly suggest one of my own:

The Rema (Orach Chaim, Hilchot Megillah and Purim, Siman 686:2.) states that this fast is not stringently compulsory, in the sense that we can be lenient (in certain cases) with regards to pregnant or breastfeeding women, a sick person who is not in danger or a person with a severe headache if he is in real pain. These individuals are permitted to break their fast or even not fast at all.[1] However, if a person is in good health, he must fast.

Yet the leniency described by the Rema seems to stand in direct conflict with a statement of Shulchan Aruch that he himself supports, a little further on:

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim Siman 692:4) says that one is forbidden to eat between the end of the fast and the reading of the Megillah. So much so, that in circumstances where fasting is difficult, it would even be better to read the Megillah a little earlier before nightfall, in order to avoid eating before the reading of Megillah.

How then can we reconcile the stringency of the latter halacha, with the leniency of the former one?

If we look to the Megillah we will discover the answer and will also understand the real meaning of Ta'anit Esther:

When reading Megillat Esther from beginning to end, we note the seemingly superfluous detail of the first two chapters. Surely it would have been simpler and more relevant to begin with Chapter 3. Haman comes to power, Esther is Queen and Mordechai refuses to bow down. That is where the story really begins. Why bother with the details of the King's party and the failed assassination attempt by Bigtan and Teresh?

The Talmud addresses this issue, stating that the Almighty generally creates the cure before the illness even arrives.[2] In our case, chapters one and two are there to show that the means through which Haman's downfall would ultimately occur were already in place, even before his initial rise to power.

The first chapter sees Esther crowned Queen, a decisive factor in the whole story. Chapter two sees Mordechai's name inscribed in the “Book of Chronicles”, a detail that will eventually play a large part in shattering Haman’s morale at a most crucial time in his political career.

And so we see that the response to Haman’s evil decree (to emerge in chapter 3) was already in place before the decree itself (chapters 1 and 2), but only in potential! Things could so easily have gone wrong. On the one hand, Esther was Queen, yet on the other hand she had no way of knowing the King would raise his scepter when she entered the palace uninvited.[3] The whole episode could have ended quite differently if her short-tempered husband had sent Esther to the gallows for her impudence.

Similarly, Haman’s public humiliation only occurred because the King could not sleep and called for his servants to read the Book of Chronicles to him. What would have happened if the king had taken a few sleeping pills? Mordechai would have remained unrewarded and Haman would have arrived at the second feast with his political opportunism on 'red alert'. Esther may have still accused him, but with Mordechai out of sight, he could have wrangled his way out of the situation to live another day. The decree may have been postponed, but not annulled.

So the remedy was there, but God’s intervention was needed to ensure that the desired effect transpired.

Our suggestion is that the “fast days of Esther” served a very real purpose, being the means with which to trigger that Godly cure that was already in place, transforming the potential remedy into a reality.

Esther instructed the people to unite, repent and pray to the Almighty. And it was in fact the people’s sincerity and belief that ultimately affected the desired result – Haman’s demise and a Jewish victory.

If we accept this explanation, it becomes obvious as to why we fast the day before Purim. It is a reminder of the Fast of Esther in a spiritual context, not a historical one. The fast is an integral part of Purim itself. To put it more emphatically, there would never have been a Purim without Ta’anit Esther (Indeed the Gemara at the beginning of Massechet Megillah openly describes the 13th of Adar as being inherent to the –'days of Purim')!

With this theme in mind we can solve the mystery of the mixed halachic messages regarding the status of the fast day:

Generally speaking, the fast of Esther is a considered to be lenient. However, on one issue there is stringency – its juxtaposition to the Megillah reading. Once we accept that the original fasting was a crucial catalyst in turning things around, it makes perfect sense to still be fasting as we read the Megillah. We need to internalize that message:

A Divine remedy is always ready to emerge and save the Jewish people. God is always there for us, even if it may appear that He is hiding.[4]

The question is, are Am Yisrael prepared to do what it takes to save themselves? In this case, the people needed to unite and fast, they responded correctly and the result was Purim.

With this in mind we return to the story of Rabbi Yom Tov:

He said that - 'He who is not willing to remember the anguish and suffering cannot be allowed to join in the consequent celebration!' Rabbi Chezi Cohen, who relayed the story, concluded appropriately that 'He who does not remember the anguish of Yom HaZikaron cannot be allowed to celebrate Yom Haatzmaut!'

Or, to be even more emphatic: 'If you do not appreciate the fast of Esther, you have no real idea of what the celebrations of Purim are really about!' And so too – 'If you do not appreciate Yom HaZikaron, you have no real idea of what the celebrations of Yom Haatzmaut are really about!' Indeed you have no real understanding of that wonderful miracle that we call 'The State of Israel'!

In this context, it is interesting to note our custom to recite the “Yizkor” prayer in memory of family members on Pesach, Shavuot, Yom Kippur and Shemini Atzeret. Many communities also add memorial prayers for Israeli soldiers and Holocaust victims.

But why combine sadness and sorrow with our festive celebrations? One possible reason is that Yizkor allows us to express that eternal void in our lives. Although we have enjoyed our festivals, our celebration will never be the same without our loved ones.

Yet, unlike Yizkor, Yom HaZikaron was not instituted as a part of Yom Ha’Atzmaut but rather as a separate day preceding the Independence celebrations. Why?

Yizkor helps us reflect on the people who are no longer with us. Yom HaZikaron goes far further as it reminds us that were it not for the grace of Heaven and the sacrifice of our brothers and sisters, Yom Ha’Atzmaut wouldn't exist at all.

These two seemingly opposite days are inextricably connected. You could not have one without the other for this is the destiny of the Jew - "Destruction and renewal; despair and hope". It is primarily because our soldiers fell in defense of the State of Israel that every Jew in the world benefits from their sacrifice. Consequently, no Jew in the world should fail to honor and remember them.

When the Knesset officially added the memory of Israel’s terror victims to this day they issued an additional fundamental message about Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael. Hitherto I have spoken of the essence of the day, but I cannot conclude without a word or two regarding the fallen:

On the eve of Yom HaZikaron 2009, at an annual event held at Binyanei HaUma in Yerushalayim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau[5] told a story about the late Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach[6]:

Every day, someone would drive Rabbi Auerbach from his home in Sha’arei Chesed to his Yeshiva in Bayit Vegan. The Rabbi would occasionally ask the driver to pull up for a few moments outside Har Herzl, where he would recite Tehillim.

Why did he do this? The answer can be found in another story told about the great Rabbi:

A student once approached Rav Auerbach and asked for a timeout from his studies so he could travel north to pray at the graves of the Tzaddikim. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman looked perplexed but didn’t immediately answer. Sensing hesitation from his Rabbi, the student elaborated, explaining he had some personal issues to think through and he felt praying by the righteous would help. Rabbi Auerbach replied that he fully understood what the student wanted to do and why he wanted to do it, but could not understand why he would travel four hours to pray by the graves of a few Tzaddikim when there were thousands of them buried on Har Herzl, just five minutes from the yeshiva!

It is with such awe and humility that we speak of the holy individuals who have given their lives for the sake of their beliefs and their people. Our Rabbis tell us there is a special place reserved in the Heavens for those who give up all they have for the sake of Am Yisrael.[7]

We remember those who have fallen in the unending battle for our homeland, eternally humbled by their bravery and ever grateful for their sacrifice. It is largely thanks to them that we can visit and live freely in Israel today. We obviously see the hand of the Almighty in the country’s miraculous establishment and existence but He helps those who help themselves (Massechet Yoma 38b see also Rashi, Mishlei 16:9).

On this solemn day – 24 hours before our annual celebration of our return to Zion – we bow our heads in honor of our fallen heroes. After all, the day was not set aside for their families alone. They have to bear the loss every day of the year 24/7.

Yom HaZikaron was established so that we, the entire nation, wherever we may be, can express our perpetual gratitude for their everlasting sacrifice.

And just as Israel could not exist without the heroic dedication of its soldiers, it cannot survive without the stubborn courage of every one of its citizens. Those who have been here for generations and those who have chosen to come home and realize the ultimate Jewish dream of redemption. Those who have left comfortable lives in the Diaspora and those who fled persecution and suffering in Arab lands. They are all God’s soldiers, fulfilling the prophecies of our Neviim!

If every Jew chose to wait in the Diaspora until it was ‘safe’ to return or until the financial situation improved, we would be sitting in Exile forever.

All Jews can visit Ma’arat HaMachpela because a small group of our brothers build their homes and raise their children there, risking their lives on a daily basis. And what is true of Hebron is true of every place in Israel.

So it is eminently fitting that on a day of remembrance for our fallen soldiers we also pay our respects to the men, women and children who have been brutally deprived of life just because they wanted to be a part of the Jewish dream of Shivat Tzion.

This year we have over seventy new names to remember – the names of our heroic soldiers who fell last summer defending the Southern borders of Israel. We also remember the three boys who were so cruelly abducted and murdered, as well as people killed in terror attacks in the recent past.

Remember we must and remember we will – always!

To be a Yehudi, to be a Jew, is synonymous with awareness, appreciation and responsibility. The word “Yehudi” is connected to the word “Lehodot” which means both to admit, to take responsibility, and to give thanks. Therefore, before we celebrate our independence and thank God for our miraculous homeland, it is crucial to first take a day to remember, honor and thank those holy souls who took the ultimate responsibility to make it all possible.

May their memories be blessed for eternity!

Rav David Milston


[1] Although some of these people are required to make up the fast afterwards. See Mishnah Berurah Se’if Katan 5. It is always advisable of course, to take advice from the local Rabbi when one's health is not in any real danger, but one feels that they need to break their fast because of a headache or a similar discomfort.

[2] Megillah13b.

[3] See Megillat Esther 4:11, 5:2

[4] I would note here that although the Talmud seems to be implying a general rule that infers that the cure always preempts the decree; one must be more than careful at being judgmental regarding events in our history where the 'trop' of Esther has been replaced by the 'trop' of Eichah. My point in this sicha is to acknowledge the fact that, had the people not applied themselves, the said cures may well have not been invoked, and as such Taanit Esther must be seen as an integral part of understanding Purim. That cannot mean, however, that on every occasion in our history where salvation did not arrive that the people of that period should be automatically judged to have been at fault.  We must always endeavor to help ourselves, but there are times when despite our wishes, our prayers and our actions, the Almighty acts differently – after all – His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways differ to ours (Yeshayau 55:8) – on such occasions we defer to the wisdom and understanding of the Master of the Universe.

[5] Former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel and current Chief Rabbi of Tel-Aviv.

[6] 1910-1995. Rabbi Auerbach was a “Gadol HaDor” and Rosh Yeshiva of Kol Torah in Jerusalem.

[7] See Pesachim 50a. Rabbi Yosef the son of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi fell into a trance and visited the afterworld. Upon his return, he reported a number of things to his father. One of the statements he heard there was, “No man can stand within the barriers of those martyred by the State.” [i.e. They occupy such an exalted position in the next world that they are unapproachable.] Who are these [martyrs]? Shall we say Rabbi Akiva and his companions (who were executed or martyred by the Romans for their insistence on teaching Torah.)? Is that because they were martyrs of the State and nothing else? Rather [he meant] the martyrs of Lod (two brothers, Lulianus and Papus, who took responsibility for the Emperor’s daughter’s death so as to save the people as a whole). See Ta’anit 18b.


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