From a halakhic standpoint, there is no need to institute a general for the holy who were killed in battle. Instead, one should do what the Jewish people do for anyone who has passed away: on the anniversary of death (yahrtzeit), a memorial prayer is said, and the deceased’s sons or relatives say Kaddish, study Torah, and give charity to elevate their loved one’s soul.
Those who are more meticulous hold a memorial service and organize Torah lectures to elevate the deceased’s soul.
We have fought many wars throughout our long history, often losing more soldiers in one war than Tzahal (IDF) has lost in all of its battles put together. Nevertheless, we do not find that our Sages ever instituted a memorial day for those killed in battle. When we won, we celebrated, and when we lost, we mourned individually.
The only battle for which the Sages instituted public mourning, in the form of selichot prayers and fast days, is over the destruction of Jerusalem and the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple) , which was a spiritual and national catastrophe for the Jews. Indeed, the destruction, churban, is the source of all the troubles, evil decrees, and bloodshed that our nation has suffered throughout the exile.
Even the Fast of Gedalyah was instituted in commemoration of the churban, not because Gedalyah was such a great tzaddik that all of Israel needs to mourn his death. Rather, his assassination extinguished the last ember of hope for the Jews who remained in the Land after the destruction of the First Temple.
Moreover, just a few years before the was born, six million Jews were murdered in a dreadfully cruel manner. They are our brothers no less than the Israeli soldiers who fell in battle, and they are more than three hundred times the number of soldiers who have died in all of Israel’s wars.
How, then, can we establish a day of mourning for the soldiers, on the same scale as for the six million?
If there is any for a memorial day, it is on condition that we dedicate the day to educating the public about the essence and of the Jewish nation, and about the value of self-sacrifice for our people, Klal Yisrael. Many people mistakenly believe that the more we bow our heads in grief and portray our pain over the fallen soldiers in somber hues, the more we honor their memories.
The opposite, however, is true.
We should view the slain as holy souls, whose entire lives were refined and sanctified through their self-sacrifice for the people and Land of Israel. About such heroes our Sages, Chazal, say, “No one can dwell in the section of Gan Eden where those who were killed by the kingdom dwell” (Pesachim 50a).
A nonbeliever thinks that they are dead in comparison with the living, but a believing Jew knows that they are more alive than all the rest. They died young in this world, but they are very alive in the everlasting world, the World to Come. They are much more alive than we are. They are holy, and our Sages say, “What is holy exists forever” (Sanhedrin 92a).
By giving their lives in sanctification of God’s Name, they rose above the personal existence of an individual Jew to the comprehensive level of the holiness of Klal Yisrael. By sacrificing their lives for Klal Yisrael, they were elevated to the stature of Klal Yisrael, and they are more connected to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, Hashem, the source of life. Therefore, they added great light and blessing in both the World of Truth and this world when they died. Moreover, we live here today in their merit, and all of our accomplishments belong to them.
Sadly, people with little faith, who do not understand Klal Yisrael’s past and ongoing mission, have seized control of the State of Israel’s media and cultural life. In the beginning, the secularists still had an inkling of what Judaism was all about, based on what they heard in their parents’ home, but over time, their alienation from Torah values took its toll, and they turned Yom Hazikaron into a day of weakness and defeatism.
Instead of honoring the holy memories of the fallen, trying to understand the essence of Am Yisrael, and investing meaning into the soldiers’ self-sacrifice, they emphasize the pain, despair, and destruction, sometimes even portraying the deaths of these soldiers as meaningless. They appear to be honoring the fallen, but in reality, there is no greater affront to the honor of these holy souls than the inappropriate character that these people have attached to Yom Hazikaron– the fundamental flaw being a disregard for the sacred Jewish national destiny of Klal Yisrael for whose sake the soldiers sacrificed their lives.
If we nonetheless observe Yom Hazikaron, we must underscore the soldiers’ self-sacrifice in sanctifying God’s Name. We must emphasize how they demonstrated to us that the prophecy of the ingathering of the exiles and the rebirth of the Jewish nation in its [ancient] Homeland is so great that it is worthwhile to give up one’s life in this world for its sake. strengthen us and inspire us to follow their lead.
The children we bear and raise exist in their merit; the settlements we establish flourish because of them; the Torah we learn is theirs; the ethical Jewish society we want to build here, as the prophets foretold, is theirs also. If we remember this, and exert a great deal of effort, we will be able to continue in their path, the path of self-sacrifice for Klal Yisrael. Then we will truly honor them, as holy and pure souls, illuminating and shining like the glow of the heavens.
This is also what we must say to the bereaved families in whose midst these holy warriors sprouted: Do not surrender to death; continue to live by their strength. Do not bow your heads; rather, stand up straight and tall in their honor. Lift your eyes beyond the ordinary horizon and look towards the vision of the redemption and the End of Days. And even if there are tears in your eyes, let them be tears of grandeur.
This essay appears in Rabbi Melamed’s “Peninei Halakha: Z’manim”, and can be read in full at: http://ph.yhb.org.il/en/category/zemanim/