Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Funeral in Israel

For me, it was the gunshots - three rounds, seven shots per round – piercing the heavy silence that brought home the finality of the moment: the burial of Staff Sargeant Liel Gidoni. He grew up and lived in a neighborhood I know well.  Nonetheless, I never met Liel, or his family, prior to Sunday afternoon on Mt. Herzl.  The entire neighborhood came to bury Liel.  I joined hundreds of others who did not know Liel and, nonetheless, came to pay last respects, to honor his service to and ultimate sacrifice for the State of Israel.

Liel was killed last Friday when he and two other comrades, Major Benaya Sarel and Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, were preparing to destroy a tunnel in or near Rafah in the Gaza strip.  Three hours into a cease-fire, during which Israel indicated it would continue destroying tunnels, terrorists burst onto the scene and murdered the three Israeli soldiers, one more cease fire ignored or broken by Hamas.  A tunnel is not a human being. It sounds so obvious that it may be better not to even say it. In the eyes of the attackers, however, a destroyed tunnel seemed to be equal to a human life.  During what was to be a period of quiet, Hamas could not help itself.  They attacked, broke the cease-fire and killed another three Israeli soldiers.

While I attended one military funeral in the past in Fitzgerald, Georgia, this was completely different.  In Fitzgerald, we buried an 82-year-old, Jewish WW II war hero.  I knew the family and almost everyone at the funeral very well.  He had a wonderful wife, children, and grandchildren.  He lived a full life.  On Mt. Herzl, however, we were burying a twenty-year old, killed in the line of duty.  We were burying a teenager, someone with an entire lifetime to live.  I knew nobody at the funeral, not parents or siblings, grandparents or friends. My connections to Liel were distant at best: 1) I heard about his death while on the plane on Friday, two hours before we landed at Ben Gurion and 2) He was defending my and our collective home.  Yet, I felt as if I was burying a member of my own family.

Each of the eulogies for Liel was more heart-rending than the one before it. Representatives of Givati, where Liel served, as well as the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, spoke in personal, yet official roles.  Neither knew Liel personally yet managed to capture the importance of his service and sacrifice.  Principals, teachers, classmates, best friends and relatives painted a picture of Liel for those of us who didn’t know him personally.  Liel was always smiling an infectious smile, striving to be the best.  He came back to school even after he was drafted to volunteer.  Whenever he could, he came back to help out, joining the Yom HaZikaron ceremony the school put together annually.  His cousin and played a song in his memory.  The gathered mourners tried as best as possible to pick up the chorus and join in.  The memorial prayer, El Maleh Rachamim, wailed forth, echoing across Mt. Herzl.  If there were any dry eyes left by this point, the power contained in the sadness of the shaking voice brought out the tears they were meant to evoke. 

And then there were the gunshots of the twenty-one-gun salute. 

A final farewell. 

Once the funeral ended, a throng of people went to visit the Liel’s grave.  There it was, among five other freshly dug graves.  Liel joined ten other Jerusalem residents killed in Operation Tzuk Eitan, now resting rest in peace on Mt. Herzl.  I paid my last respects to this wonderful soul I never had a chance to meet, stood quietly praying several Psalms. I moved out of the way to make space for others.

 Staring at his grave, I pondered the meaning of Liel’s name.  The first syllable, Li, means “me.” El is one of the names of God.  There are so many hidden meanings: the combination of the human and the Divine; the personal and the transcendent; the true meaning of faith, recognizing God within us.  Seeing the Godly in each of us, in every human being, honoring the Godliness residing in every person, describes Liel. I can only imagine what he would have accomplished if he had not been killed last Friday.

Today, I think about the news of Liel’s death last week and his funeral on Sunday.  I think about where we were and where we are going, both of which lead me to…

Send prayers of comfort to Liel’s family as they mourn his death.

Hope there will be an extension of the cease-fire today.

Pray the cease-fire will continue through Erev Shabbat, becoming a long-term cease-fire.

Dream that, someday, there will be peace in Israel and the region.

And I pray that the quiet is not broken by more gunshots - those of war or those of military funerals – ever again.

May the memory of Liel, his sixty-three other IDF compatriots killed in battle, and the civilians killed, be blessings for all of us.

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