There’s a story I heard once, probably apocryphal, that Charles DeGaulle, when he visited Israel for the first time, caused a commotion. As his delegation prepared to depart, his aides told Golda Meir’s that it is the tradition of every French Prime Minister, when departing a visiting country, to visit the nation’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before flying home to France. There was only one problem. Israel didn’t have such a Tomb.
So Golda told her assistants to set one up, to create a banner with such a designation and, as the motorcade left the Kenesset, they stopped by Mount Herzl for the ad hoc ceremony.
But it was a windy day. Towards the end of the ceremony, the banner fell down to reveal a grave with an inscription that went something like this: Hayim Cohen, 1895-1949, Industrialist, Businessman and Philanthropist.
DeGaulle said to Golda, “I thought this was the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier?”
Golda replied, “As an Industrialist, Businessman and Philanthropist, Hayim Cohen was known. As a soldier, not so much.”
The joke reveals an important fact about Israel and the way they observe Memorial Day.
First, unlike the United States, where most important Federal holidays are pushed to Monday to give us longer leisure and opportunities to support the economy, Israel’s Memorial Day is always the day before Independence Day. Imagine how much more meaningful Memorial day might be if we always observed it on July 3rd.
Second, Israel doesn’t have a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It has many individual graves of immigrants who died defending the country in 1948 who could not be appropriately identified. It does have a garden for those who went missing in action, but their names are remembered. Every single one.
Our portion, Naso, begins by counting the Levites according to their three clans. Many words could have been used to begin the census, Safar, Pakad and Manah in particular, some of which are used as synonyms for counting these same individuals.
So why begin with Naso?
Naso has many valences; in particular it means to raise up.
That the transporters and guardians of our holiest desert structure would be raised up doesn’t surprise us, literally and figuratively. However, the same root is used for counting the military age men in the rest of the Israelite tribes at the beginning of last week’s parasha.
Using the same language for soldiers as Levites creates a hope that those who are counted to fight external enemies will one day only fight the internal, lifting and carrying and confronting the holy challenges that are an existential part of life.
There would be no need for future tombs for unknown soldiers, collective or individual.