Thursday night, we attended the funeral of a soldier, a student, a son and brother. A child of Israel. But unlike most funerals, this one took 37 years to happen. It brought together thousands upon thousands of Israelis to pay their final respects, and to fulfill a promise that Israel makes to each of us; a promise that is a holy and essential part of the social contract between the army and the government of Israel and the citizens of Israel. A solemn oath that the army will protect our children who are protecting our nation; and, if Gd forbid, the unimaginable happens, that no soldier will ever be left behind.
Sgt. First Class Zachary (Zechariah) Baumel was 22 when he left Yeshivat Har Etzion to head to war. On that fateful day in 1982, while fighting in Lebanon, he vanished along with Sergeant First Class Yehuda Katz and Sergeant First Class Tzvi Feldman whose remains are still missing. For so many years, synagogues around the world have recited the prayer for the missing soldiers with these boys names.
Finally, 37 years later, some of those prayers have been answered. Last night, we gathered with the Am, with the Nation, to bid our goodbyes to a soldier who has finally returned home.
The most moving moment for me was when his sister, Osna Haberman, spoke. She wanted to tell the Land, the ground in front of her, to give her brother a hug, a very strong hug. But then, she said that it was not necessary to offer these words, because after 37 years of being in another soil, after 37 years of waiting to return to his own Land and his own people, Zechariah was finally home. She said that she didn’t need to tell the Land to hug Zechariah, because she was sure that she was already hugging him and welcoming him back into her arms. They were together at last.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when he spoke, talked about Osna’s reaction upon hearing that her brother was finally found. She recited the Shecheyanu, the Jewish prayer used to thank HaShem for bringing you to this moment in time. A blessing. Those were the first words out of her mouth.
While the family has been through hell and has certainly had years to mourn, and to be angry, and to lose hope, they never stopped praying for the return of his body. They never stopped believing that the day would come. While speaking, Osna said that she was crying with one eye and laughing with the other; that she could not believe that the day had finally arrived after such a long, arduous journey.
Thousands of us arrived at Har Herzl to pay our respects. We watched the ceremony from right outside the cemetery grounds, as only Zechariah’s army unit, political officials, family and other invited guests were allowed in. But the area near the large screens was swarming with people who had come to pay their respects. Everyone was there — babies in strollers, soldiers, the entire student body from my son’s high school, all of Yeshivat Har Etzion, older people, and everyone in between. While we were waiting for it to begin, I noticed Racheli Frenkel come to take a seat with a few of her children. As unassuming as ever, this mom who understood the Baumel’s pain all too well was there with the rest of us, paying her last respects to a fellow son of Israel who fell for the right to live in our Land. It was jarring during the speeches when a few speakers mentioned the three boys; they were referring to three from Lebanon, but that term was, so very unfortunately, used again in 2014 for Gilad, Eyal and Naftali, and I wondered what Racheli was thinking during the funeral.
Throughout the funeral, I could not stop think about the Katz and Feldman families who have also been waiting for 37 years; I could not stop thinking about the Goldin and Shaul families, whose sons, Lt. Hadar Goldin and Sgt. Oron Shaul, were killed by Hamas during Operation Protective Edge in 2014 and whose bodies have not, yet, been returned; I could not stop thinking about all of the families who have been through so much.
We owe it to these families, to all of Israel, to work tirelessly for all of them to be returned. So that they, too, may have the essential closure offered last night to the Baumel family. So that their boys – who are really all of our boys — may be embraced by our Land for eternity.