Friday, April 27, 2012

The Meaning of the Blood That's Been Shed

Last week's posting reflected on Holocaust Remembrance Day.  This week, we marked Yom HaZikaron: Israel's Day of Remembrance for fallen soldiers and victims of terror.

This week's double Torah portion (Parshat Tazria-Metzora) is bizarrely obsessed with all different kinds of bodily fluids.  (We could talk for days about the meaning behind the Torah's fixation of this...but we won't right now.  If you're interested, just read Mary Douglas.  She's the expert.)

Nonetheless, the whole bodily fluid thing got me thinking about blood...and, in the context of Yom HaZikaron....the blood that has been shed over and over and over again...decade after the brave men and women of the Israeli Defense Forces, who sacrifice the prime of their lives to serve a cause greater than themselves: their country....and our homeland.

I happened upon a remarkable midrash (from the historic Jewish community of Yemen) this week that I had never read before.  In it, the author meditates on the story of Joseph (chapter 37-ff. of the Book of Genesis). 

As you may recall, Joseph as a child believes that he is better than his brothers.  Because of his general obnoxiousness, and because his brothers are jealous of the fact that Joseph is their father Jacob's favorite, they decide to sell him into slavery.  To explain his disappearance, they catch a goat, slaughter it, smear Joseph's coat with its blood, and then they present the coat to Jacob as proof of Joseph's death.

The story (and the Yemenite midrash), addresses Yom HaZikaron in two ways.  First: the midrash imagines the soul, and personality, of the goat.  Our rabbis saw the goat as representing the suffering and death of all innocents.  (After all: the goat was innocent!  What did it ever do to deserve such a bloody end?)  In protest, the midrash imagines the goat calling out for justice, and it demands: "Earth: do not cover up my blood!"  And so it is that the midrash affirms that the goat's blood, and the blood of all innocents, remains on the ground (to be remembered) until the arrival of the Messiah.

Yom HaZikaron - a Day of Remembrance.  The blood of our fallen soldiers cries out to us, and demands not to be forgotten....not until there is true and enduring peace in the world....when neighbors will no longer be compelled to fight with each other.

One other reflection about the Joseph narrative, its blood, and the connection to this week's Yom HaZikaron.  In the Torah (Gen. 37:33), Jacob - reacting to the bloody coat that his sons have presented him with - declares: "My son's tunic!  A savage beast devoured him!  Joseph was surely torn (tarof toraf) by a beast."

Responding to the imagery of being torn, the modern Torah commentator and literary scholar Aviva Zornberg writes:
Far beyond their [the brothers'] intent, in fact, is the anguish of teruf, of dismemberment, that they cause in the world.  “The blood of the old man,” as the midrash [Midrash HaGadol 42:22] has Reuben refer to Jacob, is shed.  Something essential in him dies.
Notice how Zornberg uses the Hebrew tarof toraf from the Torah to beautifully comment on the 'emotional dismemberment' that occurs when we find out about the death of a loved one.

She goes on to teach us that a part of ourselves dies when we learn of the death of a loved one.

Imagine the sort of emotional dismemberment that was on the forefronts of all Israelis' minds this week, as the country - and Jews around the world - mourned the loss of every single soldier that has ever died for the State, and every civilian who has been a victim of terror.

Their blood cries out from the ground to us: that we shall remember them and never forget the sacrifice they made.

And so too do we think of all of their loved ones....who may still be alive today, even though a part of themselves perished with their loved ones.

May the memories of the brave and the righteous live on to be for a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

Friday, April 20, 2012

Remembering What We Wish We Could Forget

Yesterday, Jews around the world formally marked Yom HaShoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Yom HaShoah is a day filled with paradoxes.
First paradox: how can we possibly do anything to memorialize or honor the memories of six million?  The number is so immense that it defies comprehension.  Like the picture here, which hints at the enormity of the number without actually listing, or being, six million.  What we remember on the Holocaust is the "idea of the six million" because remembering each of the six million is...impossible.

Second paradox: why are we supposed to remember something so awful and gut-wrenching that normal people would prefer to forget it?

The Torah itself seems to know of this paradox.  Deuteronomy 25:17-19 recalls the tragedy that the Amalekites brought against our ancestors, and what we're supposed to do in response to it:

Remember what Amalek did to you, on the way, when you were leaving Egypt, how he happened upon you on the way, and he struck those of you who were hindmost [i.e. defenseless women and children], all the weaklings at your rear, when you were faint and exhausted, and he did not fear God.  It shall be that when the Eternal your God gives you rest from all your enemies all around, in the Land that the Eternal your God gives to you as an inheritance to possess, that you shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens - you shall not forget!

Take a look at that last clause: we should wipe out the memory of Amalek - and at the same time, we should absolutely not forget it.

How is it possible to simultaneously wipe out a memory and remember it?

This is the paradox of Holocaust remembrance.  For what sane human being would not want to forget it?  Wouldn't it be easier on all of us if we could just pretend that the death of six million didn't happen on our watch?

(Brief tangent on "our watch": I think one of the most troubling parts of Holocaust remembrance for those of my generation and younger is that it's history to us.  We didn't live through it.  Some of the teens that I talked to about all of this yesterday thought about the Holocaust the same way they think about ancient Roman history - as something in the distant past.  Young people today don't realize that the Holocaust happened...basically yesterday.  This really hit home for me personally yesterday when I realized that my maternal grandmother (who is alive and well in Florida) was born before Anne Frank was.)

I have two thoughts concerning the nature of Jewish existence.  As Jews we wrestle with what we are supposed to think, and believe.  And, we wrestle with what we are supposed to do.

Regarding thoughts and beliefs: for me, the core question that grows out of the Holocaust, and anti-Semitism in general, is whether something like the Holocaust could ever (God forbid) happen here in America.  And, since I am constantly polling my teenage and adult students about this, I can at least anecdotally report that most American Jews react in disgust to my question.  They are insulted at even in the insinuation that America might be capable of turning on its Jews.

Like them, I pay tribute to the virtues of our Constitution and Bill of Rights, and to the Judeo-Christian ethos that lies at the heart of what constitutes American law and values.  But, although it brings me no joy to type these words, my own reading of Jewish history teaches me to be more realistic.  For me, I must acknowledge that there is at least a chance that such a horror could happen here - however unlikely.

(Everyone should absolutely read Philip Roth's The Plot Against America for one fictionalized vision of what such a scenario could look like.  And, from Jonathan Sarna, the dean of American Jewish historians, everyone should read the recently released When General Grant Expelled the Jews to learn about the real life events that have come closest to federally-sanctioned anti-Semitism in the US).

For me, the acknowledgement of the chance of such a horror repeating itself directly informs my own Zionism.  To put it as simply as I know how: I support the existence of the State of Israel so that - God forbid - it will be there for me, my family, and my descendants if we ever needed to (God forbid) flee there for safe haven.  We have not yet discovered the silver bullet to rid anti-Semitism from the world.  It still exists. And it could rear its ugly head again.

Regarding what we are supposed to do after reflecting on the Holocaust: Rabbi Emil Fackenheim z"l said it best when he wrote of an imagined 614th commandment created out of the Holocaust: a responsibility on the part of all Jews to keep on being Jewish, and perpetuating Judaism, lest Hitler score "a posthumous victory."  The longer Judaism remains alive in the world, the longer we insure that Hitler was actually defeated.

What are each of us to do to perpetuate Judaism?  That's too large of a question and will have to wait for a later post.  For now, it is enough for us to rise up from the end of Yom HaShoah and act...simply with the determination to affirm our identity as Jews, our pride as Jews, and to express a commitment to do what we can to pass the torch of Jewish life on to our next generation.

Thanks for reading and remembering.  I welcome your replies, as always.

Rabbi Brown