Yom Hazikaron

On Monday, the State of Israel and much of the Jewish world will observe Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism.  Unlike America’s Memorial Day, which is marked by a handful of tributes to those who have been killed in the line of duty but is mostly taken as a vacation day and seen as the unofficial start of summer, Yom Hazikaron is a day of true national reflection and mourning.  In Israel, time stands still on Yom Hazikaron.  Families visit cemeteries and weep as they confront yet again the death of their loved ones in battle and contemplate the human cost of Israel’s independence.  Perhaps that is because in Israel, virtually everybody serves in the army.  It’s impossible to feel detached from Israel’s soldiers because they are members of your own family, or they are your close friends, or they are your neighbor.

I am not an Israeli and I live my life here in America, on the other side of the world from the State of Israel.  But even here in New Jersey, I feel the emotional pull of Yom Hazikaron.  That is because to me, Israel is not just another country in the Near East.  Israel is, in a real sense, my spiritual homeland.  I am proud of Israel’s achievements and I feel worry and concern about the threats and challenges Israel faces.  I feel completely at home when I am there, not only because I speak the language (I certainly wouldn’t feel at home in Spain just because I could speak Spanish fluently) but because Israel is a part of my identity.  When an Israeli soldier is killed, it feels eerily personal to me.  I try to learn something about the soldier’s life story and identity.  On Yom Hazikaron, I contemplate the lives of young people ended far too soon so that the State of Israel and exist and thrive.  In a way that is not merely abstract, those soldiers died serving in an army that ensures the State of Israel can be there for me.  I say this with humility, fully aware that I have not made any real sacrifices to ensure the survival and security of the State of Israel.

As I’ve shared with you, my son Josh is an Israeli who just completed six months of service in the IDF.  I recently asked him what message and meaning he sees in Yom Hazikaron.  He told me that at the funeral for a Lone Soldier (a Chayal Boded), a soldier who has no family living in Israel, it’s common for thousands upon thousands of people to show up.  Those who attend these funerals do so to become the family of the soldier, to mourn for him, to pay tribute to his sacrifice, to ensure that he is not alone as he is laid to rest.  In truth, the thousands of people who show up at these funerals are his family.  As Josh told me, that is because the people of Israel “are all in this together.”  That Lone Soldier is not alone…he belongs to the entire nation.

On Yom Hazikaron, I urge you to set aside a few moments for reflection about the men and women who have given their lives so that the State of Israel can exist and thrive.  You may wish to light a Ner Zikaron (memorial candle or yahrtzeit candle).  As you light the candle, you may wish to read this classic poem by Natan Alterman, one of Israel’s most influential poets of the 20th century:

The Silver Platter by Natan Alterman

And the land grows still, the red eye of the sky slowly dimming over smoking frontiers,

As the nation arises, torn at heart but breathing, to receive its miracle, the only miracle,

As the ceremony draws near,  it will rise, standing erect in the moonlight in terror and joy,

When across from it will step out a youth and a lass and slowly march toward the nation.

Dressed in battle gear, dirty, shoes heavy with grime, they ascend the path quietly.

To change garb, to wipe their brow.  They have not yet found time. Still bone weary from days and from nights in the field.

Full of endless fatigue and unrested, yet the dew of their youth is still seen on their head.

Thus they stand at attention, giving no sign of life or death.

Then a nation in tears and amazement will ask: “Who are you?”

And they will answer quietly, “We are the silver platter on which the Jewish state was given.”

Thus they will say and fall back in shadows.

And the rest will be told In the chronicles of Israel

I also encourage you to become familiar with Friends of the IDF, an important organization that sponsors programs in support of Israel’s soldiers, including Lone Soldiers.

And link to the website of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey for information on opportunities in our community to celebrate Yom Ha’atsmaut, Israel Independence Day.

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Free or Not Free?

At our Passover Seder this year, one of the guests introduced an interesting discussion spark—a set of cards with photos of people who, depending on one’s perspective, could be considered either free or not free.  One of these photos especially caught my attention.  It shows the last Passover Seder in the Warsaw Ghetto, taken on April 19, 1943, the night that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began.  The Germans entered the ghetto that night, intentionally on the Festival of Passover, planning to remove or kill the last Jewish inhabitants.  Perhaps strengthened in their resolve by the message of Passover, a handful of Jews faced off against the German army and held out for three weeks until the ghetto was finally overwhelmed and destroyed on May 16.

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The crowd gathered around the Seder table included people of all ages, most bearing desperate and grim expressions.  The man seated at the head of the table is breaking the middle matzah (“yachatz” is a symbol of the brokenness of the world…for whom would this act have been more real and vivid?).  His expression seems determined and resolute.  The question the card poses is this:  Are these people free or not free?  Perhaps they are free because, despite facing terrible evil and the fear and dread of the executioner’s sword hanging over their heads, they are embracing and celebrating their tradition, the very religious tradition for which they are being exterminated.  Perhaps they are not free because even they know that their suffering will soon increase and they will perish in anguish.  Is celebrating Passover in a ghetto, doomed to die, freedom?

When we discussed this question in shul on the last day of Pesach, most people felt that the question of whether the Jews at the last Passover Seder in the Warsaw Ghetto were free or not free cannot be answered objectively.  That is because freedom is not solely a legal status.  Freedom is as much a state of mind, an ever-evolving potential of the human spirit.  Freedom is a way of life to which we must aspire, and for which we must work, every minute of every day.

The celebration of Passover is not merely about history, a recollection of what happened to our people centuries ago.  For Passover to be not only relevant but meaningful, it must address the present and the future.  The questions of the Haggadah must be understood not only as “how were our people liberated from Egyptian bondage centuries ago?” but, more pressingly, “how does the message of Passover inspire and motivate us to increase the blessing of freedom for all of humanity?”

If that is true for Passover, it must also be true for Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day).  Observed beginning this Sunday evening, April 23rd, Yom Hashoah is rightly about the suffering of our people during the dark years of the Nazi regime in Europe.  It is also about the determination and will of those Jews who resisted, and the valiant acts of righteous gentiles who saved so many of us.  But Yom Hashoah is also about being inspired and motivated by the terrible anguish of the Holocaust to work to end the oppression of all human beings.  The lessons of the Holocaust summon us to be aware of the places in the world where people suffer, sometimes in silence, at the hand of tyrants, where they are murdered and gassed, where women are sold into sexual slavery, where children are forced to fight as soldiers rather than get an education and develop their minds and lives.  These things are happening in our world today, in Syria, in South Sudan, in Somalia, in Yemen, and countless other places around the world.

As Yom Hashoah begins at nightfall this Sunday, please light the candle provided to every Oheb Shalom member by our Men’s Club.  As you light the flame, reflect not only on the suffering of our people during those dark years but also on the suffering of human beings in today’s world.  As the light begins to spread, imagine that the freedom, like the flame, grows and spreads.  May the light of the candle symbolize our potential to spread freedom to each person who lives in this world.

Is Passover Fake News?

This year I’ve had the pleasure of teaching a group of Oheb Shalom members once a month at a Midtown Manhattan law office.  The study group is dubbed “Prophets and Profits” because we discuss that week’s Haftarah portion from the prophetic section of the Bible and then receive a market report.  (The group is open to anyone who wants to join—for more information contact Paul Schechner.)

At a recent session, I shared the idea that the events of Passover, including the enslavement of the Israelites, the Ten Plagues, the Exodus and the crossing of the Red Sea, probably never happened.  We have absolutely no material historical evidence that there were such events, other than the Bible itself.  We can prove that there was a Temple in Jerusalem (both the First and Second Temples) and that our ancestors lived in the Land of Israel during the 1,000-year period prior to being defeated by the Romans and exiled from our land.  There’s archaeological evidence of those things.  But there’s no hard evidence that anything connected to the holiday of Passover actually happened.

Jaws dropped.  People turned white.  One person said, “Rabbi, you’re killing me…I just can’t accept that none of this stuff is true. Passover will never be the same for me.”  I answered that all of it is true, it’s just not historically factual.  There’s truth in the story, there’s inspiration in the celebration of the holiday, and the Seder still has meaning and purpose, even if we can’t prove that it’s historically accurate.

To borrow a term from the current political climate, Passover isn’t “fake news.”  The story wasn’t invented to create an alternative reality or to be a diversion from the truth.  Likely, the story of Passover as recounted in the Torah is a collection of communal myths and legends that became embedded into the people’s national religious consciousness over a period of many centuries.  That theory explains the conflicting details in the story (for example, we are commanded both to refrain from eating leaven and to eat matzah for seven days, and there’s no reason to conclude that we eat matzah because the Israelites had no time for their dough to rise).  Passover is the story of who we are as a people, where we came from, and what we aspire to become.  It is a story about the quest for faith and the meaning of freedom.  The Haggadah is not a history book as much as it is a collection of poetry and allegorical tales meant to prod us to feel more deeply about human suffering and animate us to do more to achieve justice in our world.

It doesn’t matter if the events of Passover are historically accurate or not.  Its meaning and message, its call to summon us all to work for the freedom and dignity of all human beings, its urging to see the holiday in the context of the struggles and challenges of today, such as the largest number of refugees in history, human trafficking, racial injustice, gender inequality and bias against LGBTQ people, all combine to remind us that Passover has something to say regardless of whether the story is real or not.

If you’d prefer to believe that the story of Passover is real, that’s fine.  And it’s also fine if you see it as a mythical story that has something to say to us, for in a very real way it does.

My entire family—Amy, Eitan, Dita, Noam, Josh, Yoni, Benji and Aaron—join me in wishing you a meaningful and fulfilling Pesach celebration.

Note:  If you would like to be a guest at a Seder, or if you have room at your Seder table for guests, please let me know and I’ll try to make a match.