Monday, April 27, 2015

After death... Holiness - Reflections on the Parsha at the end of our CBS Israel Tour

Acharei mot - kedoshim - D'var Torah by Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz shared at Kehilat HaLev, Tel Aviv
Note: the parshiot in Israel are not currently aligned with those in the Diaspora because Diaspora Jews who observed 8 days of Pesach had a Passover Torah reading on the last day of Pesach when Israel had already returned to the Shabbat parsha. Israel and the Diaspora will realign again in a few weeks. This D'var Torah was based on the parsha being read last Shabbat in Israel.

This week has been an incredible week for our group in so many ways. We have experienced so much together and have been given glimpses of so many sides of Israel. To end here, this Shabbat, with you, experiencing new life in Reform Judaism here in Israel is very special.

This week is a double-Parsha: acharei mot-kedoshim.  after death, holiness.

This week we have been challenged to grapple with this juxtaposition in so many ways. After the Holocaust, the birth of the modern state of Israel. After Yom HaZikaron, Yom Ha'atzmaut. For one of our group, after the death of her mother in recent months, an act of great beauty to memorialize her here while we were traveling together. Yesterday, when we visited Derech Ben, we saw the beautiful community garden built by the parents and community of Ben in a moshav in Misgav, in memory of their son who died at age 24 in the second Lebanon war. Again, after the tragedy of death, holiness - an act of great beauty, remembrance and a place of connection for a whole community (and now also for us, with whom Ben's mother shared his story).

Our guide, Noam, asked us to think about and talk about the challenge of moving straight from Yom HaZikaron to Yom ha'atzmaut. It is clearly a very powerful transition but how is it for those who sit with the sorrow of a loved one who has died protecting Israel? Is it not jarring to move straight into celebration? Does it not feel forced? I suspect the answer to that question is as varied as the number of Israelis that you ask. Ben's mother felt that it was important for the country to have the two days together, even though she personally cannot shift into celebration on erev Yom Ha'atzmaut.

In our Parsha, Aaron remains silent. He is not given the time to mourn as the loss of two of his sons comes in the midst of the inaugural ritual performance of the priests and must continue.

I think of the tradition we have in Judaism that sorrow and joy are not to be mixed, leading to situations when a burial is delayed or shiva is not sat. I struggle with this too for the same reasons as Noam raised for those mourning on Yom HaZikaron. There is no logic to me in asking a family to abstain from mourning rituals because we are in designated 'happy times'. And yet I also understand why the community as a whole needs to embrace the joy to make those festivals meaningful.

Perhaps what we have here is the tension between the individual and communal need. Aaron needs to mourn but is not given time because he is in the midst of a communal moment. Yom HaZikaron shifts to Yom Ha'atzmaut because as a nation Israel must hold up the joy and blessing of its existence and successes, even while recognizing the losses and work that still needs to be done. Perhaps to live in Israel is to all the time feel that tension between the needs of the individual and the needs of the nation as a whole.

This does not negate the pain of the individual and their loss but, at a national level, the two days side by side ask us to accept a narrative where hope, rebirth and new possibilities follow from pain and loss. This is a very ancient Jewish narrative. And it is a very Israeli narrative.

Take, for example, the fast day of Tisha B'Av. Remembering the destruction of the temples and all the tragedies that followed for the Jewish people, there is a tradition that says that the Messiah will be born on the afternoon of Tisha B'v. As the day draws to a close, hope and faith in the future transform a history of loss into something constructive and forward-looking.

So, after death, hope and maybe joy. But what about kedoshim? Where does holiness fit in this narrative? The root meaning of this word is not really captured by the translation 'holiness'. Kadosh is about setting something apart for a special purpose. Shabbat is Kadosh because it is a day set apart. Kiddushin means set apart because it is the ceremony of marriage where we declare 'at mkudeshet li' meaning that this relationship is set apart as distinct and unique from all others in my life.

Acharei mot - kedoshim teaches us that all of the complexity that we struggle with - the sadness and loss, and the celebration of the State of Israel is because of the special relationship that we all have with it. Israel holds a place in the hearts of all Jews everywhere because we have set it apart as unique and special. Our guides have ensured that during this week we have experienced connection and relationship with many people through many experiences. Tonight we are grateful to have this opportunity to form a new and special relationship with a sister Reform congregation here in Israel.
Kedoshim holds for us the primary statement of this value - Love your neighbor as yourself - we move from loss and sadness as individuals, to connection with others in community through relationship. It is those relationships with the larger community and that sense of greater purpose that enables us to look to the future with hope. And this is why, I believe, that kedoshim follows acharei mot and Yom Ha'atzmaut follows Yom HaZikaron.

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