My gateway into Judaism was, in short, the gruesome past of my people...the Holocaust. I was fascinated with it. Read every book I could get my hands on, watched all the movies, gasped astounded at its horrors. Now I wish I could say that I got turned-on to Judaism because of some joyful Shabbat song or a bite of a really finely done potato-kugel, but it wasn’t. The thing that first pulled me was images of emaciated concentration-camp inmates and mass graves.1
And so the otherwise utterly uninterested Jew in me leapt when I learned of an opportunity to go on “The March of the Living” - a hallowing journey for high-schoolers to travel through the concentration camps of Poland. A trip that re-enacting the death march from Auschwitz to Berkenau…and ended up with a grand finale visit to Israel to celebrate Israeli Independence Day.
I wept my way through Eastern Europe...wrote reams of second-rate holocaust poetry, took macabre black and white photos of train tracks. I kissed the ground when we stepped off the plane in Tel Aviv....sang a weepy Hatikva, arm and arm with all my new-found Holocaust-crazed friends.
This was an experience powerful enough to convince a thousand-year-old redwood tree that it really should pick up roots and transplant into the arid soil of the land of Israel.
It was an absolute paradigm shift...a case of the paradigm shift hitting the fan. I suddenly actually wanted to be a Jew.
My doorway thus came through shared mourning. When I touched that place of common loss, I found myself suddenly held in this little cozy Jewish house where I had siblings, lots of them...and, for once, we shared a language. The babble of my upbringing suddenly got a little more coherent...
II. A Teaching - What is the power of shared mourning?
We turn to a well-known scene of tragedy in the Torah - the sobering tale of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, the High Priest. The grand-opening & dedication of the Tabernacle is in full swing. God has consumed the first offerings and gloriously appeared before all the people. Into the midst of this ecstasy step forth the newly-consecrated priests, Nadav and Avihu. They bring forward an incense offering, an aish zarah – a foreign fire which had not been commanded. The flame of God bursts forth, literally 'consuming' the brothers as surely as it had consumed the burnt offerings. A tragedy has occurred in the midst of ecstasy. The Tabernacle, God's earthly dwelling-place, will for all time be linked with and founded upon this event, the incomprehensible death of two sons.
Surely, at its best, the establishment of the State of Israel is a modern-day erecting of a Mishkan, an abode within which God may dwell. And just as the dedication of the Mishkan is somberly marked by the death of Aaron's children, so too the otherwise extraordinary founding of Israel has been marred and scarred by the tragic loss of sons and daughters – from the Holocaust to present day tragedies of terrorism and violence.
How are we to respond to the deaths of children, either by the hand of God or by the hand of enemies? While it would be anathema to offer pat answers to such sensitive questions, we are nonetheless compelled to grapple with how best to respond to such incidents of national loss. Where better to turn for wisdom on this complex issue than to Moses' words of instruction to Aaron upon the death of his sons?
Moses tells Aaron that he and his sons are not to let their hair grow long or rend their clothes in mourning. Rather, the mourning is meant to be performed by “Achachem kol beit yisrael” - your brothers, your brethren, all the house of Israel. They are told to “bewail the burning which God has kindled.”
The text here seems points out two responses, one by the priests, and the other the “brothers, the entire house of Israel”. These are like two archetypes within us. There is the priestly part of us which is instructed not to mourn. This is perhaps the voice of pure faith, the part of us that intuitively knows the mystic truth of the rightness of Divine will, bewildering as it may be to human senses. This is the voice in us that accepts that even this tragedy is the brutal but necessary finger of God.
And then there is the part of us that is represented by the brothers, the House of Israel. This is part of us that is familial and emotive. This part feels deeply and is compelled to mourn. Lest the priest's mystic truth desensitize us to the searing pain of loss, or anesthetize us to the important task of tikkun olam, repairing the world, this brotherly love for one another prompts us to lament, to weep over the precious lives which have been torched and taken. This is the heartfelt task of brothers and the family home of Israel.
What's more, it is precisely when we touch that emotive and expressive point of mourning and pain,
that we ourselves become brothers and sisters in a completed household. When we mourn each others' losses as our own, we merit the deepest sense of being an essential members of the house of Israel. In our shared mourning we become family. And somehow in the middle of our loss and lamentation, the very house of God is established and the divine dwells in our midst.
III: A Poem:
Kol Beit Israel - All the House of Israel
This House of Israel
is in avelut2
we sit upon the floor
the mirrors are black
our robes are slashed
and leather-less our feet
Our clan is clad in ash and sack
a dirge between our bones
a wail of anguish
rises from this home
The pittance of admission here
authentic, rasp and risen
mangled and intense
here the graves are multiple
with stacking stones
which could, perhaps, be launched
but sit instead
of what is gone
our weaponry is our weeping
our protection is our prayer
our strength is born
when we gather to mourn
made siblings by shared despair
and in lamentation lies our comfort
and in this meeting, our Mishkan built
founded firm on the raw resilience
of the families of those killed
But hear this,
Our love is mightier than our anger
for we are a nation
of mothers and fathers and priests
We build houses out of
and change cemeteries into
with our songs of hope
We are made stronger by this weakness.
We will last longer because of loss.
We are the priestly descendants
who offer up our incense
in this House of God
- and knowingly pay the cost...
And though the ravenous altar
may take the lives
of those who tend its flame
we will make
of this Land
a looking glass
for God's impending face
and pen His Name
A knock upon the lintel
lets in the shiva guests
God shuffles in amongst them
and bends to offer His
and in the madness of the mourning
and the anguish so immense
a Mishkan is suddenly erected
regal and resplendent
and a sacred space is made amidst the family
who endures such loss and grief
And the Mishkan looms strong
amidst the weeping throng
and God's Presence
refuses to leave
1It is rather reminiscent to that line from Ilya Ehrenburg, “So long as there is a single anti-Semite in the world, I shall declare with pride that I am a Jew.” That sense of Jewish connection that comes from a defiance to being persecuted. A Jewish pride that is important, but limited. Luckily, my passion for Judaism would later extend well beyond the confines of a reaction to the Holocaust.
2Avelut means a state of mourning.